Exhibiting Modernism: A History of the ASF's Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art and Its Legacy

By Leth, Colleen Ritzau | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Exhibiting Modernism: A History of the ASF's Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art and Its Legacy


Leth, Colleen Ritzau, Scandinavian Review


Revisited in Scandinavia House's Luminous Modernism exhibition

CLOSE CONSIDERATION OF the history of early 20th century art exhibitions in the United States reveals a far more complex and intriguing picture of modernism than generally assumed. While the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913 certainly marked a turning point in the history of art and conditioned the positive American reception of European modernism, new forms of European art had already reached the American public through world fairs and small, temporary exhibitions. Modern Scandinavian art is one such example. Well-received by cities from New York to San Francisco, Scandinavian art of the turn of the century offered an entirely unique and innovative mode of modernism that communicated with a range of international modernist trends from French Realism and Post-Impressionism to Symbolism and Naturalism and applied them to largely local, if not nationalist, subject matter. Rooted in regional identities and relying on figurative works, Nordic regional modernism, albeit controversial to many, appealed to a range of audiences, leading art critics and North American modern artists. It offered an alternative to the vanguard arts of continental Europe while remaining in dialogue with them, thereby furthering and enhancing the international development of modernism.

One of the last traveling art exhibitions before World War I, the 1912 Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian An was by far the most formative, groundbreaking and influential survey of early modern Scandinavian art in its time. The show featured Post-Impressionist, Symbolist and early Expressionist works by living artists from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Organized by the newly founded American-Scandinavian Society, later to become The American-Scandinavia Foundation, the exhibition aimed to showcase the very best of contemporary Scandinavian art to North American audiences. It introduced Americans to many progressive artists who later received far-reaching recognition for the first time, offered an alternative to the continental modernisms put forth by Germany and France, and paved the way for later, more radical developments in modern art. A retrospective look at the 1912 exhibition allows for better appreciation of this brief yet highly charged period of cultural exchange between the United States and Scandinavia.

The Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art reflected and gave voice to the American-Scandinavian Society's two central aims of cultivating closer relations between Americans and Scandinavians and promoting Scandinavian culture in the United States. Furthermore, the exhibition was touted as an important diplomatic forum and as an opportunity for political reunion amongst the participating nations. At the time, it was one of the few occasions in the history of Scandinavian art that the three countries had united in one exhibition. Thus, the dialogue between Scandinavia and North America that was forged through the 1912 exhibition was of the utmost importance to its organizers.

THE STORY OF THE 1912 EXHIBITION'S DEVELOPMENT is well recorded. It was first proposed in 191 1 and organization began prompdy. John A. Gade, a Norwegian-American architect and the first elected president of the Society, took the helm. An international team assisted Gade in his selections. This group included Norwegian painter Henrik Lund (1879-1935), Jens Thus (1870-1942), director of the National Gallery of Norway, Karl Madsen (1855-1938), director of the Stutens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, the Swedish painter Karl Nordström (1855-1923), and the Swedish writer Carl Laurin (1868-1940). Gade and his international colleagues decided that the exhibition would be composed of a balanced representation of early modern art from the three sovereign Scandinavian countries. Fifty works were to be selected from each country for a total of 1 50 works. In the end, however, the rich collection included 165 works of various media by 45 artists.

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