The Strange Tales of Niels Hansen Jacobsen. A Dane in Paris.


This first exhibition in France devoted to Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941) invites visitors to a dreamlike plunge into the world of the Danish sculptor and ceramist, a contemporary of Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). The exhibition focuses on the Parisian years (1892-1902) of N.H. Jacobsen, who lived in Paris, which was then, along with Brussels and before the Vienna Secession, one of the capitals of early symbolism, nourished by the exchanges and friendships forged between writers, musicians and artists from all over Europe. Hansen Jacobsen's workshop at the Cité Fleurie, boulevard Arago, is the meeting place for a group of Danish symbolists and Francophiles. In this "artistic convent", the emulation is all the more lively as Hansen Jacobsen's studio neighbours are the ceramist and collector Paul Jeanneney, the sculptor and ceramist Jean Carriès, the illustrator and poster artist Eugène Grasset. A strange and poetic journey to discover masterful, remarkably expressive works.

Hansen Jacobsen's work is strongly marked by a taste for the strange, the ambiguous, even the macabre - a "disquieting strangeness", to use the formula that Sigmund Freud would invent a few years later. His sculptures revive Nordic mythology and Scandinavian legends, the orality of folklore and the fantasy of Andersen's tales.

Freed from the canons of academism as well as the conventions of realism, this singular work is nevertheless inseparable from the most audacious plastic research of its time. Participating in the events of the Société nationale des beaux-arts and in the 1900 Universal Exhibition, Hansen Jacobsen was in fact committed to those who encouraged the blossoming of Art Nouveau and the influence of symbolism. The parallel, albeit singular, trajectories of Hansen Jacobsen and Bourdelle both contributed to the influence of this symbolist moment, in the wake of Gustave Moreau and Paul Gauguin. They are also in keeping with the ornamental modernity of Art Nouveau.

The exhibition shows the genesis and richness of N.H.'s plastic language. Jacobsen, confronting a significant group of Danish plasters, bronzes and ceramics with the ceramics of Jean Carriès, Paul Gauguin, Jeanneney, the graphic compositions of Eugène Grasset, Carlos Schwabe, Odilon Redon, Frantisek Kupka, paintings by Georges de Feure, Jens Lund, Gustave Moreau, satanic sculptures by Boleslas Biegas and a selection of sculptures, drawings and photographs by Bourdelle, who is linked to the spiritualist circles of Montparnasse and the Rose+Croix.

In the formal laboratory of symbolism, which operated from the 1890s to the 1900s, the exhibition gives Jacobsen his rightful - essential - place, when each work seems to speak "to the soul in secret its sweet native tongue" (Charles Baudelaire, "L'invitation au voyage", Les Fleurs du mal, 1857).

The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Art Museum in Vejen, Denmark. It benefits from the exceptional participation of the Petit Palais - Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.

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65, Boulevard Arago - A Danish symbolist circle in Paris

Niels Hansen Jacobsen, the son of a farmer, was born in Vejen, a small industrial town in Jutland, Denmark, and trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in the tradition of the famous sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen, who was imbued with the models of ancient statuary. A travel grant distinguished his talent and took him from Germany to Italy and then to Paris, then considered the capital of the arts, where he settled in 1892 for ten years.

From Montmartre to Montparnasse, you can see artist's cities springing up from the ground, such as the current Bourdelle Museum. At 65 Boulevard Arago, a shrewd businessman has the pavilions, relics of the Universal Exhibition of 1878, around a garden; it is in "this sort of artistic convent", in the words of the art critic Arsène Alexandre who frequents it - a place preserved today under the name of the Cité Fleurie - that Jacobsen and his wife, the painter Anna Gabriele Rohde, settled. They joined a community of Nordic and North American sculptors. Soon they attract their Danish friends - painters Axel Hou, Jens Lund, Henriette Hahn, Johannes Holbeck, sculptor Rudolph Tegner.

