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An overdue nod to a Danish artist

'Ardent" seems a fitting word for the Danish artist J.F. Willumsen (1863–1958) – not that an artist of his restless disposition and unceasing determination never to be stuck in a particular style or technique could be summed up by a single word. He was far too protean for that.

An exhibition, seen earlier this year in Denmark and at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris until Sept. 17, shows how he gave everything to the different media he made his own – painting, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking. It is an overdue recognition of an artist who has remained better known in the country of his birth (where there is a museum devoted to him alone) than in the outside world. This has a certain irony, since he settled permanently in the south of France in 1916.

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Willumsen's evolution shows him making his own various phases in the development of European art. Rather than being merely influenced by naturalism, symbolism, or Expressionism, he contributed to each with forceful and distinctive originality. He was, in fact, relentless in the way he espoused an idea and exhaustively took it to its conclusion. All his work is marked by a no-holds-barred energy.

It should perhaps be no surprise that one of his intense loves among the Old Masters was El Greco – passionate, visionary, stormy, elated by the clash of darkness and light. Willumsen measured himself against such an artist and was convinced of the greatness of his endeavors. Along the way he produced some unforgettable works, including "A Mountain Climber" (shown here).

This painting's date is 1904, and the statuesque figure of a woman who is both of her time and monumentally timeless captures astonishingly the aloneness, triumph, and contemplation inspired by being "on top of the world."

One theme and fascination that recurs throughout Willumsen's art is the sublimity and awesome power of mountains. Something cataclysmic hovers around his art. The heights and depths of his artistic nature were surely expressed by alpine grandeur and isolation.

His small native country is not notable for crags and peaks, and perhaps Willumsen is the case of an artist in a kind of rebellion against the modest scale of his own country. In self-portraits, he may sometimes have depicted himself a little satirically as brooding or tragic, but he is always consciously massive and heroic. And he could endow other figures with his own heroism – as the "mountain climber" bears impressive witness.


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