Thursday, 24 October 2013

Bluebeard would be jealous

When a measly passageway downstairs turns out to be a sumptuous foliage in glowing orange as painted by Valdemar Andersen there is every reason to gorge on the rest of the villa.

In fact you are welcomed at very the entrance by the Olympian gods enjoying the good life on land and sea alike. Mermen are stealing young women, while the sea horses of Poseidon are leaping out of the water.

Valdemar Andersen created a string of meetings melting into a frieze encircling not just the hallway, but the staircase and the first floor landing. In the busy environment of entrance and staircase that is all about movement, the role of the gods is to create a room within the room of contented well-being.

The sea-creatures are active along the stairs, but even they have a certain Northern serenity to them as the colouring is airy and on a background of white today.

On land the gods' interactions are of a more indirect nature. His reds as seen above are reflected in the draping of her blue garments, while her cooler blues are to be found in the shadows of his otherwise warm skin tones.

But this is a villa with heaven and a room of sin under the same roof. Like Bluebeard's castle this one has a secret room. Maybe not so much locked as it is placed at the furthest end below the house where you have to descend three different staircases, each of them removed from the others by the turn of a corner and not till you get to yet another corner, the fourth, the orange foliage is suddenly before you leading you the rest of the way. This is a room you will never find unless you are very much into mischief or directly invited. 

The house was built in 1921 on Solsortvej 68, Frederiksberg, in the aftermath of World War I. Denmark had been neutral in the war, but a number of businessmen had made huge fortunes selling canned food of an appallingly poor quality to the German troops. They all lost what they had gained within a few years after the war, spending freely and seldom wisely. 

I for one went to school in a brothel built for these "baronets" as they were condescendingly named. I am not defending how they made their fortunes, but they did make a positive difference for the arts, the large scale decorations not least. At my school we had a fountain of stone that had once sprung wine and the floor of the library was a mosaic with the jester or the knave of a playing card. There were certain rooms here too we were not supposed to enter given the nature of the decorations, which of course we... but what I mean to say: When artists of the monumental scale, Charles Rennie Mackintosh to name one, was out of work all over Europe from 1914, their Danish colleagues were busier than ever doing commissioned work not just for state and royalty, but for private citizens daring to be different. 

Private citizens.

The commissioner in this instance was Swedish of origin, Anders Ludvig Andersson (1876-1955) and his Danish wife, Ingeborg (1877-?). Anders Ludvig Andersson was a shoe manufacturer with very little money prior to the Great War when his business suddenly boomed, probably selling poorly made shoes to the German troops.

This must have been the room of his dreams. A Men Only. A pool room complete with seatings constructed as part of the walls as were the cupboards of which one was hiding a sink to secure one's hands were on top of the game at all times and another for the cues.

Everything comes together and comes to life through the decorations of Valdemar. He painted the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the seatings, the cupboards - even the curtain surrounding the light in the center of the room.

This is a room to dissolve any thought of time and place outside of it. The rest of the world has no longer existed once the door was closed behind them. 

Smoking cigars painted at the front of one of the seatings

As with the brothel they must have been rather sociable, those baronets, showing off their riches, but having a great time doing so. To underline the abundance, it is personified in Abundantia with the cornucopia as the centre piece of the room. She is all in gold, of course.

The decorated ceiling centers at the place where the table once stood. But the main attraction of the room and unique of its kind are the sectioned walls. The walls themselves are orangey-red while the sections are orangey-yellow with decorations of birds and flowers surrounded by swirling foliage of a kind only to be seen in fairy tale gardens.

Or rather the Vatican. The direct inspiration came from the Loggia by Raphael, which Valdemar never saw in person. Most likely he had seen the grand books on the subject from the 18th century at the library of Designmuseum Denmark. Since the drawings were not shown in colours, he created is own vision of that side of the matter.

But where Rafael at the Vatican would paint nymphs, Valdemar placed a player with his cue at the center of each section. Each and everyone is busy chalking the cue or making a bold move like this one and they are all are so obviously portraits of the players.

