Category Archives: Why I Love Denmark

Art Nouveau Vikings at Frederiksborg 

Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark houses tons of fine historic art, but one of my favorite pieces is pretty humble: it occupies a long lower-level hallway leading to the exit.

From 1883-1886, Lorenz Frolich painted a commissioned piece: a 37-meter frieze depicting the Danish conquest of large chunks of England. It was to be a Danish counterpart to the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which documented the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The style of the frieze was from the very early years of Art Nouveau,  also known as Jugendstihl, also known as Skonvirke in Denmark.

The Danish Vikings began sailing their shallow-depth longboats across the sea and up the rivers of England in the late 700s. Before that, they had only ventured as far as the Baltic countries on their raids. The trouble was, the Baltics were almost as poor in resources as Scandinavia. Pickings were slim. But England had rich soil where Danish settlers could grow much more food than in their own rocky soil. English monasteries were crammed with gold and silver candleholders, crosses and chalices.

Raiding was wearying work, but somebody had to do it, right?


After a couple of centuries of striking fear into the hearts of the Brits, and much bloody axe-swinging, the Dane Swein Forkbeard was crowned King of England in 1013.

When Swein died, his son Canute the Great took the crown, and in due course Swein’s grandsons Harold Harfoot and Hardecnut had their turns at ruling the rich land of England. The printed information at Frederiksborg skips over the period when the Danes lost their grip on power in 1042 after the death of Hardecnut. But we’re informed that 1066 was all about the Danes: the Normans were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings who had conquered the part of France that became Normandy.


The Frederiksborg frieze is at pains to depict the conquering Vikings as reasonable, law-abiding fellows willing to sit in orderly rows and debate issues like gentlemen.


There’s also emphasis on their domestic qualities. And it’s true: they were fine farmers and they had domesticated animals.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, photo from review in “Variety,” Feb. 21, 2014

 

All the qualities of the Vikings are on display in the History Channel’s TV series “The Vikings.” I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th season. A disclaimer: yes, I know the show is full of appalling violence. Don’t even ask me what a Blood Eagle is. But for the first time, I begin to understand the Vikings, their world view, and the elaborate mythology that guided their behavior.

The series tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, an early Viking of song and legend, and his descendants, who eventually became the Normans of 1066 fame. Following the time-honored traditions of TV showrunners everywhere, real events are compressed and characters invented. But historical research is said to be quite accurate as far as clothing, houses, community organization, laws, and religion.

Travis Fimmel, pictured above, plays Ragnar. He is a former Calvin Klein model, but he has real acting chops to go along with his fierce blue eyes and intimidating tattoos. I’ll watch him do anything, from his early daring voyage to pillage Lindisfarne monastery, through adultery and divorce, and right on into the murderous madness of his old age.

Katheryn Winnick and Travis Fimmel in “The Vikings,” photo from review in “The Telegraph,” May 3, 2014

 

Another big selling point of “The Vikings,” for me, is the depiction of strong women. Lagertha is Ragnar’s brave and loyal wife, a formidable “shieldmaiden.” Even after their messy separation after he takes up with a tall, graceful, ladylike beauty, Lagertha graciously returns again and again to bash heads alongside Ragnar and their sons. Axe, sword and shield in hand, she’s ready save Ragnar’s bacon when he finds himself in trouble. What a woman!


I like the kinder, gentler version of the Vikings depicted in Frolich’s frieze paintings. But I’ll take my Vikings at their fiercest, too.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Frederiksborg Castle: Renaissance in Knitting Needles

Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark is a riot of Renaissance elegance. A recent exhibit featured a jaw-dropping collection of hand-knitted ensembles based on the costumes in royal and noble portraits in the castle.

I love the idea of knitting, but I’m terrible at it. A simple scarf from my hands turns into a lumpy mess. So I was in awe.

The source portraits were hard to identify in Danish, so I gave up and just enjoyed the knitted versions of the costumes. How about an artfully ruched sleeve on a simple gray sweater?

Or an elegant dress based on two portraits from the 1500s? I’d cheerfully wear this if I had an occasion fancy enough.

Perhaps an elaborate lace collar?

I’d wear this dress too, if the artist knitted me one in a different color combination. Maybe subtle blues and purples?


The same goes for the pantaloon-turned-skirt number, based on a portrait of one Captain Sir Thomas Dutton. I’ll take one in grays and blues, please.

Two of my favorite colors, and an Elizabeth vibe…

A peplum number in deep blue.

Textures and colors fit for a long-ago princess…


I’m not sure of the inspiration for this creamy white wool coat. It kind of looks like a gentleman’s long-sleeved undershirt, lovingly sewn by his lady. Whatever. Just ring it up. I’ll wear it home!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, past and present, of Europe and the British Isles.

Christiania: Danish Hippie Haven

In 1970, a peaceful invasion took place in Copenhagen. A  small group of anarchists broke through a fence and took over the grounds of a former military barracks.


The area had defensive ramparts dating from the 1600s, when Denmark fought endless battles with Sweden. After about 1950, the military more or less abandoned the site. Hippies moved in and set up shop, making up the rules as they went along. They eventually gained legal use of the land and became one of the top tourist attractions of Copenhagen, right up there with Tivoli Gardens.


Today, about 900 people live in Christiania. Over the years, they’ve worked out ways to police themselves and cooperate with local authorities to provide some services. But it’s still all about freedom, just as in 1971.

I ventured inside early on a sunny but chilly spring morning. What would I find?


I had read that photos were generally ok, but to ask permission before taking any photos of people–especially those selling marijuana, which is illegal but freely sold when police are not around. Maybe it was too early, or maybe I was oblivious, but I didn’t see anything remotely like a drug deal. Residents themselves outlawed “hard drugs” some years ago, and they enforce the rules strictly.


Much of the artwork was a throwback to the psychedelic 60s and 70s.


Other murals looked more contemporary. I liked it all.


I liked the sculptures too.


I didn’t bring a skateboard! Too bad.

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Hippies were the first great recyclers. They figured out how to survive and thrive on the leftovers of materialism. Christiania has a huge warehouse stocked with recycled toilets, sinks, bathtubs, stoves and refrigerators, and all kinds of building materials.


The community depends on tourist traffic. Restaurants look friendly and appealing, but there are probably no Michelin stars.


Venturing out of the main tourist area, I found charming handcrafted homes, bright with flowers.


Nobody is allowed to actually own a home or property in this enclave. If a resident leaves, the community decides whether to invite someone else to move in. I’ve read that about 180 of the original residents remain.


After I left, I learned that tourists had been assaulted for taking pictures of residents. I figured this dog, supervising the warehouse, wouldn’t mind.


There are plenty of grungy sights within Christiania, but my impression was of a tranquil haven of social freedom. Yes, I’d go back!

Travel offers so many doors to open! Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia.

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!