A single farmer, back bent and shirt torn, reaping the harvest in a field awash with golden wheat. An old man pausing on the threshold of his home, umbrella in hand, eyeing a grey sky leaden with rain. A woman at a desk, her gaze lifted from a book, interrupted during a moment of quiet reading.
The paintings of Laurits Andersen Ring, or L.A. Ring, capture a unique space of oscillating values and changing societal norms in a Denmark at the cusp of the 20th century. Perhaps for this reason Ring, a master of symbolism and social realism, was labeled an ‘Apostle of the Hideous’ — his unsparing snapshots of daily life rigorously conveying the unpleasantness of a country on the verge of industrial transformation.
Although Ring ranks among the most significant figures in Denmark’s pantheon of artists, he has never received a solo exhibition outside the Nordic region — until now. On February 1, 2020, the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, in collaboration with SMK — the National Gallery of Denmark and supported by the American Friends of Statens Museum for Kunst, is slated to open its doors to a major exhibition of L.A. Ring’s works following an extensive renovation of its gallery spaces.
Denmark In New York spoke with Robert Wolterstorff, the Bruce Museum’s Executive Director, about the exhibit, the scope of Ring’s work, and the impact he expects the exhibit to have on US audiences.
Denmark In New York: Can you tell us first a little bit about the Bruce Museum, its role as a cultural anchor and attraction, and its plans for the future?
Robert Wolterstorff: What a special pleasure it is to be able to re-open our main art gallery, which has been closed for five months for a top-to-bottom renovation, with On the Edge of the World: Masterworks by Laurits Andersen Ring from SMK — the National Gallery of Denmark. The renovation has allowed the Museum to bring our gallery spaces up to 21st-century standards, within a treasured building that dates to the mid-1800s. How great to inaugurate the new spaces with the work of such an important artist!
This gallery renovation is part of a multi-phase construction project. The $45 million “New Bruce Campaign” ultimately will more than double the size of the Museum, adding state-of-the-art exhibition, education, and community spaces. The Bruce Museum was founded in 1912 as a museum of Art and Natural Science. But it’s more than that. As I see it, we really have four components, four “pillars” to our mission: Art, Science, Education, and Community. The New Bruce Campaign addresses and expands on each part of our mission.
This is a tremendously exciting time for the Museum. The next phase — a complete reimagining and reinstallation of our permanent science galleries — begins in February. Then, this coming summer, we will break ground for the new art wing. This 43,000-square-foot addition is the centerpiece of the New Bruce. For the first time, it will allow us to display artwork from our permanent collection in four new permanent collection galleries. That means that visitors can explore 150 years of art, from Impressionism to Contemporary, and return again and again to view objects that will eventually become old familiar friends. That is so important for a museum. The New Bruce will also have a much larger changing art gallery than we have ever had before, ensuring that something new and exciting is on display each time you visit, and enabling the Museum to take larger international traveling exhibitions.
The beauty of art and the marvels of science aside, museums are really about people. They’re about offering great experiences to our visitors and community; they are about engaging with culture in real space, in a social setting with your friends and neighbors. The New Bruce will have a profound impact on how we relate to our community of Fairfield and Westchester Counties. The New Bruce will be a crossroads, a public square. It’s where you’ll come to connect with your friends — and make new ones. And connecting is, of course, the essence of community.
On the Edge of the World: Masterworks by Laurits Andersen Ring from SMK — the National Gallery of Denmark will be the first exhibition solely devoted to L.A. Ring outside the Nordic region. How was this collaboration between the SMK and the Bruce Museum born?
Robert Wolterstorff: The Museum has a long-standing relationship with a Board member of the American Friends of SMK, Arthur Zegelbone, and his partner, Michelle Loh. Ms. Loh curated a 2014 exhibition at the Museum, Tale of Two Cities: New York & Beijing, which visually paired five New York-based artists with five Beijing-based artists. We stayed in touch, and Arthur then connected us with SMK Director Mikkel Bogh, to discuss the possibility of hosting an L.A. Ring show.
Organizing an international exhibition is always a complex, lengthy process, especially given the fact that the Museum was also planning its renovation and construction project. We talked through the timing issues, and I’m so glad it worked out! The Museum’s location in Greenwich — just a short train ride from New York City — and in Fairfield County, Connecticut — which has a large community of Scandinavian expatriates — seemed to be ideal for this show from the SMK.
What aspects of L.A. Ring’s work inspired the Bruce Museum to establish this international exhibition?
Robert Wolterstorff: Come visit the show and you’ll see for yourself! Seriously, the opportunity to present the work of this great Danish artist to audiences on the East Coast is unprecedented, and the Bruce strives to engage museum visitors both near and far with new experiences and insights.
