Thursday, July 8, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Marjatta Nielsen, Annette Rathje (ed.), Johannes Wiedewelt: A Danish Artist in Search of the Past, Shaping the Future. Acta Hyperborea 11. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2010. Pp. 372. ISBN 9788763507875. $65.00 (pb).
Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge

The standing question that the work of Johannes Wiedewelt (July 1, 1731-December 17, 1802) is fated to pose is this: in what sense he should be saluted, pigeonholed, or saved from recuperation as precursor, curtain-raiser, éminence of Danish neoclassical sculpture?1 Attached for life to the Danish Court and Academy of Art, he was a royal sculptor's son, its first student to land a travel grant, a member and already himself the royal sculptor in his twenties, soon Professor and then serial (Di)rector through to the end of the century. Always operating in officialese idioms and strictly within establishment contexts, Wiedewelt left a multimedial spread of plans, drawings, sketches, installations, medallions, busts, gravestones, and especially outdoor monuments in metal and stone, all of which polarize against expressive artistry. A personal aesthetic is accordingly devilish hard to perceive -- unless it coincides with a predominant leaning toward idealising timelessness through restrained sobriety and clean lines that takes over from grounding in Parisian baroque, priming with Piranesi fantasia and Winckelmann-fostered classicism, and, for good measure, throw in a Nordic-infused four-square monumentality which shows up best in sensitive responsion with ambient surroundings plotted in garden or grove. The life construes the artist's long productivity through the melodramatic cameo of eight months spent sharing with a budding Winckelmann lodgings in Piazza Barberini, the art collections of Rome both open and private, and visits to Pompeii, freshly accessed Herculaneum, and Naples (1756-58), with a trail of correspondence thereafter, and in time a professorial memo, 'Tanker om Smagen udi Kunsterne i Almindelighed' (1762).2

Recalled home when both parents died in 1757, Wiedewelt next made waves only when, deep in debt and finally sunk when a cargo of marble foundered, he drowned (himself, most likely). Karin Kryger's second essay here (Chap. 11) goes some way towards making good the dearth of recoverable personality by splashing a late-on portfolio of bawdy through vicious caricature drawings, 'Tidsfordriv om Vinter Aftener i steden for Kortspil'.3 Inevitably, besides doodling with social stereotypes, these go some way to release repression at the hands of absurdist royal patrons, the less than knock-out local artist fraternity, and the conventional clutter of statuary and memorial -- his own commissioned livelihood and lifetime.

The present baker's dozen essays represent a stiffened version of the papers for a 2003 Copenhagen seminar, incorporating a posthumous paper from its Palace outing guide and expert, Eric Erlandsen (Chap. 2), and subjoining the unrelated text of a militant museological-heritage lecture, one for luck, which could do with wider circulation (Chap. 14).4 As their titles tell, the pluridisciplinary contributions range all round the wide world of Wiedewelt. The highlights are: royal tombscapes for Roskilde Cathedral with the obligatory grieving females paired à la Ovid's Tibullus (Sorrow and Fame; Denmark and Norway: p. 89, Fig. 2, pp. 117-19, Figs. 2-4); garden sculptures for the baroque designer grounds of Fredensborg Palace (Chap. 2 below); at Jegerspris Castle a post-megalithic line-up of 'standing stone'-style assemblages commemorating Great Danes set into the parkland (Chap. 6: see pp. 183-98, Figs. 3-10, 12-16, pp. 214-21, Figs. 3-7), plus a 'notice' sanctifying a freshly-excavated pukka neolithic grave, re-branded 'Julianehøj' for Viking chieftains and the Queen Mum (pp. 34, Fig. 8, 178, Fig. 2, 210, Fig. 2). The one work I (thought I) knew was what turns out to be the massive collaborative project of the Copenhagen 'Freedom Monument' ('Frihedsstøtten'), to which Wiedewelt contributed 'Fidelity' and a plaque representing 'The Spirit of Justice' (p. 49, Fig. 20). There were sundry other jobs and opportunities, as the Chapter titles will indicate, but most stay tagged for the artisan's customer, set to revert to the artist no time soon, as in the case of the dozen or so grave markers he produced for Assistens Cemetery, where he too came to rest in his turn (pp. 311-17, Figs. 1-5).

