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Karen Kurczynski

Abstract

This text examines the art works and collaborations of Cobra (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam, 1948–1951), foregrounding the central role of the Danish artist Asger Jorn and his idea of the “human animal”. It describes the art of Cobra as a critique of both pre-war primitivism and humanism. Cobra’s populist attitude, interdisciplinarity, collectivism, spontaneity and materialism make the movement a unique Scandinavian contribution among postwar avant-garde movements.

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Leena Kaunonen

Abstract

Nykyaikaa etsimässä (In Search of Modern Times, 1929) is a collection of essays by Olavi Paavolainen (1903−1964), the leading figure of the young generation of Finnish writers of the 1920s and a prominent member of a literary group called Tulenkantajat. The essays portray a new worldview that emerged from a period of transition after World War i and depict the new urban environment where, according to Paavolainen, the modern experience crystallised. In this essay I look at his notions of “modern life” and “modern style”. I also suggest that, while Paavolainen wrote about “high” culture (futurism, dada, cubism, Russian formalism) and popular culture (the world of consumption, magazines, mass-produced products), his style of writing draws inspiration from avant-garde collage and popular magazine aesthetics. The illustration forms an integral part of the overall aesthetic effect of the essays and emphasises their blend of high and low culture. I also discuss the reception of the book and compare Paavolainen’s project to Finnish-language and Swedish-language modernism in Finland. I argue that it is fruitful to recognise the stylistic heterogeneity and diversity of Nykyaikaa etsimässä and that it contains both modernist and avant-gardist elements.

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Hanne Abildgaard

Abstract

This essay outlines the growing diversity and complexity of the Danish art scene in the 1930s concerning presentation and distribution forms, intent on finding new methods of reaching especially the large potential new audience among the working class, and it discusses how this sets a new framework for artistic interventions with avant-garde ambitions. The focus is on the new artists’ association Koloristerne (The Colourists), established in 1932, and especially the artist roles of two central figures of the group, Aage Gitz-Johansen and John Christensen, the so-called “Barber Painter”. The case of Koloristerne is supplemented by examples from the other artists’ associations emerging during the 1930s engaged in the question of how artists can act progressively at a time when the labour movement and working-class population are becoming increasingly powerful both economically and culturally.

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Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson

Abstract

World War ii changed the social and economic circumstances of Icelandic artists. But it also served to isolate them from the modernist art of the period, until the expatriate Svavar Guðnason burst on the scene in May 1945 with a powerful combination of the expressionism, surrealism and primitivist art that he had been exposed to in the Danish Helhesten group. His exhibition had a huge impact on young artists, who had long been starved of new ideas.

Guðnason went on both to consolidate his position as artistic trendsetter and to ensure the hegemony of Helhesten art on the Icelandic art scene by persuading his Danish colleagues to transfer their annual autumn exhibition (Høstutstillingen) of 1947 to Iceland in the spring of 1948. In order to win over the general public, Guðnason also used his influence in Iceland to hand-pick favourable newspaper reviewers for the exhibition. The 1948 Danish exhibition in Reykjavík, which was accompanied by a visit by the artist couple Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt, was an eye-opener for a small group of Icelandic artists, who went on to create a short-lived but surprisingly cohesive movement in a proto-Helhesten style.

For a number of reasons, outlined in this essay, this movement must be regarded as Iceland‘s first avant-garde in the visual arts, instead of the possibly more radical and certainly more influential concrete art of the 1950s.

Series:

Ólafur Rastrick and Benedikt Hjartarson

Abstract

In the spring of 1942 the chair of the Icelandic Arts Council, Jónas Jónsson, presented a display of “degenerate” art works in the Parliament building and later in a shop window in central Reykjavík – soon to be followed by a display of “true art”. Both exhibitions caused a stir in the local community. This essay analyses the different responses to the exhibition in 1942 and explores the aesthetic grounding that conditioned the moral panic associated with non-figurative art during the 1930s and early 1940s. The display in 1942 marks a curious chapter in the cultural history of the avant-garde in Iceland. Struggles about the future formation of a “modern” Icelandic culture revolved around different aesthetic models; among these models the avant-garde was peculiarly absent, but simultaneously active as a spectre haunting the national identity.

Series:

Per Stam

Abstract

The Finland-Swedish writer Henry Parland (1908–1930) contributed to the avant-garde magazine Quosego and published a collection of poetry, Idealrealisation (Ideals Clearance, 1929), in Helsinki before he was exiled to Kaunas, Lithuania. Inspired by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, he wrote essays on modern literature, film and theatre. He also wrote an experimental novel, Sönder (om framkallning av Veloxpapper) (To Pieces (on the Development of Velox Paper)). In his texts Parland embraces modernity. He salutes everyday objects, money, machines, jazz, film and photography, rather than traditional literary values such as humanity, nature and abstraction. He does not look for tradition or profundity; he is interested in the present and the surface. He also criticises ideas and ideals, old and new. The idea that literary value or aesthetic value is autonomous and superior to economic value is not supported by Parland. This essay argues that this radical inversion of values may be the central avant-garde quality in Parland’s modernism.

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Karen Vedel

Abstract

This study identifies some of the contexts within which the articulation of an Africanist corporeal aesthetics took place, situating them in relation to avant-garde discourses. First I look at the flourishing interest in African sculpture prior to 1930 and its depiction of the human figure through the writing of art collectors and ethnographers Carl Kjersmeier (from Denmark) and Carl Einstein (from Germany). Continuing the dual focus on Copenhagen and Paris, I go on to examine the reception of African American musical theatre exemplified by Josephine Baker’s Danse Sauvage as well as the productions Black Birds and Miss Louisiana. The concluding notes summarise and discuss the difference in terms of the engagement with an Africanist corporeal aesthetic by the avant-gardes in Denmark and France.

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Karen Westphal Eriksen

Abstract

The Danish artist Henry Heerup (1907–1993) has been immensely popular in Denmark, but this quaint popular appeal has contributed to his being primarily considered as a national wonder, unconnected to international avant-garde contexts. This essay focuses on assemblages and stone sculptures from the 1930s as well as writings from the 1940s in which surrealist strategies and materialities are manifest. The works are discussed in relation to surrealism, specifically the subversive surrealism introduced by George Bataille (1897–1962) in order to trace aspects of Heerup’s aesthetics that are dark, subversive and irrational, in strategy and theme. These traits in his works diverge from the dominant perception of his art as charmingly idiosyncratic, harmless and innocent. Understanding the darker Heerup allows us to consider him as an artist partaking in and making a unique contribution to avant-garde and surrealist frameworks historically and theoretically.

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Linda Fagerström

Abstract

This essay discusses how the concrete artists in Sweden during and after World War ii positioned themselves as ideal socially committed engineer–artists in an era when the neutral Swedish Social Democrat government was promoting the arts as a way of building a modern, socialist society. An important example is Randi Fisher (1920–1997), the sole woman among the concrete artists – who in male-dominated Swedish modern art history have been referred to as “The Men of 1947”.