I remember very clearly the first time I was moved by a work of art. Copenhagen, 1996, looking at sculptures with my Dad when we suddenly stopped in front of one. I stood holding my dad’s hand, and felt the air just go out of us at the same time. Lots of things awed me during our time in Denmark, but this was (and is) in a class of its own. This sculpture hits you. It’s Death and Mother by the sculptor and ceramicist Niels Hansen Jacobsen.
Facts to begin:
Life: Born 1861 on a farm road in Denmark Died: 1941, buried on Kirkegaard road
Known for: Large-scale sculptures such as Troll that smells Christian blood and Death and Mother; portrait busts; functional ceramics; funerary monuments
Medium: Stone, bronze, and ceramic sculpture and ceramic pottery
More to Know:
Often, the best material we have for learning about an artist is the artist’s work itself. In the case of Niels Hansen Jacobsen, this is especially true because at his death, he wished all his papers to be burned. Thus, the written history of Jacobsen ends outside of a few reviews and mentions of his work in journals and books. He began his life as an artist by leaving his home and future as a farmer to enroll in the School of Sculpture at the Academy of Art in Copenhagen, and the earliest of his surviving works were created in the late 1880's.
Death and folklore have always been big themes in the world of Danish art, and Jacobsen’s early-sparked interest in symbolism and the human form were the perfect backdrop for bringing these themes to life. While otherworldly, his sculptures meet the viewer with undeniably human sentiment.
Some of Jacobsen's work, like Death and Mother and Shadow, are powerful in their pure, gut-wrenching portrayal of tragedy and darkness; however, another side of his talent embodies one of my favorite aspects of Danish art and culture--that of unconventional happiness and the ability to see all sides of life, including the silver lining. For instance, many of the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales end in death of the hero or heroine--a jarring, end-all of tragedies for most modern American sensibilities. However, seeing only that means missing out on the key ingredient: love wins out in the end. The Little Mermaid chooses selflessness, saves her love, and gets an everlasting soul. The Little Match Girl gets to leave her miserable life and be reunited with her Grandmother, "the only person who truly loved her." In Jacobsen's quieter works, we get to see this duality of sadness and joy, and acceptance of Nature's inevitabilities.
While emotionally and artistically complex, Jacobsen’s large-scale sculptural works were hard sells for that reason. His later career was defined by essentially splitting his skills into three distinct and more financially fruitful outlets: Discovering the art of wheel-thrown ceramics while living in France allowed him to continue to express himself in a more abstract, functional (and more accessible) way, finding symbolism in colors and forms;
Carving headstones and plaques channeled his penchant for evoking metaphor and the human figure in the themes of storytelling, life, and death;
Commissioned portrait busts of family, friends, and public figures showcased his distinct style and expressive skill.
As my Dad and I experienced in the moment we first saw Death and the Mother, the emotion behind Jacobsen’s work is visceral. It reaches out to you with fluidity, sadness, power. At the same time, intellectual themes and both technical and compositional precision reveal the academic in the artist shining through. It’s this combination of heart and head that makes his work hit home in a rare way. Our eyes recognize the physical form at its limit; our souls recognize the pain, internal grasping, the racing of the heart. These sculptures standing still that somehow still seem to always be in motion show us the very core of our emotions in an inescapably physical way—and it’s painful, and it’s beautiful, and it shows us life in a way that makes us stop in our tracks and lose our breath.
Make it mean something! Whether realistic, abstract, sculptural, or quick sketch, do your next creation with an ulterior motive in mind. At the heart of Niels Hansen Jacobsen's work is symbolism--the ability to imbue physical reality with deeper meaning and connect to inner feeling and ideas. Symbolism can at once make your work more universal, allow others to relate to it on a personal level, and link it to places or cultures with special significance.
Symbolism can come in layers, like tying a ceramic mural to a past landscape with both visual and metaphorical roots, displaying it in the place the landscape once was, and making the glaze using ash from the trees depicted.
Art Net: Niels Hansen Jacobsen Ceramics (Auction Site, 2016) http://www.artnet.com/artists/niels-hansen-jacobsen/past-auction-results/2
Complete Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen (book, 1874)
Musée d'Orsay (Museum) http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/pot-16977.html?no_cache=1
The Spirit of Vitalism: Health, Beauty and Strength in Danish Art, 1890-1940 by Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen and Gertrud Oelsner (book, 2011)
The Tree in Stone: Niels Hansen Jacobsen's graves and monuments by Lise Buurgaard and Agner Frandsen (book, 1989)
Vejen Kunstmuseum (Museum) Niels Hansen Jacobsen Biographical Index - http://www.vejenkunstmuseum.dk/Dansk/samlingen/nhj/langbiografi.htm&prev=search Niels Hansen Jacobsen Sculpture Hall - http://www.vejenkunstmuseum.dk/Dansk/samlingen/skulpturer2013/forside.html&usg=ALkJrhiXRovBTyVjTVexBERcoODW8d-oEg