Four smartly dressed old men, with their sage beards to match, carefully study a work of art that lies out of frame. A portrait of these Kunstdommere — “art judges” in Danish — by Michael Ancher is the centerpiece of the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition “Portraits of the World: Denmark,” which uses the idea of how artists depict themselves as a window into 20th century American portraiture. Critically, the exhibit explores artists’ identities and self-image, encouraging viewers to consider artistic communities as constantly changing and shaping each other.
Ancher’s “Kunstdommere,” with its beautiful depiction of famed artists — including Denmark’s well-known Holger Drachmann, Peder Severin Kroyer, Laurits Tuxen and Jens Ferdinand Willumsen — thoughtfully represents themes of community, collaboration and rivalry between artists. The piece sets the tone for the exhibit’s look at very aesthetically different, but perhaps not emotionally different, New York City artistic communities in the early to mid-20th century, which are also highly collaborative and cross-influential communities.
Unfortunately for a casual visitor to the gallery, the title of the exhibition is quite misleading; it concentrates not on Danish portraiture, but uses Danish realist Ancher’s famed work as context and inspiration for an exploration of American portraiture. However, the exhibit succeeds in comprehensively illuminating disparate styles and time periods, from rough etchings on paper around the time of WWI to late ’80s colorful lithographs that make use of the third dimension. The broad range allows viewers to follow progressions in American modernist art and exposes them to different perspectives on the same type of communities.
The colorful yet moody painting “Zum Brauhaus” by George Biddle in 1933 is a more modern and less stylistically realistic reinterpretation of “Kunstdommere,” depicting four of Biddle’s artist friends, including his sculptor wife, at a speakeasy called “Zum Brauhaus.” The painting is a caricature-esque depiction of pretentious types engaging in late-night conversation about art. It cleverly suggests that culture is situated in the underground scene, away from daylight and the mainstream of American life.
Borrowing the concept of Ancher’s “Kunstdommere” but imbuing it with a contemporary, American energy is Hans Namuth’s 1951 photograph “Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Tony Smith.” What is consistent is the interaction of great artists, as both works depict friendship alongside rivalry. Namuth’s photograph, though, celebrates giants of modern art whose unconventionality defined abstract expressionism and won them great fame: Newman with his single-line paintings, Pollock with his paint splatters and Smith with his minimalist, geometric sculptures. The work is impressive for forcing viewers to consider the interaction between huge artists rather than imagining each artist in their own vacuum. This is a remarkable aspect of the exhibit as a whole; it is able to create portraits of artists as people, rather than enigmatic fixtures of history.
Though most of the exhibit’s artists are men, it does include works by Peggy Bacon, Mabel Dwight and Marion D. Freeman. Peggy Bacon’s 1925 print “Frenzied Effort” depicts a crowded room of male and female artists studying and sketching a nude model. Though off-center, the model is a clear focal point of the print and is accentuated by slightly thicker and darker lines. The community Bacon depicts is one joined by dedication to their craft. One particular artist type cannot be distinguished from the crowd in “Frenzied Effort,” as the figures all differ in dress, age and gender. The print places women artists on equal footing to male artists, which is significant for the year in which the piece was created.
Departing from the early 20th century depictions of artistic communities is Red Grooms’ 1987 sculpted paper print celebrating abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. It offers a tone and character that is strikingly different from the others, as it focuses on the particular influence of one remarkable artist, de Kooning, rather than depicting him in conversation with other artists. Entitled “De Kooning Breaks Through,” the pun is comically obvious as the print depicts de Kooning on a bicycle literally breaking through the painting. Those familiar with some of de Kooning’s work will recognize references like de Kooning’s “Woman and Bicycle.” The bright colors and cartoon-like elements illuminate the idea that de Kooning uses mundane popular images as high art, a concept reinforced by Grooms’ own work.
“Portraits of the World: Denmark,” in spite of its title, takes viewers on a tour of artists’ self-image in 20th century American portraiture. With “Kunstdommere” as its grounding piece, the exhibit encourages consideration of the identities of artistic communities. While art pieces are often categorized and perceived in view of the artist who created them, “Portraits of the World: Denmark” encourages consideration of artists as members of a community in motion building off each other with cross-decade influence, rather than a set of stationary and isolated figures stuck in one style and time.