The issues Ring addresses, and the visual and psychological means he uses to address them, remain relevant today. Ring is unusual, at the turn of the 20th century, because he addressed modern issues in a traditional style. That makes him fascinating to me. His landscapes and images of peasants on the land and of workers in the town or city address contemporary issues of land reform, rapid population growth, and people moving to the cities. At the same time, the railroad and the telegraph knit the nation together, but speeded up life. Ring captured a world that was poised between traditional values and modernism. That’s a balance, and a tension, that we here in Connecticut — the gateway to New England — grapple with to this day. Just as for Ring, landscape has deep, symbolic associations for us; and the fact that the Museum is opening the exhibition in the dead of winter reinforces the idea that our local audiences will relate to the reduced color palette he used to capture the crystalline northern light that gives his landscapes such atmosphere. That quality is at once distinctive and universal. And, of course, his paintings of people, whether at work or in repose, are eternally evocative.
I would add this: The Bruce Museum has had great success in the past presenting the finest of Danish art in its galleries. In 2005, we were pleased to present Danish Paintings of the 19th Century from the Collection of Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., which featured 34 pieces from the collection of John L. Loeb Jr., United States Ambassador to Denmark from 1981 to 1983. Mr. Loeb’s collection is the largest private collection of Danish art outside Denmark. Several Ring paintings were included in that exhibition, and we’re really pleased that the Ambassador is supporting the SMK exhibition as an Honorary Chair of the Committee of Honor.
Critics point out certain parallels between Ring’s work and the landscapes of American realism and naturalism. In addition, it has been said that his paintings have “an appeal to US audiences.” What thematic similarities are there between Ring and his American contemporaries that you think are valuable for audiences to know when visiting the exhibition?
Robert Wolterstorff: Visually, there are striking resemblances between Ring’s work and the work of some of our most important American Realist painters, in particular Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. All these artists combined a rigorous precision of design with a sense that deeper meaning lies just beneath the surface. All were keenly interested in how people living at the turn of the 20th century handled the existential challenges arising as a result of the modern world.
On a personal level, which paintings featured in this exhibition have had a specific impact on you and why?
Robert Wolterstorff: Two works especially grab my attention. They are both big, beautiful paintings, arresting in the gallery. But it’s the subjects that grab me. One is from very early in his career: Harvest, of 1885, and one late: Waiting for the Train, Level Crossing by Roskilde Highway, of 1914. In a way the titles say it all: one is about traditional culture, the difficult, hard work of farming the land, and the other is about modern life, showing a figure trapped in a complex mesh of modernity.
L.A. Ring considered Harvest his greatest painting. It shows a figure in a worn blue smock harvesting grain using a scythe and cradle. The cool blue is set against the warm yellow and gold of a field of ripe grain. Ring captured extraordinary detail in many of his paintings. Here you see individual stalks of grain, and in the far pellucid distance, a farmhouse and a thin wedge of dark hills punctuated by a row of trees. Though it’s an image of hard labor, and there are intimations of death in any image of harvesting, still it’s essentially a happy picture. The warm glow of the grain, the summer light, the bounty of the earth. Everything is right with the world. And it’s filled with activity. Waiting for the Train, in contrast, is imbued with a profound air of nothing happening. There is an air of boredom and expectation, even a vague sense of anxiety. It’s all about waiting, and waiting for things outside the frame. While Harvest is about the active life, this one is quiet and internal — and yet there are signs of the external world everywhere: the crossing road, telegraph poles, the rails. The waiting figure appears entangled in a strong network of lines: the diagonals of street, rails, and fence. The jittery verticals of the crossing gates and the telegraph poles. Further, while it’s an image of stasis, of waiting, everything around him represents change, flux, and speed. The modern world is represented by railroad and telegraph, while the raking diagonals rushing headlong to the horizon suggest the onward rush of the modern age. These two images, Harvest and Waiting for the Train, are polar opposites in so many ways: slow versus fast, traditional versus modern, rural versus the town, active versus passive. One is full of luminous color, the other is a study in drab shades: grays, beiges, browns. I find Waiting for the Train profoundly moving. It’s a curious painting, not like anything you’ve ever seen. Unsettling. It represents all of us, trapped in a web of modernity, bored and expectant. What does our future hold?
How do you expect American audiences will receive the exhibition and what do you hope their main takeaways will be?
Robert Wolterstorff: I think for many it will be a first introduction to Nordic art, and to Danish art in particular. I think they will feel distinct resonances with American art: the anti-narrative quality; quiet, simple observation. Nothing happening. You see that in Homer, Hopper, and Wyeth.
I think through these paintings people will see themselves. Though Denmark and the United States are separated by one quarter of the globe, visitors will be reminded that we are all humans, caught in the same web of work and worry. We have the same concerns. We welcome the conveniences of the modern world, but they make us anxious at the same time.
Finally, they will find beautiful, moving works of art by a master painter, who might be a new discovery for them — they will take that away, too.
Lærke Winther is the Public Diplomacy trainee at Denmark In New York.