The blue player is a portrait of Harald Moltke, a close neighbour of the Anderssons and our link between artist and commissioner. Harald Moltke was a friend of Valdemar's, painter and renowned for his works from Greenland of eagles, glaciers and Northern Lights.

The home of Harald Moltke was once decorated too by Valdemar Andersen. Dragons were flying or clawing their way along his staircase while golden foliage encircled the living rooms. It is now all gone, leaving his house to be just another mass produced villa of that time. Redecorated with unfashionable-before-long wall papers as opposed to the daring walls of the individual. 

Let us take leave with the player that might be a portrait of Andersson himself. He is the one you see first upon entering, inviting us to join in:

Photos of the pool room are courtesy of Paola Grippo Laustsen, those from the entrance and staircase were taken by me.

ETA: On May 1, 2014 the decorations seen above where destroyed, when a new owner took possession of the house.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Only for the chosen few

Imagine to have one's own castle with an intimate passageway downstairs of swirling brocade leading to a den of sin.

The passageway and the den very much exist, albeit the castle is of the size of a villa. Built in 1921 on Solsortvej 68 at Frederiksberg in Copenhagen, it takes a strong individual to dare live in it, which is the very best thing about this: The villa has so obviously been enjoyed as it was intended.

The acanthus leaves on the walls were painted by Valdemar Andersen as a means to disguise the doors along the passageway. They are after all leading to the utility rooms, all too practical for the handful of gentlemen back then, who probably did not even know where to find the kitchen in their own homes (as the story goes - "somewhere in that direction is it?") and in the mood for playing a game of pool -  snooker or pool, I have no idea, let's just call it pool - while smoking cigars. 

We will get to the gentlemen and their cigars in the next blogpost, right now let's take a closer look at a rather monumental decoration and yet made to be seen by just the chosen few:

A flash of bright orange and on a large scale, laid out in wide open swirls much more so than their renaissance archetypes. Which was fully intended just like Valdemar's modern takes on imitated marble on doors and staircases, never meant to be imitations. They are an artist's interpretation of a motif that have been translated into art for thousands of years before him and yet this one has never been seen before. It was not intended to look original in any historic sense, but original in its own time and at this very place.

Valdemar has painted directly on the walls. There are traces of a pencil laying out the general pattern, but from there he painted freely, letting the extra paint on the brush create an emphasis here or he has hesitated for an instant there creating a splotch in the middle of a thin line. Some places he has added another flower or a flourish to keep the rhythm of the overall playfulness as if the walls are sprouting new buds before us.

Drawing is where we meet the artist in his housecoat as Hans Bendix declared. This is as close as we can get to the working process of this particular artist.

It is a curious fact that the artists who work in the smallest scale, the cartoonists, seamlessly switch to the monumental format. Hence also the direct link to the street artists of today, both are able to convert an idea to the plane in an instance, sensing the graphic totalities whether it is the page of the news paper or an entire room - in this case a room not even a room in itself, but a grasp to disguise, to lead the way and set the mood all in one. 

These decorations alone create a story that takes the villa from being any other villa to a very literal personal castle. Few can boast of having one. 

Our parting photo is overexposed, but is here to show the scale of the swirls:

All photos were taken by me.

ETA: On May 1, 2014 the decoration was destroyed, when a new owner took possession of the house.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

"Poverty is the worst form of violence"

- as Mahatma Gandhi made clear and so he became a stencil by the mural protesters in a new century.

Zwewla: March 25, 2013
Left and above: Kélibia, Nabul.

Zwewla addresses poverty in their very name. Poverty is a violence exercised by those (few?) in power, but as soon as poverty is named, it is a warning too against those (still few?) in power. A warning in three stages as painted on the walls in Sidi Bouzid, a significant city in this respect, in the beginning of October 2013:

1. Apathy

Zwewla: "And Unemployment continues!"
Sidi Bouzid, October 2013.
Valdemar Andersen: Fight the Unemployment!
Buy Danish Goods
, 1927
Designmuseum Denmark,.
The photo was taken by me, hence its poor quality.
They are almost 90 years apart the Danish poster by Valdemar Andersen from 1927 and the Tunisian mural by Zwewla of this year. 

