Art Clashes and Craftsmanship – 1900-1954

European art movements enter the Danish art scene,
prompting major changes at the Academy

An ongoing conflict between the academy and opposing forces continued during the first decades of the twentieth century. Old, reactionary professors remained firmly entrenched while young artists wanted to achieve different things: for them, the academy represented everything they opposed. 

Still bound by old-fashioned teaching methods, yet operating in a society characterized by great upheaval, the academy became increasingly embroiled in discussions about the merits of various artistic modes of expression. 
Numerous professors prompted crucial changes at the academy during this period, including Joakim Skovgaard, Einar Utzon-Frank and Aksel Jørgensen. 
However, they still belonged to an essentially classic tradition, whereas the new generation of professors from the mid-century included former rebels such as Vilhelm Lundstrøm, William Scharff and Olaf Rude.

Outmoded teaching methods

Even though attempts were made to accommodate criticism in the late 19th century, the fundamental structure of the study programme remained largely unchanged as the 20th century began: several years of studies based on drawing after plaster casts. 

The 1910s brought a shift in the realm of arts that also had repercussions for the academy. The period was characterised by tremendous technological advances and a growing industrialism that created new opportunities for the arts, but which also entailed huge changes to ways of life and social structures. “Naturalism” became the epitome of all that the young artists opposed. If the arts were to retain their relevance and stay in step with their time, radical new approaches were required. 

The result was serious attacks on the academy and discussions of an intensity unmatched since the 1880s. These discussions were not just followed avidly by the art scene, but by the general public too. 

Art spins out of control

The conflicts sprang from the different views of art prevalent at the time. The naturalistic tradition was challenged by avant-garde, experimental art inspired by movements from abroad such as Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism; art that saw a shift away from the classic academic style towards a more expressive, personal and experimental mode of expression. 

The conflict concerning the entry of “modern art” on the Danish art scene also sowed general seeds of doubt concerning the professors’ ability. In December of 1920 the ministry set up a commission to address the organization of the academy and its study programmes.  

As a result, a firmer framework was established for the teaching at the academy. Attendance was now compulsory for professors, curriculums were planned at least partly in advance, and regular schedules were introduced. The changes also aimed to reduce the professors’ opportunities for exerting a personal influence on students and their directions as artists; a crucial concern in an age where trust in the teaching staff was at an all-time low. 
The nature of modern art was used as evidence of the professors’ inadequacies as teachers and as artistic authorities – and it was now no longer possible to follow just one professor throughout one’s time at the academy.

Renewed focus on crafts 

The most significant changes made during the 1920s were largely prompted by Joakim Skovgaard, who was the first professor of The School of Decorative Arts (1909-–22), and by Einar Utzon-Frank, who was professor of the School of Sculpture (1919–55). The classes taught at their schools become more akin to “artist workshops” where students would collaborate with the professors on major assignments.  

One of the long-expected changes was a reduced focus on drawing after plaster casts; now, students of painting were allowed to work after actual live models sooner, and to experiment with “painterly qualities”. Similarly, students of sculpture were allowed to focus on full figures from the outset. 

When the School of Graphic Arts was set up in 1921 – under the auspices of the School of Painting – it was decided that students should also learn about the fundamental principles of book printing and calligraphy/font design.

Studying materials and the launch of
the Laboratory for Colour Science

The flourishing art nouveau movement in Denmark brought a renewed interest in crafts in its wake. Mural, fresco and mosaic techniques were now taught at the academy and eventually got their own school.
Greater emphasis was also placed on the materials themselves and on how they were used. Examples include a new course on painting techniques headed by a specialist on colour techniques who conducted lectures and hands-on training at the laboratories. From 1929 onwards students were also taught ceramic techniques at the new laboratory of colour science. 

Craftsmanship and hands-on training was also emphasized further at the School of Sculpture. Students were now taught by stonemasons, foundrymen and engravers, and new subjects were introduced – including scaffolding construction, casting and surface treatments. 

Art’s social commitment

The period was strongly affected by World Wars I and II, both of which introduced new agendas for the arts. For example, the aftermath of World War I prompted a demand for greater soberness and realism. 

Aksel Jørgensen in particular believed that artists should be socially committed. To him, the main objective was to create art that had man as its subject matter while also taking into account the laws of art. But while he insisted on social commitment, this did not necessarily mean that students should address social issues in their art. Rather, he required artists to “socialize the arts” – to get art out among the people “because the arts have a life-giving, life-affirming and elevating quality (…) indeed, something that quite simply makes us human”.

Devoting 33 years to the academy (1927–1953), Aksel Jørgensen became one of the most influential figures at the institution. As professor of painting and as the main driving force behind the School of Graphic Arts he taught many students who would later become prominent figures of Danish art from the 1920s onwards. The teachings of Aksel Jørgensen became an important part of the heritage carried forth by the generation that would shape and represent the academy in the second half of the century. 

-    Aagesen, Dorthe: “Mellem Tradition og Modernitet – Billedkunst 1900-1954”; in Fuchs, Anneli & Salling, Emma (eds.) KUNSTAKADEMIET 1754-2004, Det Kongelige Akademi for De Skønne Kunster & Arkitekturs Forlag 2004, vol. I, pp. 255-319