Like the song says – Wonderful Copenhagen!
From internationally recognised museums covering the most important periods in art to experimental, artist-run spaces, Copenhagen caters to all tastes. It is also the capital of a country which has long been a front-runner in design and architecture. And best of all, most of the museums are within a few hundred metres of each other in this compact and eminently walkable city.
The Statens Museum for Kunst, or SMK (‘kunst’ is Danish for art), is the national gallery of Denmark and the largest art museum in the country. The monumental building holds the history of western art from the middle ages to the present day, with many of the exhibits tracing back to the Danish royal collection, as kings through the ages acquired works to adorn their castles.
No important period or movement is missing and the rooms are stuffed with works by many of the foremost names in art history. One room alone holds five centuries of art as it unfolded in Italy, France and the Netherlands, from Memling, Cranach, Bosch and Bruegel to Tiepolo, Mantegna, Rembrandt and Rubens.
Turn of the century French art is represented by some of the biggest names from the period such as Matisse (a roomful), Derain and Picasso, while another section is dedicated to the great Danish surrealist Wilhelm Freddie.
In the Danish and International Art After 1900 section a long corridor runs through the building with successive decades arranged along the axis, with large exhibition rooms on one side providing an overview of the various periods and smaller rooms on the other side of the corridor focusing on specific trends, groups or individual artists.
Derived from the Greek words ‘glyptos’ (carved) and ‘theke’ (a place where something is displayed), the Glyptoteket – or the NY Carlsberg Glyptoteket, to give it its full name after the famous brewing family – is a spectacular museum of 19th century French and Danish sculpture inspired mainly by the art of ancient Greece and Rome.
Amassed by the brewing magnate Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914), the collection was donated to the city in exchange for providing a lot next to the Tivoli Gardens – to Carlsberg’s chagrin, who referred to the amusement park as ‘plebeian Tivoli’. Jacobsen also commissioned the most famous symbol of Copenhagen, The Little Mermaid statue sitting on her rock by the waterside by the Langelinie promenade.
Behind a gorgeous facade inspired by Venetian Renaissance architecture is a complex of three buildings from 1897, 1906 and 1996. The signature spaces are the Winter Garden, a glass-roofed oasis of palms and other exotic plants overlooked by an elegant cafe, and the statue-lined Central Hall, with its Ionic columns, marble tiles and mosaic floors. One wing is magnificently detailed with Pompeian frescoes, rococo ceilings, neoclassical friezes, mosaic floors and painted ceilings.
In the modern collection a large group of Rodins includes The Burghers of Calais and The Kiss as well as bronzes by Degas, while the Egyptian section in a lower chamber is entered down a long stairway to give the impression of descending into a tomb where mummies and sarcophagi are displayed.
There is also a beautiful collection of 19th century French paintings, including works by Courbet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, Rousseau, David, Gauguin, Monet and Cezanne, and works from the Golden Age of Danish art.
Jacobsen and his and wife Ottilia planned to be buried in a room which is now called the Mausoleum, but the authorities refused permission. You can still look down through two glass panels to see what would have been their final resting places.
A short distance behind SMK on the other side of a lovely public park, the Hirschsprung Collection houses tobacco manufacturer and art collector Heinrich Hirschsprung’s collection of 19th and early 20th century Danish art, including fine examples from the Danish Golden Age and by the colony of Skagen painters gathered around Denmark’s northernmost town of the same name. Paintings are displayed the old fashioned way with barely any breathing space between them, perfectly capturing an era when the notion of ‘white space’ would have puzzled gallery owners.
Hirschsprung donated his collection to the state on two conditions – that it be kept in Copenhagen and that it must not be shown along with any other collections – in exchange for the state building the intimate, neoclassical museum which now houses it. Sadly, Hirschsprung did not live long enough to see it opening in 1911. The permanent collection is accompanied by a series of special monographic exhibitions.
Hirschsprung’s business grew from the tobacco shop he owned where artists gathered to buy tobacco and where he first became intererested in collecting. In the entrance hall be sure to look down to admire the tobacco plant design on the mosaic floor.
Adjacent to the Christiansborg Palace, once home to monarchs and which now houses the Danish Parliament, Supreme Court and Ministry of State, Thorvaldsen’s Museum is dedicated to Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), one of Denmark’s greatest sculptors.
