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Small Museum Thinks Big With Superb Manet Show

State-run Danish institution does a lot on a shoestring

FEW art lovers have even heard of the Ordrupgaard Museum, but it's a remarkable little treasure-trove. Situated in a 1918 country house overlooking a lovely wooded setting a few miles from the center of Copenhagen, it has an outstanding collection of Danish, but even more notably of French, art. Still more outstanding, perhaps, are the temporary exhibitions it has staged over the last 10 years. If the Ordrupgaard is geographically out of the mainstream (easier to get to by bicycle than public transportation, I was told) its current temporary exhibition - ``Manet'' - has not suffered. Crowds are beating a path to its door, not to mention a stream of Danish and Swedish television crews, and critics from the international press. Such is the drawing power of Edouard Manet, friend of the 19th-century French Impressionists and urbane observer of Parisian life. Such also is the high quality of the show and its catalog.

If the exhibition is modest in scale - just over 50 works from all over the world - it is comprehensive in its treatment of an artist who never liked the idea of his works being seen separately; it was only by his whole oeuvre, Manet felt, that he could be understood.

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The works here touch on most aspects of his art - portraiture, genre, landscape, city life, the influence of the Impressionists on his palette and touch, religious paintings, images of Spanish bull-fights and Venetian canals, flower paintings, political comments like ``Execution of the Emperor Maximilian,'' and consummately executed little gift paintings like the two he did of asparagus - both included. If you'd never seen a Manet - and there hasn't been very much of his work on view in Denmark over the years - this show would give a remarkable introduction.

Much of the permanent collection of the Ordrupgaard is away in Tokyo right now. The museum has so little wall-space that its permanent possessions always have to come down to make space for temporary shows - but what shows! Over the past decade there has been a string of them: Degas, Gauguin, Monet, Hammershoi, and Caro, among them.

The collection is basically that of an individual, the late Wilhelm Hansen, a businessman. Since 1953, it has been open to the public; the collector's widow bequeathed it to Denmark. Renoir, Sisley, Monet, Degas are represented outstandingly, and there's a great deal more, including half a dozen Manets.

How can such a small gallery put together such a first-rate exhibition?

The answer appears mainly to be in two words: Hanne Finsen.

Ms. Finsen has been the dynamic director of the Ordrupgaard for a decade, entrusted at the time of her appointment by the Danish government with bringing to life what had been a decidedly moribund (and frequently closed) museum.

With energy and initiative, she has brought it to life. In pursuit of a painting for a show, she says ``you must never, never give up.'' Indeed, one of the pictures for the Manet show arrived only hours before the opening. She managed to track down another in a gallery she never even knew existed in Hiroshima. In common with the major Manet show in Paris and New York in 1983, she was puzzled to discover how difficult it is to borrow Manet flower pieces, but with considerable persistence she ended up with more than one, including the last picture Manet painted, ``Roses in a Glass Vase'' from a private collection in Japan. Finsen says the Danish government gives her virtually no financial help - which makes her achievements even more remarkable.

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Asked how the Ordrupgaard manages to wield sufficient clout on the international museum scene to bring off a show like ``Manet,'' she notes, ``We are too small to collaborate directly with the National Gallery or the Mus'ee d'Orsay.'' But she goes on to explain that, since she puts together single-venue shows of comparatively short duration - three months in this case - collectors are more willing to lend works. The high quality of the Ordrupgaard's collection, from which works are selectively lent to other temporary shows, also means that larger institutions have a sense of obligation to the museum.

The government of Denmark does provide on thing that helps: a national indemnity plan which provides insurance up to a set figure. When Finsen exceeds it, as with this show, she finds sponsors to make up the difference.

She sees the Manet exhibition as a make-or-break effort to win increased government support. The Danish media are on her side, praising ``Manet'' to the skies and loudly bemoaning the smallness of the Ordrupgaard's staff and current theats that its resources may actually be cut rather than increased.

The Manet show ``was a risk'' she says, but she feel it has paid off. ``We've had successes before but hardly as big as this one.''

``Manet'' continues until Nov. 26.

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