Yet they are remarkably alike in their black rendering of the body locked in the apathy of unemployment. In the poster the child is trying to reach his father, whereas in the mural it is the child itself that is outside the reach of the outside world in the apathy that characterizes the whole family when unemployment strikes. 

Poverty has its iconography in art like any other. Or maybe we should say we have two sides of this type of iconography. There is the one intended for the salons and galleries in which the bourgeoisie has seen destitute children in the snow, calling on the pity and sense of doing good of their beholders. It is now a controversial approach since it calls for philanthropist to take action and that is the type of action that tends to shape the lives of the poor unto their own image. 

It is still the one used for campaigns, though, in that none of us can bear the direct gaze of a child.

Zwewla, july 17, 2012.
In Sayada.

And then there is the other one, the activist one.

Zwewla, November 9, 2012
- at the time when Zwewla was facing trial for
"publishing false news that will disturb the public order"
This too is calling to action, but in direct opposition to the one in the galleries, this one is intended for the the actual afflicted, and usually comes in the form of posters, leaflets and murals. It is art to be met with in public space for everyone to see - the afflicted as well as those who would rather not see them mobilized.

2. Mobilization

Zwewla has added a new motif to the iconography on desperation. A high-octane image that implies no movement, not even of a demonstration, but a three-fold bomb about to go off. It is a confrontation. And yet is imagery without violence.

Zwewla, "The Needle points to MAX", from the left:
Unemployment (بطالة), Poverty (فقر) and Marginalization (التهميش).
Sidi Bouzid, October 10, 2013.

I come from a country that should know. From the happy point of view. The poster above was made right before an important change took place in Denmark. In 1933 our social laws were streamlined and help was no longer something you had to beg for. From then on you would keep your rights as a citizen, such as the right to vote, as citizenry was a basic right even when unemployed, ill or too old to work. The economic assistance was at this time still very basic, but it was a fact and health care for one was free.

1933 was also the year that Hitler came to power right south of the border, but the Fascist ideas gained no ground here. There was no desperation to build on. 

3. History

And then we come to the city of Sidi Bouzid: 

Right - i.e. a prerogative, the truth (حق), Martyr (شهيد )

Zwewla: "Sidi Bouzid: Long live Tunisia Down with imperialism!"
- "imperialism" is painted in red.

Antonio Gramsci, who was a political prisoner 1926-34 for being a Communist in Mussolini's Fascist Italy, wrote from prison on the importance of achieving a critical outlook. The critical stance was what separated one from the masses, from being a mass man, I think Gramsci called it. To this end was needed a beneficium inventarii to make oneself clear of the how and why of what went before. 

Sidi Bouzid is the place to write newest history as this is where Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself from which he eventually died on January 4, 2011 as a protest against the harassment he experienced from the authorities. He is said to have exclaimed "How do you expect me to make a living?" before he ignited himself. His death would in turn ignite the protests that eventually turned into the Arab Spring. His portrait is the embodiment of action taken:

Right - i.e. a prerogative, the truth (حق), Martyr (شهيد )

The wall with Mohamed Bouazizi in its entirety. The clenched fist is a left hand, copied from a woodcut first seen about 1968/69. The woodcut was originally made to be easily reproduced, immediately recognized, and has been used as a call for change in many respects, such as equality for women, jumping continents in the process and now taking part in this context.

A 100 years ago the Mexican artists filled the walls of the official buildings to underline the history of their people, making sure that the struggle for independence and freedom was present before the future generations. Marx was included as was industrial workers and those newly executed in the freedom struggle along with the Aztecs. Murals at governmental level, that would be the natural next goal in Tunisia?

