It is barely possible to completely estimate the enormous significance that Thorvaldsen has had as an icon of a class in society and indeed in a way, still has. The Russian artist, at the beginning of this century, namely Kasimir Malevich dreamt that his white cubes would be on every worker’s shelves, and thus fulfil1 a spiritual revolution following upon the Russian Revolution of 1917. Thorvaldsen managed this in that small statuettes, china figures and other small versions of his works can still be found in many Danish homes.
Thorvaldsen’s sculptures can be seen as focal points between antiquity and the modern experience. He stands in a historical position whereby in his work he is attempting to pass on a complete view of antiquity. He passes by the intervening periods, and goes back to the Greek and Roman eras to deliver that which at first glance would seem to be a „whole“ figure. Viewed from a distance in time, it is not just this „wholeness“ of figure which is important. Nor is it the closing-off of opposing space which forms the figures’ ambitions but rather the fact that Thorvaldsen is, unwittingly, already modern in his experience. He cannot form this „whole“ in one go but rather has to gradually build it up in a complex process of reconstruction and thus his work embraces from the very start the modern problematic: the schism between an urge for „wholeness’, natural connexion and the awareness of the impossibility of it. This modern problematic is realised through this ambition of the „whole“ work, in that the very ambition itself, brings about a working process and traces in the work which are in opposition to its goals. Think of his „Jason“ which upon closer examination reveals multiple detail, part observations and sporadic formulations. We could also choose another of the great works from the hand of Thorvaldsen, „The Countess Barjatinskaya“ from 1818. In this work Thorvaldsen emphasises the body or the statuesque as the most significant element in the sculpture. He thus creates a distance to the portrayal of the Countess. There is no attempt at capturing her personality in her face even though it is doubtless a good likeness of her. In its modelling, it is more like a clothes mannequin than a living being. Instead of intensity through portraiture, the interest lies in the way in which the body rises in space.
The normal relationship between figure and clothing in classical sculpture is that the clothing follows the contours of the body and thus appears as if impenetrable. To put it another way, the body, the inner layer, the natural, consitutes the actual whilst the cloth is a skin, a surface, a superficial layer.
In this sculpture, Thorvaldsen uses a different approach, namely that of the baroque and the relationship between body and covering. A relationship which can be categorised as between and betwixt the being and the bearing which is far more complex in the baroque than in later classical sculpture. Just think of Bernini’s „The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa“. In the portrait of Countess Barjatinskaya, the clothing keeps the body up. On the sculpture’s left side the clothing is so fixed, almost architectonic, that it could be holding an almost absent body. If you study the sculpture anatomically, then the anatomical parts do not meet as they should under the covering. The appearance of the body, here and there, through the clothes sets the clothing in a game where it is the the main player. It is as if the portrayed person threatens to be separated into its constituent parts, if it were not for the cloth holding them together. The cloth is so separate that, in the knot under the arm of the countess, it totally takes over the point of expression in the piece.
If you view the work from the angle, normal for Thorvaldsen works, face to face, the work is reduced to an almost total lack of expression. We can see the mastery of the technician and craftsman. If, you then move away from this angle, you are suddenly met by the liveliness of the folds in the piece. Perhaps what we are seing is an old feudal structure which cannot hold it’s world together, like in the portaits of the nobility from England of the same period by Joshua Reynolds. But whereas Reynolds’ figures dissolve in light and landscape thus gradually disappearing, the surroundings inexorably converge on the Countess in a single embrace which ensures that she will stay erect but vhilst at the same time stifle her.
Seen from a artistic perspective, Thorvaldsen is only of interest to the modern sculptor in very few of his works. There is a body of commissioned work all of which demonstrate certain sculptural strengths but which if measured, using his own yardstick, do not remain of any interest as individual works of art. If you look at the best works, a picture emerges of an artist who, as the first of his period, did something totally new: creating figures of the bourgeois void of the pathos which was the characteristic of other early bourgeois artists. The interesting thing about Thorvaldsens’ figures is that they are stripped of pathos or feeling in the general modenistic sense. He instrumentalises or recounts the bourgeois preoccupation with context and clarity. In his works, he does not know doubt or show any reservation, so it is clear that a forward-striving, mercantilist class would embrace him as one of their own.
At first glance the sculptures all seem to be beautifully ordered. A universe in perfect balance. But if one tries to peek behind the stories that the sculptures tell, purely iconographically, other things begin to surface. Looked at as sculptural rules of grammar, we see that his artistic material escapes him in the most unexpected places in the sculptures. For example, the back of „The Three Graces“, whereas the front’s calm, vertical/horizontal dominant relationship, is lightly accentuated by weak diagonals, this changes to an amorphous and almost entrail-like rambling work of soft organic forms. Classical space leading to its dissolution.