The art begins on the outside, with Jørgen Sonne’s frieze on the exterior walls depicting Thorvaldsen’s homecoming from Rome, where he spent over half his life. Thorvaldsen himself is seen disembarking with many of his contemporaries there to welcome him, including writer of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen. In all, 261 characters are depicted.
Other scenes show Thorvaldsen’s sculptures being hoisted off one of the ships they came in, some provided by King Frederick VI, who also made the site of the royal carriage gate available for the construction of the museum. The original, weather-worn frieze was replaced by a copy in the 1950s.
Thorvaldsen’s sculptures are neoclassical in style and reflect tales of Greek and Roman gods and heroes. He donated his works and art collections to the city of Copenhagen and the museum was inaugurated in 1838 ten years after his return. Antiquity also influenced the ceiling decorations, which were inspired by published illustrations of the ancient cities of Pompei and Herculaneum which became fashionable all over Europe.
Directly opposite Thorvaldsen’s Museum, GL Strand – GL is short for ‘gammel’ (old) and ‘strand’ means beach – is Denmark’s oldest art association, founded in 1825 by a group of artists to show their own work. In the 1950s the group bought a beautiful, canal-side building designed in 1750 by the Dutch-Danish architect Philip de Lange and today it hosts a changing programme of contemporary exhibitions by international artists.
Scandinavians talk about design the same way other people talk about food or sex. Denmark’s contributions to modern aesthetics are beautifully displayed in the Danish Design Museum. A walk around the former 18th century King Fredrick V Hospital enlightens visitors on the role of design in our lives, from jewellery, perfume bottles, typefaces and furniture to electrical devices, textiles, lighting and tableware. (Who knew how many cup designs there have been?)
A particular highlight is the wonderful section on the influence of Pop culture, with everyday functional objects in new synthetic materials such as acrylic, plastic and foam assuming iconic status and reinventing home interiors with explosive colours and abstract patterns. Bonus: The museum is located on Bredgade, a great street for browsing independent galleries, antique stores and design shops.
In a handsome, early 19th century building opposite the King’s Garden once home to the museum’s founder, lawyer and businessman Christian Ludwig (C. L.) David (1878-1960), the David Collection is actually three collections in one: European 17th and 18th century art, furniture and decorative items; one of the finest collections of Islamic art in the western world; and a selection of Danish painting, sculpture and ceramics.
Displayed in period interiors, the European section includes Danish faience and silverware, some of the earliest examples of Royal Copenhagen porcelain and 17th and 18th century Dutch and French paintings along with works by a number of leading Danish Golden Age painters.
Spanning the 7th to the 19th century and representing virtually the entire classical Islamic world from Spain in the west to India in the east, the Islamic collection is the museum’s largest and comprises calligraphy, miniature paintings, ceramics, glasswork, textiles and jewellery.
Early Danish modern art consists of paintings, sculptures and ceramics made between around 1880 and 1950 and includes over a dozen paintings by Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916), known mainly for his somewhat eerie interior scenes in muted colours and devoid of people.
Near the tip of the Holmen area, a group of small, interconnected islands once the site of the Royal Naval Base and Dockyards, Copenhagen Contemporary occupies a vast former welding hall. One of Denmark’s largest art spaces, it is ideal for showing large format installations and monumental video works, offering visitors an immersive experience. Featured artists have included Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, Bill Viola, Anselm Kiefer and David Shrigley.
Taking its cue from the Salon des Refusés exhibition in Paris in 1863, Den Frie (The Free) was founded in 1891 by an artist collective to show work which was rejected by juried exhibitions. Artist such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh participated in early exhibitions.
Den Frie is located in one of Copenhagen’s most remarkable buildings, designed by J. F. Willumsen, considered the father of Danish art nouveau, who drew inspiration for the wooden structure from Egyptian and Greek temples. The facade is decorated with a figure of Pegasus with a youth on its back, a symbol in Greek mythology for free artistic expression. Natural light pours into the main floor, where there are changing group shows by emerging artists, while a downstairs room shows solo exhibitions.
Housed in an ivy-covered 17th century Baroque palace, the Kunsthal Charlottenborg is the official exhibition gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art and one of the largest contemporary art museums in Europe.
Now the Nikolaj Kunsthal, the former St Nicholas Church, one of the oldest in the city (‘I’m not a church’, according to the sign outside) provides an atmospheric setting for changing exhibitions of experimental Danish and international contemporary art and soundworks. Once you have seen the works, climb to the top for views over the rooftops.