Diego Rivera, a section of the murals enclosing the staircase of
Palacio Nacional, Mexico - image from the Wikipedia page. No conflict with the rights
of the artist intended.

In a way they are already there. It is just the question of the permanence of the walls that is still missing.

All photos courtesy of Zwewla unless otherwise stated.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

"While you see this...

... civilians are being massacred in the eastern part of the Republic of Congo (DRC), women are systematically being raped, and children forcibly recruited, trained and drugged before being released as killing machines on enemy positions..."

Assette Mansongi Manzambi, cartoonist from RDC/Kinshasa

Where would we be without these two?

Yesterday Marianne Harboe and Hans Dal received the Liv&Død-prisen, the award given by the Life&Death Society to a person or persons who have made a special effort to break the taboo of death, and the choice of the society this year could hardly have been more appropriate. If two people have changed the circumstances for the patients and their families on the Danish hospices, they are Marianne and Hans.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Akram Raslan - Updated September 21, 2015


This is a drawing on a Quo Vadis? As well as a drawing on the very right of posing the question.

According to a report that went viral in October 2013 the Syrian cartoonist, Akram Raslan (born 1974) is no longer among us. He has been missing for a year since his arrest on October 2, 2012 by the military intelligence at the offices of the newspaper, he worked for, the government-owned Al-Fida.

He has reportedly been tortured, being moved from prison to prison, and was rumored to stand trial on June 3 2013. No information came out wether the trial took place, until said report surfaced of his execution and burial on July 26 in a mass grave outside Damascus.

The last piece of information has consistently been rejected and that he is indeed alive. Both pieces of news stem from persons close to his family, and so far we only know that his first of kin has not been informed should he have been executed. As any of us knows who have lost loved ones, the importance of keeping hope is the most important of all, so we join in the hope.

ETA: June 2014 the UN has obtained information that Akram Raslan is under investigation for "offending the state's prestige". In other words, it seems he is indeed alive, albeit having been imprisoned for close to two years by now.

ETA: September 21, 2015 a fellow detainee (F. Y.) has stated that Akram Raslan died from torture shortly after his arrest on October 2, 2015.

His crimes? According to the UN-rumor (as we sadly have to call it now) he was charged of terrorism, including showing disrespect of the leader, being in league with the rebels and undermining the prestige of the Syrian state. Exhibit No. A:

Terrorism is a flexible notion to put it mildly. The UN is for one has not as yet been able to come up with a definition which satisfies all parties. Terrorism can be exorcised by states as well as individuals and one of the reasons for the difficulties is the importance of stressing the legitimate right of the individual to express itself when in disagreement with a state in question. In a democracy the example above would be a clearcut Exhibit No. A of exorcising such a legitimate right.

Akram Rasland has taken the right of definition literally into his drawings not just on the figurative plane. The line of Akram Raslan is of a deliberate simplicity. A thick contour denote the rounded shapes of each element of the drawing while a stage-like central light concentrates the scene. Words are scarce if there at all. Nothing shall remain concealed.

The clarity is all the deadlier considering his drawings each time covers a "messy" multitude, of skulls, military débris - débris organic and of mortar. While Akram Raslan ridicules the last of the boundless portraits clinging to its nail.

The drawings shown date from about mid 2011 when he began to comment on the conflict. He has been missing for a year, but his drawings remain as relevant as they were last year and the year before.

Akram Raslan has introduced the personification - a first? - of the UN. Perhaps one of his strongest drawings as seen from a Western perspective is the bloodied handshake which makes accomplices of us all. 

While hoping for the best of news of Akram Raslan and of Syria, let us leave the last drawing uncommented.

All photos courtesy of

Sunday, 6 October 2013

"Walls: The Books of the Revolution"

Juan Zero, Graffiti, 29.4.2012.

We have seen him before on this blog, the spray man above, drawn on the day the 23-year old Nour Hatem Zahra was shot in the leg by the Assad regime and bled to death.
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