War Horses: The Danish Avant-Garde During World War II is the first museum exhibition to focus on the Danish avant-garde group, Helhesten (The Hell-Horse). The group was established in Copenhagen in 1942 by leading modernists of the period who courageously created expressive abstract art and exhibited and published a journal together throughout the German occupation of Denmark from 1940 – 1945.
The exhibition, which examines the significance of Helhesten by exploring how and why European modern art was made during the rise of Fascism, includes 120 paintings, works on paper and sculptures by artists such as Ejler Bille (1910-2004), Henry Herrup (1907-1983), Asger Jorn (1914-1973), Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913-2007) and others, and will be on view at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale from May 17 through October 4, 2015.
The artists who founded Helhesten were active in Paris and Germany before the war and were devoted to perpetuating aspects of Surrealism, Dada and German Expressionism. Their reinterpretation of these movements and interest in Nordic mythology, ethnographic objects and folk and children’s art combined to manifest a unique style during the war that included the use of brightly colored, spontaneously applied pigment to depict fantastical subjects. Many of the Helhesten artists became part of the radical post-war Cobra art movement (named after artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam).
Although the Helhesten artists worked with gestural abstraction at the same moment as the New York School artists who would later be labeled Abstract Expressionists, the Danes did not know of the Americans’ work until after the war. Unlike their American counterparts, the Danish artists rejected complete abstraction in favor of semi-figuration and whimsy in their compositions and held to a belief in the inherent value of art for everyday life. This “new realism” – as they defined it – purposefully challenged the brutality of the Nazi regime and its condemnation of so-called degenerate modern art by celebrating humanistic and universal commonalities, tongue-in-cheek humor and collectivist creativity.
The exhibition includes more than 90 works from NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale’s outstanding collection of Helhesten art, which is the largest in the United States, and was donated to the museum by Meyer B. and Golda N. Marks in 1988. The exhibition also reconstructs the most important exhibition staged in Denmark during World War II, 13 Artists in a Tent, which opened on May 17, 1941.
Among the exhibition’s highlights are:
Ejler Bille’s bronze sculpture, Store Maske (Large Mask), 1944, in which the artist experiments with the dynamic interplay of geometric and two- and three-dimensional forms in creating a comical, human-like figure with stubby, flat arms and feet.
Henry Herrup’s Untitled, Illustration for Jens August Schade’s Fun in Denmark (Sjov i Danmark), 1945, depicts a scene from Shade’s famous fairytale-like poem, Fun in Denmark. The whimsical and sensual forms convey qualities similar to those of the poem while maintaining its quality of child-like wonder.
Asger Jorn’s Untitled, c. 1941. The ideas of European Surrealists fascinated Jorn, and the lively colorful, abstract forms in this work, transform an ordinary barrel into a thing of beauty. In its fusion of the ordinary with high art, the work aspects of later twentieth-century art movements, such as pop art.
Carl-Henning Pedersen’s Eventyrbillede (Fairytale Picture), 1943, depicts a menagerie of elongated, floating forms and bright colors and abstract shapes that engage the viewer in a world of fanciful imagination.
War Horses: Helhesten and the Danish Avant-Garde During World War II is organized by NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale and the Carl-Henning Pedersen & Else Alfelts Museum, Herning, Denmark. Its curator is Kerry Greaves, University of Copenhagen Department of Arts and Cultural Studies Novo Nordisk Foundation Mads Øvlisen Postdoctoral Researcher.
The exhibition is supported through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of its Knight Arts Challenge with additional funding provided by Jan and Dan Lewis, and Linda J. Marks and Stephen R. Marks.