The emulation is all the more lively as they rub shoulders with major players of symbolism: the sculptor and potter Jean Carriès, Eugène Grasset the illustrator, Paul Jeanneney who collects Japanese ceramics. From his distance from Denmark, from this melting pot of artists gathered in Paris, Jacobsen draws the alchemy of an eminently original work, between Nordic identity, symbolist obsessions, art nouveau aesthetics and radical technical experiments. 
The sculptures that Niels Hansen Jacobsen then designed -  The Little Mermaid, The Autumn Mask, The Troll, The Shadow, Death and the Mother... - give a carnal presence to the thickness of time, to the founding myths, to Andersen's tales, to the immemorial orality of Nordic folklore.

The Little Mermaid

Why weren't we given an immortal soul? "said the little mermaid in sorrow. "I would give the three hundred years I have to live to be a human person for one day and then to have a share in the heavenly world! 
Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid

Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941) The Little Mermaid, 1901. Plaster Vejen, Vejen Kunstmuseum

Completing the editing of The Little Mermaid (1837), Hans Christian Andersen confessed: "It's the only one of my works that moved me while I was writing it... ». The Danish writer's Daughter of the Seas belongs to the immense current of nymph figures, young women associated with nature, which are constantly resurfacing - from the reveries of Romanticism to the mysteries of symbolism, to the scrolls of Art Nouveau.

Niels Hansen Jacobsen's transposition into a roundabout style of The Little Mermaid in 1901 inscribed the serpentine body of the ondine in a swirling dynamic. The ornamental prowess of the compositions of Jens Lund - a compatriot of Hansen Jacobsen's at the Cité Fleurie - also follows the logic of the arabesque. The ambivalence of this plastic rhythm induces images of desire and death that emerge in the flowing water of Gustave Moreau's watercolours, in the oceanic dreams of the Dane Henry Brokman or the dark flow of Odilon Redon's lithographs.

The organic ceramics of Jean Carriès and Hansen Jacobsen, the foamy shades and vitreous matter of the glass pastes of François Décorchemont and Georges Despret invite us to meditate on the imagination of the material, to dream about "feminine water", in the words of Gaston Bachelard (L'eau et les rêves, 1941), and its mysteries. The iridescent opalescence of the piece by the American glassmaker Louis-Comfort Tiffany irresistibly evokes the "living umbrella" of the jellyfish with its "fine hair, which are its organs for breathing, absorbing and even loving" (Jules Michelet, La Mer, 1875).

The alchemy of ceramics

What I like about ceramics is that you create the material yourself... 
Niels Hansen Jacobsen

Earth is the raw material of a sculptor but the completion of his work in bronze requires the intervention of founders, or in marble that of practitioners. Enamelled stoneware, on the other hand, allows the entire creative gesture to be reappropriated: modelling, enamelling then firing - the hazards of fire make each object a unique piece.
The discovery of Japanese stoneware pots at the World's Fair of 1878 was an artistic revolution. Vegetable shapes, asymmetrical construction, irregular earths, glossy or matt glazes, runners and oversize - these Japanese stoneware are eagerly sought after by collectors and sculptors turned potters.

At the Salon de la Société nationale des beaux-arts of 1892, all the great names of avant-garde ceramics rubbed shoulders: Chaplet, Dalpayrat, Dammouse, Deck, Delaherche, Gauguin, Lachenal, then Bigot, Jeanneney... and Carriès, the neighbour at 65 boulevard Arago, one of the most audacious. N.H. Jacobsen began working in stoneware in 1894 - perhaps under the influence of the ceramist Carriès? - and his production, exhibited in Paris between 1898 and 1903, is more rough, more experimental: pots with ambiguous shapes, cutlery flowing like bodily moods, aggregates of raw materials, fretworked metal partitions... Back in Denmark, Jacobsen continued his alchemistic research until his death; he took care that his enamelling recipes disappeared with him.

