Bybilleder: writers and artists on Copenhagen

Update: I’ve now also had a look at another new find, Her er DK (2017) – see the foot of the post for details

Place writing in the British mould is thin on the ground in Denmark so I have to take what I can get.

Bybilleder: kunstnernes og forfatternes København (2016) consists of 75 snippets from Danish literature over the past 250 years set against 75 paintings, selected and presented by art historian Bente Scavenius and literary critic Bo Tao Michaëlis; 360 pages for DK 399. Reviews: Kopenhagen Magasin, Litteratursiden, Love Copenhagen.

Another of those too-big-to-handle offerings from Strandberg, this one had generøse bidrag from a total of nine fonde, but still could hardly be considered an impulse buy. Borrowed from the library on a 14 day loan, so an academic style read will have to suffice. And I’m not likely to buy it as a trophy to sit on a shelf.

In the authors’ respective forewords there’s lots of the usual glowing prose which sucks the life out of me: for BSc it’s a hyldest to Copenhagen, an oplevelse, noget til inspiration for hjerte og hjerne…then we’re heads down into the paintings and the extracts, some on different coloured paper, mainly poetry, often so short as to feel pointless (probably the shortest contribution is eight lines Uden titel (1969) from Inger Christensen), and in largish print, introduced at considerably more length by our two authors, with brief biographical notes pointing to the subject’s main works.

We are taken chronologically through the great and the good, uncritically and seemingly unselectively. It’s an encyclopedia, a reference book – a text book, even – in presentation and style. What aids are there? Zilch – just an a-z list of authors and source without page numbers, nothing for the paintings. I’d quite like to know there are two pieces from HuskMitNavn, feks, and an index by place and a timeline wouldn’t go amiss either. There are some nice pieces, but it doesn’t come together as a whole, lacking comparisons between the genres and any form of analysis. And psychogeography it ain’t – the excerpts may mention a place, but it’s rare they are _of_ a place. Which tends to be the problem, as identified already.

The usual place related suspects (from Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson to Amalie Laulund Trudsø via Hermann Bang and Tom Kristensen) are represented in the 75 strong selection, of which I have probably heard of around two thirds of the writers and a third of the artists. Sadly, there is no space for Asger Jorn’s Fin de Copenhague – he is instead represented by Døddrukne danskere (1960) –  but there is room for a poem apiece from half-Danish film actor Viggo Mortensen and a certain Prins Henri (husband of the queen), which I originally thought was a performance art style joke. It passes without comment from BTM.

A quartet of artworks which caught the eye:

  • Allan Otte’s Nørrebro udtræk (2014) – a 10m x 1ocm frieze of Nørrebrogade, with places moved around to fit and no people (which is his thing); commissioned by Nørrebro Teater
  • Niels Strøbek’s Gårdparti i seks dele (1970) – representation of a typical apartment building in the brokvartere
  • Peter Land’s Copenhagen 11. December 1999, Hurricane II (2000) – portraying Copenhagen’s great storm, when everything was up in the air
  • Jesper Christiansen’s Ved et torv om morgenen (2013) – Gammeltorv, one of a series of paintings produced for Københavns Byret; Kierkegaard lived nearby, taking his daily menneskebad down Routen, as Strøget was called at the time

This last is complemented by Morten Søndergaard’s M for Marmor (2011), taken from Bakkehusalfabet (in lib) which he wrote while in residence at Bakkehuset, and more than short enough to reproduce here:

M for Marmor

Carrara-marmor med indskrift

Husene taler med deres mærkelige marmorpladstemmer: “Her skrev Grundtvig”, “her boede Søren Kierkegaard”, “her blev Hans Christian Andersen født”. Men hvem er det, der taler? Det er, som om husene er udstyret med stenstemmer, so hakkes ud på gavle og facader. Hvem siger noget? Er det tiden selv? Her! Der! Den! Dengang! Vi går forbi og tænker hvert sit. Aha, det var altså mindeværdigt, aha, den person var altså værdig til marmorens evighed. Stenord og stensætninger finder plads i arkitekturen, det bløde kød skal mindes i hård sten. Men hvem er det, som siger noget med husets mund?

Søndergaard is musing on the voices behind the marble plaques found in Copenhagen, emanating from houses and cut out of facades. Who is speaking – is it time itself? Is one person more worthy of an eternal memory in marble than others? Flesh memorialised in stone…who is speaking through the mouth of the house?

BTM sees the setting of plaques on buildings as the Protestant equivalent of the pilgrimage to relics and shrines. Dating from the 19th century, when public interest in the lives of artists exploded and the enlightened bourgeoisie began to make pilgrimages to cultural places, today it is a form of tourism, encouraged by turistbranchen.

This tickled me, not least because there are so few plaques in Copenhagen, and those there are, are so understated as to be practically invisible. Signage is also limited. Evidence of history is hard to find on the streets.

To finish…the more Danish books I look at the more I wonder at the differences between the UK and Danish markets, a reflection perhaps of general cultural differences. For many Danes the UK is bad taste corner, while Brits gape at Danish lampshades. Style, design, call what you will, is downplayed in the UK in favour of verbal dexterity and understatement. While in Denmark another new place-based title, Her er DK, is hailed for its lovely design.

And Strandberg do lovely things, if shading into something to look at rather than to read. For the record, here’s a pick of their other publications from urbanist corner:


Her er DK (2017; FB): “en bog om ukendte steder og oversete seværdigheder”; 217 writers contribute overlooked places throughout Denmark; examples include Cykelslangen (hardly overset, Martin Zerlang!); for the record, it’s DK 349 for 270 pages, some weird sub-A4 size; reviews: Jyllands Posten (paywall), Søren Ryge in Politiken (seemingly not asked); all very lovely and unlikely to scare the horses.

Purloined from the library, I note that the book is described as “et geografisk opslagsværk”, ie it’s not intended to be read from cover to cover; and it certainly feels like something to leaf through rather than read, although that may be because it’s brand new and from the library. It’s so pristine you feel like you should be wearing white gloves to handle it.

A Peter Plys (aka Winnie the Pooh) epithet at the start sets the tone: “Hvad slags historie holder han mest af? Han vil helst høre en historie om sig selv.”

There’s a geographical arrangement, starting with Nordvest, by coordinates rather than region, now that’s novel. The contributor is noted with initials not by name at the end of each piece. The contributions are often v short, too short to make much of a lasting impression. We have registre by place and name, which cross-refer to page number rather than place, that’s just annoying; I couldn’t be bothered to juggle the book to refer back to some, and I have a hunch that the list is on the website anyway (yes! See Hvem og hvor). As ever, I’m left wondering who the target market is (and how much quasi-public support it got) – for me, disappointing, although alternative forms of presentation might have helped.

While the choice of place tends mainly to the lovely, Vestegnen has three entries:

  • Rødovre: Damhustorvet, or “porten til Vestegnen”, by MSQ (Maria Skov Quistgaard, journalist, Information)
  • Albertslund: photo of Bytorvet, by VCB (Vesle Cosman Brøndum, kunstner)
  • Hvidovre: Friheden by NEO (Najat El Ouargui, strategisk analytiker ved Rigspolitiet)
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