The rich cultural history of Denmark finds expression in centuries’ worth of art and artifacts, including Viking treasures, numerous castles and manor houses, churches (many from the Middle Ages), fortresses, stimulating museums and some of the finest contemporary design in the world.
Denmark’s strong literary tradition encompasses sagas and medieval folk songs, the most popylae Danish playwright, Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), the Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850), and, in the 19th century, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Andersen is probably still the most widely read Danish writer today. His children’s tales – including The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea – gained him worldwide fame and are a continuing source for plays, ballets, films, visual arts and bedtime reading.
In the 20th century, Karen Blixen (1885-1962), working under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, gained international recognition for her 19837 memoir of her years in Kenya. Out of Africa, which became a Hollywood movie.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, known as the father of existensialism, wrote in the first half of the 19th century. His work made an impact in the mid-20th century when it was translated into German and English.
Peter Høeg is Denmark’s best known living author. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992) is his most famous work, an elegant, absorbing literary thriller which begins in Copenhagen and ends in the icy waters of Greenland.
Theatre and dance
Plays are still performed on the old stage of Det Kongelige Teater (Royal Theatre) in Copenhagen, founded in 1748, but it has been superseded by a futuristic waterside playhouse, which opened in 2008. In recent years Copenhagen’s arts scene has also been gifted with a purpose-built opera house (Operaen), which houses the Royal Danish Opera, and the new DR Konsertsalen, where the Royal Danish Orchestra sometimes perform. The Royal Danish Ballet, formed 150 years ago, is one of the most influential worldwide. It has attracted great masters such as August Bournonville (1805-79), creator of today’s “classical ballet” and choreographer of more than 50 productions, including the popular La Sylphide.
The big screen
Denmark’s Nordisk Film Kompagni, founded in 1906, is the oldest film company still in operation. Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), who started his career here, directed one of the most influential films of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Dreyer died believing his masterpiece had been destroyed in a fire, but the original was rediscovered in 1981 in a Norwegian mental institution.
Today the government-supported Danish Film Institute is the heart of a vibrant Danish film industry, Three films have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film: Babette’s Feast (1986), Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and In a Better World (2010), directed by Susanne Bier.
Other Danish films have attracted international acclaim, including Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. These directors are signatories (along with Kristian Levring) if the Dogma 95-Manifesto. This set of “chastity” rules – films should be made on location without artificial lighting or sound, using hand-held cameras – was intended as a personal challenge to help reinvigorate the art of filmmaking.
Painting and plastic arts
C.W. Eckersber (1783-1853) is considered the father of Danish painting. At the end of the 19th century, a group pf artists – including PS. Krøyer (1851-1909) and Michael and Anna Ancher (1859-1935) – based themselves in Skagen at the northernmost tip of Jutland. Known as the “Skagen painters”, they turned away from Impressionism. The favored French style of the day, and focused on capturing the special northern light within their maritime landscapes.
In the middle of the 20th century Asger Jorn (1914-73), a member of the CoBrA art movement, created large, bold brightly colored paintings. His expressio0nistic and experimental works on canvas and ceramics played a key role in the development and promotion of modern Danish art.
Olagur Eliasson (1967-) has created some of the 21st century’s most innovative installations, which play with light, water and optical phenomena – for example, The Weather Project, a giant “sun” that illuminated London’s Tate Modern in 2004.
Feature image (on top): Summer evening at Skagen beach. Painting by Danish artist P. S. Krøyer, 1899
Art and Culture in Denmark, written by Tor Kjolberg