Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Denmark's Ugly Ducklings: Georg Brandes and Asta Nielsen's Metacultural Contributions to Constructions of Danish National Identity

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Denmark's Ugly Ducklings: Georg Brandes and Asta Nielsen's Metacultural Contributions to Constructions of Danish National Identity

Article excerpt

ON MAY 14, 1914, the newest, largest passenger liner in die world, a German steamship of the Hamburg-America line christened Vaterland [Fatherland], began its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. In a marketing ploy to allay potential customers' fears stemming from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the company invited celebrities throughout Europe to come along on the voyage. Among the luminaries who made the trans-Atlantic trip were two Danes, the literary critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927) and die silent film diva Asta Nielsen (1881-1972). (1) The elderly but consummately elegant Brandes was the ultra-chic Nielsen's table companion on board; publicity photographs show Nielsen and Brandes promenading on deck often accompanied by Nielsen's then-husband Urban Gad.

The maiden voyage of the Vaterland was notable not only for its successful marketing tactics, albeit soon made redundant by the outbreak of World War I, (2) but also as a time capsule for the final years of Europe's belle epoque, during which Brandes and Nielsen, at the height of their respective international reputations, appeared together as die preeminent, fashionable representatives of Danish culture in the European public sphere. Both owed their fame to their skillful and successful participation in processes of cultural production in die emerging mass-media venues of the newspaper and the cinema. In this article, I explore the extent to which Nielsen and Brandes's work and resulting status as world-famous Danes encompassed a concomitant metacultural function: producing cultural artifacts that contributed to shaping contemporary public perceptions of Danish culture both within and outside Denmark. As defined by Benjamin Lee, professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research, metaculture "consists of judgments people make about similarities and differences, [when] they judge token instances of cultural production to be manifestations of the same cultural element" (Urban xi). Although the artistic merit of Brandes's and Nielsen's books and films is well-established, the metacultural implications of their work as die basis for public judgments about the nature of Danish culture as a whole are equally significant despite a dearth of scholarly attention to the topic. As a result, their friendship, which lasted from the early 1910s until Brandes's death in 1927, has more than simply personal significance. Their international prominence made them highly visible cultural ambassadors to die rest of the world, particularly Germany. Both Brandes and Nielsen were associated with Scandinavian modernity: Brandes for his impassioned advocacy of a socially-engaged modern literature and Nielsen for her compelling cinematic depictions of strong-willed, sexually emancipated women.

Though a generation apart, Nielsen and Brandes shared not only fame, but also a conflicted relationship with the homeland they loved but that failed to encompass their talents or ambitions. Despite the acclaim they received throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, neither enjoyed the same degree of popularity at home in Denmark, where their success abroad branded them as foreign. Much like the ugly duckling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, an analogy applied to Nielsen by several contemporary critics, they found the Danish farmyard overly confining and subsequently departed into the wider world to develop their talents. However, even after the world recognized them as swans, many Danes still regarded them as ungainly misfits unworthy of recognition or respect. One of the most significant reason for this reaction was that the progressive image of Denmark evoked throughout Europe by the metacultural associations of Nielsen's and Brandes's work did not yet correspond to the self-perception of mainstream Danish society, which was still caught in the throes of a prolonged transition from a provincial, conservative culture into the liberal state Denmark would eventually become. …

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