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Enamelled stoneware

Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941), Set of bowls, vases, pots, candlestick and paperweight, ca. 1896-1903. Enamelled stoneware, some enhanced with metal elements (tin and lead alloys). Vejen, Vejen Kunstmuseum

Once fired, the clay becomes ceramic. There are two types of ceramics: porous pastes, made impermeable by a cover - glazed earthenware, earthenware; pastes vitrified in the mass - porcelain, stoneware.
Sandstone was discovered in China in the 15th century B.C. and its high-temperature firing process (1150° to 1350°) was mastered ten centuries later. In France, sandstone clay deposits have been exploited since the Middle Ages to produce utilitarian objects that are waterproof and do not crack under the effect of frost.

Parallel to industrial-type productions, the practice of artistic stoneware developed at the end of the 19th century: the subtle range of its natural colours is revealed by firing with wood and then with gas, with more or less oxygen; applied covers, which melt and vitrify during firing, offer other effects of colours and materials. All these possible combinations are left to the potter who has become an alchemist: it is up to him to anticipate the effect that such and such a mixture of clay, such and such a superimposition of glazes, placed at such and such a place in the kiln, fired at such and such a temperature and in such and such a way...

While Hansen Jacobsen masters the process and delights in playing with the margins of chance he offers, Bourdelle prefers to entrust Alexandre Bigot, an experienced ceramist and chemist, with the task of colouring his sculptures. Both will exhibit their ceramics in Salons and World Fairs.

Troll that sniffs the flesh of Christians - Savagery of the psychic forest

Man passes through forests of symbols. Who look at him with familiar glances... 
Charles Baudelaire, " Correspondances ", Les Fleurs du Mal

Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941), Troll that smells the flesh of Christians, 1896. Bronze. 157 x 198 x 85 cm. In exhibition: Jesuskirken, Valby, Denmark. Copy photographed here : Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen. Photo: Pernille Klemp

Designed by Niels Hansen Jacobsen during a stay in Denmark in 1896, Troll that sniffs the flesh of Christians is inspired by an immemorial figure in Scandinavian folklore. A tail, horns, claws in the shape of a three-fingered claw - a diabolical denial of the Trinity of Christianity? On the look-out in the forest of origins, the bestial creature refers to the first and devouring impulses.

The formal logic of the Troll is born from a rich humus of vernacular and plastic references. The dynamic process of hybridization is directly inspired by Paul Gauguin's anthropomorphic and zoomorphic pots of the ceramist who plays with fire to celebrate the artist's ensauvage. Like Gauguin, the glazed stoneware of Carriès and Hansen Jacobsen bring out of the "inner furnace" (Paul Gauguin) the primitive monsters of cannibal orality, both to invoke and to conjure them.

Nothing is more relevant than to couple symbolism, symbolus (Latin) or sumbolon (Greek), the sign of what unites the spirit to the world, to its opposite: diabolism, dia-bolos, the sign that divides, that separates, that opposes. The desperate hunger for primordial unity is coupled with the fear of dislocation, the anguish of being devoured in return. An anguish that finds its symbolic and plastic expression in the figures of witches and wolves that resurface in Eugène Grasset's watercolour Three Women and Three Wolves (circa 1900), in Paul Ranson's incandescent oil, The Witch with the Black Cat (1893).

Masks and jellyfish - Confronting the Gorgonian sea fans

I've done everything with NOTHING, only a bulldog's face... 
Jean Carriès

Because it sums up being on its face alone, because it is the striking abbreviation of it, the mask is a form widely favoured by artists at the end of the 19th century, in search of synthetic expressions and powerful symbols. As such, Japan and its Noh theatre masks, of which Bourdelle kept a copy, was a major reservoir, rich in a thousand and one variations.

While some of his ceramics belong to the genre of naturalist portraiture, N.H. Jacobsen presented a nightmarish allegory with his Mask of Autumn at the 1900 World's Fair. The mask, which freezes the living to the point of petrifying it, is less a "subornering decoration" than the appearance of "the true head and sincere face" (Charles Baudelaire, "Le Masque", Les Fleurs du Mal, 1861).
With its folds and viscosities, with its enucleated eyes or its tongue caressing a snake, the mask fixes death at work and reveals the most archaic sexuality. The mask, the decapitated head of John the Baptist contemplated by Gustave Moreau's Salome in the Garden (1871), inexorably refers to Medusa, the mortal gorgon whose evil head Perseus managed to cut off.