Editrix Nielsen's essays, Chaps. 1 and 3, respectively fill us in with the Life-Work, in clear and considerate no-nonsense fashion, and address head-on, and fully illustrated, the main issue, certainly for classicists, namely the relation between (1) the student's formative studies and career-long inculcation of Graeco-Roman antiquities, and (2) the craftsman-draughtsman's own stylistic repertoire. Designs featured and placed include: a Vitruvian 'Origin of the Corinthian Column' plinth (the jacket illustration); temporary triumphal arch; girl's chorus plaque; allegorical altar-relief (after an Augustan coin), matching prostrate Hercules and Omphale reliefs, soulless profile sketches for Psyche; the sweeping Roman 'klismos chair' from the Capitoline Flavia Iulia Helena (the matron formerly known as Agrippinilla, et al.), to turn into petrified palace garden furniture; an odd brace of imperial gem portraits; a quasi-Pompeian risquée 'Miss Fikke' and her puppy admiring her toes while we ogle the rest in blue and purple; bad news glomerating for 'Hecube' ([sic] -- avec pyramids); assortment of sarcophagi; ex-Capitoline sphinx; orthostat betyl confections of mounted ball on column shaft 'milestones'. The formula, if any, would, we learn, run: 'Simplicity of form, complexity of message' (p. 102).

The Fredensborg sculpture installation showcased in Chap. 2 (see above) comes closest to transmitting neo-classical frisson. Here an allée headed by all-too-mighty Ms Denmark twinned with (no-less-mighty) Ms Norway lines up for their impressive squads 'kidnapping' groups of Paris and Helen opposite Aeneas and Anchises in the van, with Perseus and Andromeda and Zephyr and Flora respectively bringing up the rear, and a busy foursome of festooned trophy piles arrayed in between. Erlandsen was pre-occupied with his crusade to drum up the wherewithal for total restoration of the disintegrating stonework: his text offers decidedly unmoving decoding of the ensemble into 'The' quadripartite 'Elements'. A Latinist would see 'Virgilian' propositions of provocation to conquest and renaissance to power diagrammed opposite 'Ovidian' rescue and ravishing that any courtier would read off in terms of post-Homeric/Aeneidic versus Metamorphoses/Fasti stake-out of a profile for the nation state: somewhere between eris and eros, some place bounded by virtus/ktisis and soterion/ubertas. The Anchises is particularly fine (p. 81, Fig. 18, 'exuding wisdom' ?).

Respect, but other less directly 'classical' contributions should here be cursorily reviewed: Chap. 4 itself cursorily reviews Wiedewelt's stock use of standard iconology for worthy personifications. Chap. 5 goes archival to document the Academy's acquisition on his watch of the usual livery of classical casts for teaching drawing. Chap. 6 expertly 'does' the interplay of customized stelae with their setting strewn through the romantic memorial woodland. Chap. 7 tours more castle grounds in pursuit of the jejune jive of Freemasonry. Chap. 8 tracks involvement in distinctly Gothic-kitsch 'restoration' works at the burial chapel of Bp. Absalon, founder of Copenhagen, out to retroject sanctification of the monarchy from its cradle. Chap. 9 analyses the methodology operative in Wiedewelt's catalogue of a Danish Seneca's collection of minor antiquities -- Egyptian, Greek (pottery) and Roman (statuettes, busts, utensils, gems, lamps). Chap. 10 fêtes the 'noble simplicity' designed into the ingenious display cabinets soon ready to hold the royal coin and medal collection and still in stylish service. Chap. 11 revels in iconoclasm, from that fatale monstrum 'The Satirical Dane', bearing all sorts of asses -- as flagged above. Chap. 12 diaries superreal personal encounters with the artist in the cemetery, again underscoring masonic links with 'the Danish lodge "Zerobabel"' (p. 319).5 Finally, and patriotically, Chap. 14 dwells on the marble obelisk, plaque, and green tumulus monument at Holmen proudly hustled up for Nelson's victims at the Battle of Copenhagen, the stonework just completed when the sculptor took that last turn round the lakeside.

The volume is amiably designed, with the press's customary lavish splash of 160-plus illustrations, around 125 of them showing Wiedewelts of some kind, and two -thirds of these brilliantly photographed and tastefully reprographed in colour. Even the sepia warms to amber. There are scattered, mostly charming, instances of Scanda-English and other mis-spieling, but I found ambling round this capable but coolly underwhelming oeuvre a regularly entertaining tour, if short on sit-up-and-beg adventures in iconography.

Table of Contents:

Preface: p. 9

1. Marjatta Nielsen: 'An Introduction to the Life and Work of Johannes Wiedewelt (1731-1802)': pp. 11-61

2. Eric Erlandsen: 'The Sculptures, the Mythology, and the Stars: Wiedewelt's Sculptures in "Broad Alley" in Fredensborg Palace Park': pp. 63-84

3. Marjatta Nielsen: 'For King and Country: Johannes Wiedewelt's Roman Drawings in His Artistic Practice': pp. 85-111

4. Karin Kryger: 'Wiedewelt and Allegory': pp. 113-25

5. Jan Zahle: 'Wiedewelt and Plaster Casts in Copenhagen, 1744-1802': pp.127-73

6. Else-Marie Bukdahl: 'Wiedewelt's Memorials in Memorial Park at Jegerspris: ''A Breakthrough into New Territory"': pp. 175-203