It is not entirely correct to say that things „escape him“ but rather, it is more a matter of the sculpture’s formal sides, in certain areas, being allowed to live a life of their own. This is probably due to the fact that they are not capable of carring their narrative. It is in the purely formal dimensions these parasite-like lives are being lived amongst the greater order of things and nearly always in that part of the sculpture that tradionally is not in the line of sight of the viewer. The folding of cloth, plumage, a tree-stump, all of which may serve to support many of the sculptures and eventually that negative space which occurs, unheeded in the meeting of differing elements, do not invoke the artist’s controlling and ordering conscienceness. It is typical that this all-seeing, panoptic view which these secularised works celebrate is only capable of keeping an own illusion of holding and observing everything so long as they keep to a single angle in the work itself or to the world for that matter. Thorvaldsens’ sculptures are not rounded sculptures in the modern sense. Here, they are a step backwards from the uncontrollable space of baroque sculpture which spread out in all directions. The sculptures should he fixed in one single angle of vision if the ideal is to hold firm.This is clear in Thorvaldsen’s sketches. The sculptures are nearly always seen from a single angle. The same angle is always used later, in reproductions and photographs. It as if the sculptures are thought of as tableaus. The secularised perspective is not always present despite its ambition in this regard. Small corners and small crevices evade the order they strive for and create their own patterns.
Thorvaldsen’s formality displays, without necessarily wanting to, in one, the bourgeois individual’s enormous potential in regard to pure mercantilism and desire for order and, indeed, at the same time the impossibility of maintaining everything under this (in other words neuroses and repression can occur in this impossibihty - the bourgeios individual’s trademark).
It is very natural to compare Thorvaldsen to Wiedewelt. (The Danish sculptor who, together with the art historian Winckelmann ushered in classicism in Europe). But whereas Wiedevelt always maintains an intellectual contemplation in his use of formality or geometry, almost to the extent that figuration gets in the way, Thorvaldsen does away with every conceivable form of spirituality and intellectualism in his dealing with his material. One might call it an efficiency of material and concept.
It is Wiedewelt’s conception that via geometry you can designate and thus in the way of Adam, capture the world, and which in Thorvaldsen, occurs in an all engaging form. For him, neither geometry or figuration are expressions for any desire toward comprehending the world. They are expressions of an attempt at possessing it. He approaches his goal effectively and devoid of sentimentality. And, suddenly: by subordinating Thorvaldsen’s, or more correctly - the bourgeois’ will, these individual patterns occur, which the will can neither predict nor control. Yes. and whose very existence eludes the eye
There is another side of Thorvaldsen’s art which I would like to deal with. The relationship between Thorvaldsen’s artistic project and the art which immediately succeeds it. I have always thought of Thorvaldsen as an artist along the lines of Beethoven. There is of course a distinct difference between the two, but nonetheless they are similar in certain relativities to their work and the age in which they both lived. There is one particular relationship in their work which is of particular interest. If one looks at Jason and for a moment ceases to apply our modem awareness in penetrating the work and the powerful contextual space which it expresses; then this heroic figure is just as much a celebration of the „new“ man.
Beethoven too, thought that Napoleon was a „new“ man, and indeed dedicated his 3rd symphony to him. Beethoven though had other ideas, and we all know the title page of the score with its dedication crossed out in a fit of rage. Thorvaldsen though does not seem to realise that, this „new“ man, who with that grandiose classical clarity seemed to be able to conquer the whole world, is very quickly seized by a close and stuffy petit bourgeois-ness that found its expression in Danish Golden Age painting. It is a giant leap from the obvious idealogicalism /heroism in Jason to, for example, the quiet withdrawn reason of „The Waage Petersen rooms“ in the painting by Wilhelm Bendz from 1830. The very outside, the landscape around these peaceful dwellings is closed off, ordered and well-arranged. Seen in this light, I view Thorvaldsen’s contribution, from a Danish perspective as, both a heroic, and a futile attempt at holding onto the great European tradition.
Thorvaldsen’s return to Copenhagen after 40 years voluntary exile in Rome indicates for me the death blow dealt to the great tradition. For me it endows Thorvaldsen’s scheme with at certain tragedy. Thorvaldsen comes back to Denmark in order to assist in the consolidation of a class, who quickly made it’s voice heard in Denmark, namely the petit bourgeoisie. An enormous loss of outlook, daring and lack of compromise occurs in that movement from Thorvaldsen’s white, idealistic marble Titans to the Golden Age painters’ nice, small bijou paintings of life in Denmark. Life was depicted, not as it was, but how one wanted it to be
Thorvaldsen, upon his return, was made so fundamentally Danish, in the public conscience, that the most important part of his work, the international, virtually disappeared.
Perhaps his greatest force seen from a contemporary Danish sculptor’s point of view is that very foreignness in regard to the Danish tradition, which was being founded in the years around the time of his homecoming. In trying to connect him with the international world, which he was a part of, one might be able to wring some new meaning out of his work.
Lecture in 2005 at the Accademia San Lucca, Rome
on Bertel Thorvaldsens 200 years birthday