In this respect, Antoine Bourdelle, Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Berroneau and above all Arnold Böcklin, with his Frightened Medusa (1897), have delivered images that are all the more stunning in that they bring together, on the same side, Eros and Thanatos, love and death.

The dark side 

Imagine, my shadow has gone mad, she thinks she's the man and that I... think I'm her shadow! 
Hans Christian Andersen, The Shadow

Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941), L'Ombre, 1897. Bronze. Vejen, Vejen Kunstmuseum

Elusive by nature, The Shadow is a figure of impermanence, uncertainty, even death. It is also a "signature of the real", to use the words of Clément Rosset (2004), because only a tangible body can cast a shadow.

From this equivocal darkness, the symbolists draw an additional meaning: the shadow acts as a revelation of the irrational, of the uncontrolled but necessary part of oneself. His realm is that of the hybrid and nocturnal beasts that haunt Hansen Jacobsen's ceramics, Frantisek Kupka's engraving, Brassaï's photography and Victor Prouvé's La Nuit (1894). But this symbolist masterpiece also refers to the work, contemporary to that of Hansen Jacobsen, on the exploration of dreams, to the research on sleep and hypnosis at the Nancy Psychiatric School.

From the darker regions of the psyche arise the nightmarish apparitions of Chopin de Boleslas Biegas, the ghostly visions of Bourdelle's glass plates. Jens Lund's dark arabesques give rise to unavowable desires that assail, like so many threatening doubles, the masculine figure of Bourdelle's marble or the mask with closed eyes of Grasset's brooch: "I am another", according to Arthur Rimbaud's formula...

Plastic transcription of the eponymous tale by Hans Christian Andersen (1847) where the scientist who gave his shadow leave becomes its victim, The Shadow (1897) by Hansen Jacobsen refers to some sinister evidence: this "long rag" folds, unfolds and expands like the drapery of a wave that would have engulfed the body of which it was the projection.

Death and the mother - The arabesque of the feminine

Then the mother [...] fell to her knees [...]. And she lowered her head deeply. And Death entered with her child into the unknown land... 
Hans Christian Andersen, A Mother's Story

Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941), Death and the Mother, 1892. Bronze. Vejen, Vejen Kunstmuseum

Even darker than the tale of The Little Mermaid (1837), A Mother's Story (1847) refers to the impossibility of separating, as H.C. Andersen writes, "the flower of misfortune" from that of "blessing".
The fall of Andersen's text inspires Niels Hansen Jacobsen to transpose the plasticity of Death and the motherThe first exhibition of this type was presented at the Salon de la Société nationale des beaux-arts in 1893. Winding, volute, spiral... from the gyratory movement of Death to the fluidity of the dress and floating hair, the feminine opens a wavy space where one can sink. The serpentine eroticism of the arabesque takes on a mortifying charge with Eugène Grasset's La Vitrioleuse (1894) and Georges de Feure's La Femme au chapeau noir (circa 1898-1900).

By what evil spell are the floral graces of Art Nouveau so easily reversed into figures of castration - Medusa, stryge, mermaid or succubus? The ghoul with catching nets imprints all its darkness on the lithographs of Edvard Munch or Eugène Carrière. Fleurs du Mal (1890) by Odilon Redon, Fleur putain, Fleur de nuit (1898) by Jens Lund, Féminiflores ornementales et fatales by Georges de Feure... Between exorcism and fascination, the mesmerized mask constantly reappears under the icon of the flower-woman - an enigmatic image, deciphered by Sigmund Freud as a horrifying representation of the Mother's sexual power.

General Commissioners : Teresa Nielsendirector of the Vejen Kunstmuseum and Amélie SimierDirector of the Bourdelle Museum
Scientific Commissioner : Jérôme Godeauart historian, Musée Bourdelle

Exhibition The strange tales of Niels Hansen Jacobsen, a Dane in ParisBourdelle Museum18, rue Antoine Bourdelle - 75015 Paris, from 29 January to 31 May 2020

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