Thursday, 27 May 2010

Two landscape exhibitions in London and Christen Købke

Frederiksborg Slot ved Aftenbelysning
("Frederiksborg Palace in the Evening Light") 1835 by Christen Købke

Two exhibitions of paintings by renowned landscape painters are coming to an end of their run in London - and both exhibitions finish on the 13th June 2010. These are:

The latter moves next to the National Galleries of Scotland where it will be on display from 4 July - 3 October 2010.

I've not written about Købke (1810–1848) before but have been to see the exhibition

Købke is a painter of realism - adjusted to suit closely associated with what's called the Golden Age of Danish Painting. He's not well known and this is the first exhibition wholly devoted to his work outside Denmark.
Emphasising his exquisite originality and experimental outlook, the exhibition focuses on the most innovative  aspects of his work – including outdoor sketching, his fascination with painterly immediacy, and treatment of light and atmosphere.
This is a guide to the pictorial art associated with the Golden Age - which is worthy of a post in its own right at some point.< I'm going to limit comments here to the exhibition, because his work probably deserves more attention but within the context of the development of landscape painting in Denmark by artists influenced by C.W. Eckersberg. While Købke is obviously a very talented painter (particularly in relation to portraits and figures which demonstrated his very fine skills as a draughtsman) I found a number of the landscapes on the wall to be disappointing in terms of the billing given to him by the National Gallery. The theme of the exhibition is about him being a Master of Light. However a number of the paintings, when viewed in the exhibition, appeared to me to be rather less impressive than those seen in the video film which accompanies the exhibition.

The latter gives a very good impression of the paintings as they must have been when first painted but that's partly due to the backlighting which enhances the sense of light. In reality, to me, a number of the paintings were considerably more subdued when viewed with some being really rather dull - in a literal sense. There was no question in my mind that this was probably because of their age, because virtually all are on loan from other collections and because some probably haven't been properly cleaned of late.

It's difficult when somebody paints in the muted tones necessary to produce an effective sense of light. The lights in a painting then need to be kept clean and unsullied by time or the effect and impact can be much reduced. These are incredibly subtle paintings but for me some of that subtlety had been lost - and this was apparent when one saw some of the paintings in the exhibition where the overall effect appeared to be much closer to what the painter had intended.

As a result I suspect that these might be paintings which may well look rather better in a book or film than they do when hanging on a wall.

The painting which persuaded me that he was actually a fantastic painter of light was oddly enough his Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sødring (1832) from the Hirschsprung Collection where the luminous freshness of its colour scheme came across much more effectively. It's also a story of the influences on landscape painting in Denmark at the time - and serves to remind us how young Købke was when he painted most of his paintings (he died age 38). 

Another influential painting was his rather romantic painting of Frederiksborg Palace in the Evening Light (see top).  This is in good condition and is very impressive in terms of the portrayal of that very curious light one gets just before the sun sets. 

A third was the painting of boys on a bridge - an extract from which has been chosen for the catalogue of the exhibition - Christen Kobke: Danish Master of Light (see image on right).  This painting, again in good condition, is a fascinating depiction of the colour of warm stone - as well as a great composition and figurative painting.

Where the paintings are in good condition - and it's certainly the case that some are - it was very interesting to see and study
  • how very little white/light paint needs to be applied to get a highlight effect if the rest of the painting is using suitably muted (clean) colours
  • how extreme subtleties are possible in the colour of warm stone, evening shadows and reflected light
His landscape paintings are usually based on plein air studies.  He often drew and painted subjects close to the different places he lived in Copenhagen.  What I found fascinating was his impeccable portrayal of figures in a landscape - one of the best artists I've ever seen in this respect and some truly innovative and radical compositions for the age.

James Gurney did a post about him recently - see Christen Købke

In conclusion, I like the artist, I really appreciate his draughtsmanship and talent and I wish that those who looked after paintings would have some regard for how dirty and dull they can get over time.  

Here are some other reviews of the exhibition
Interestingly this last review uses the same image - "Frederiksborg Palace in the Evening Light" - which looks nothing like it does in the article in reality!


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