At KUNSTEN in Aalborg, Denmark, the Danes’ deeper, darker side gets free reign


A work by CoBrA artist Carl-Henning Pedersen – the “Scandinavian Chagall.”

So many visits to Aalborg, Denmark – so many missed museum trips. But no more! I finally made it over the holiday break, and will definitely be going back on my next visit. KUNSTEN (“the art”) may be smaller than other world-class museums, but there is a wealth of works to explore. And best of all, what you experience walking through the rooms will be different from your experience of any other museum. The space combines a modern Danish aesthetic with works that penetrate and provoke on a level I did not expect.

Although perhaps I should have. From the first days of my three years in Denmark, I was struck by the depth and complexity of its art. Of its occasional darkness and sometimes disturbing but oftentimes impeccable grasp of human nature. Of Danish artists’ and authors’ and performers’ ability to verbalize or visualize that complexity and dig deep to uncover its roots. When I spoke about this, several people immediately pointed to the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.

But it still surprised me. I didn’t get the impression anyone was brooding as they cycled through Copenhagen. That they were self-analyzing as they lit candles to generate “hygge” on dark winter nights. And if you’ve read the happiness surveys and watched Oprah’s visit to Denmark – allegedly one of the happiest places on earth – you’d get the impression it’s more about simple everyday pleasures than psychoanalysis. While my fellow Russians have a reputations for philosophizing at every turn, the Danes – the ones I knew, anyway, aren’t prone to ongoing self-questioning, but prefer to – for lack of a more profound explanation – just live their lives.

Edvard Weie's "Joie de Vivre, Three Dancing Figures"  (1908).

Edvard Weie’s “Joie de Vivre, Three Dancing Figures” (1908).

Danish literature and film, however, was an escape into a different world. Pick up Christian Jungersen’s “The Exception,” and you’ll see what I mean. Exploration of the human condition. Of our darkest sides. Of how weak people can be, and how that has shaped (and mis-shaped) our personal and shared histories.

Michael Kvium's "So Simple" (1995).

Michael Kvium’s “So Simple” (1995).

So with that, back to the Aalborg art museum. The visit, in many ways, mirrored my Danish experience. Far from expanding on the clean, simple minimalism of the trendy design pieces on the gift shop’s shelves, much of the work on the walls was gritty. Some of it was very, very dark. The CoBrA artists’ avant-garde pieces were as joyous and colorful as I had expected them to be in real life, but they were also complex and inquisitive. It all forced you to think, sometimes to squirm. To examine your discomfort, and search for answers as you contemplated why faceless people sometimes make it more difficult to look away than ones endowed with all the necessary human features. Sometimes, what I saw made me too uncomfortable. I couldn’t handle the baby hanging against a black backdrop from a bloody umbilical cord, hovering above (presumably) its own skull. Life and death, yes, but in an execution so disturbing I made my two year old daughter turn away. Still, it moved something in me, and that made it matter.

And a sidenote for families visiting the museum: in true Danish, family-centered style, KUNSTEN had a large, easily accessible room set up right off the gift shop at the entrance for kids. Fun and funky materials, like colorful bits of cloth and the mesh stores wrap fruit in, were strewn over tables and there were plenty of tools allowing kids of all ages to concoct their own creations. The best museum space for kids that I’ve encountered. Helpful for keeping babes away from images of terrifying babes.

Niels Larsen Stevns' "Mary Anoints Christ's Feet"  (1907).

Niels Larsen Stevns’ “Mary Anoints Christ’s Feet” (1907).

Julie Nord. "Just Like Home" exhibit.

Julie Nord. “Just Like Home” exhibit.

Julie Nord. "Just Like Home" exhibit - accompanied by eerie sounds of crying/hurt children.

Julie Nord. “Just Like Home” exhibit – accompanied by eerie sounds of crying/hurt children.

Egill Jacobsen's "Red Object I."

Egill Jacobsen’s “Red Object I.”

Egill Jacobsen.

Egill Jacobsen.

CoBrA movement artist Egill Jacobsen's "Grasshopper" (1941).

CoBrA movement artist Egill Jacobsen’s “Grasshopper” (1941).

Niki de Saint Phalle's "Relief" (1961)

Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Relief” (1961).

CoBrA artist Henry Heerup.

CoBrA artist Henry Heerup.

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