7. Erik Westengaard: 'Johannes Wiedewelt, Sculptor and Freemason: Memorial Park at Jegerspris Castle': pp. 205-23

8. Caspar Andreas Jørgensen: 'Gothic Art and Neo-Classicism: Connecting Aspects in Wiedewelt's Restoration Programme at Sorø': pp. 225-40

9. Anne Haslund Hansen, Vinnie Nørskov and Hanne Thomasen: 'Artist and Antiquary: Wiedewelt's Catalogue of Egyptian and Roman Antiquities, 1786': pp. 241-57

10. Helle W. Horsnaes: 'Johannes Wiedewelt: Designer of Exhibitions': pp. 259-73

11. Karin Kryger: 'Wiedewelt the Satirical Dane': pp. 275-308

12. Kirsten Lindberg: 'Meetings with Wiedewelt through the Years': pp. 309-27

13. Tine Damsholt: '"A Rich and Inexhaustible Source of Grateful Commemoration": Wiedewelt's Monument to the Fallen in the Naval Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and Contemporary Patriotic Culture': pp. 329-42

14. Salvatore Settis: 'Cultural Heritage and Italian Politics': pp. 343-62

Contributors: pp. 363-4

Index: pp. 365-72


1.   For a recent modulation of the answer, see Else Marie Bukdahl and Mikkel Bogh, The Roots of Neo-Classicism: Wiedewelt, Thorvaldsen and Danish Sculpture of our Time, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, 2004. The teacher-pupil genealogy runs: 'Wiedewelt - Abildgaard - Thorvaldsen': see Else Marie Bukdahl, Johannes Wiedewelt. From Winckelmann's Vision of Antiquity to Sculptural Concepts of the 1980s, Copenhagen, 1993. Abildgaard's distinctive painterly romanticism is celebrated by our classicist colleague Patrick Kragelund in his Abildgaard: Kunstneren mellem oprørerne, 2 vols. Copenhagen, 1999.
2.   See Inger Hjorth Nielsen, 'Richard Wilson and Danish Artists in Rome in the 1750s', The Burlington Magazine, 121, no. 916 (Jul., 1979), pp. 439-43 + 449, and esp. two essays in Jane Fejfer, Tobias Fischer-Hansen, Annette Rathje (eds.) The Rediscovery of Antiquity: The Role of the Artist. Acta Hyperborea 10, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2003: M. Nielsen, 'Between Art and Archaeology: Johannes Wiedewelt in Rome (1754-1758)', pp. 181-208; Jane Fejfer, 'Wiedewelt, Winckelmann and Antiquity,' pp. 229-33. Reviewed by William A.P. Childs at BMCR 2005.04.26.
3.   'Pastime for Winter Nights instead of Playing Cards'. The last plate, 'Allegory on the French Revolution' (p. 306), mounts a sansculottes version of the playground rallying cry 'Up with the Skirts and Down wth the Trousers', set between hogwash abracadabra in the sky and subversion by underfloor rats in the exergue. Did Wiedewelt attempt postmature escape from gynephobia? Nielsen speculates that a Maenadic plaque 'must refer to the spouse in spe' (p. 50: viz. p. 51, Fig. 22. The riddling legend on it, from Festus s.v. Meditrinalia, 'Vetus novum vinum bibo, veteri novo morbo medeor', could mean 'Old, I drink new wine; with old wine I treat a new disease' and/or, as in Varro's version 'Novum vetus vinum bibo: novo veteri morbo medeor (De Lingua Latina 6.21), 'I drink old and/or new wine, I treat old and/or new disease'; but it won't construe as 'As an old man I drink young wine, from an old man's new disease I am cured').
4.   The bonus 'Forum' tailpiece from Salvatore Settis is a clarion call to arms, taking to bits the deployment in modern globalizing-deracinating marketization of the concept of 'Cultural Heritage' in the Italian case, as the richest, and longest, story of them all. He stars holistic definition, community identification, and state-backed inclusivity across all styles of ownership as prime principles surrendered to disastrous commodification according to the banalities of late capitalist alien-nation. This whistle-blowing lecture preached to some converted in the art-city of Copenhagen: anyone else out there listening? We should be.
5.   Arabic for Jesus, 'ISA' initials the cemetery's trailblazer gravestone above the 'Latin motto' Bene Qui Latuit Bene Vixit (p. 311: lightly distorted to 'He lived best, who lived unnoticed'): for one named Augustin, given that Augustine never acknowledges Ovid, its latency makes still more point once traced to Ovid's exile (Tristia 3.4.25) and unearthed as Descartes' epitaph.

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