Curator Line Clausen Pedersen embarks on new dream projects after 10 years at top Danish museum
By James Brewer
One of Europe’s most imaginative fine art curators, Line Clausen Pedersen, has begun 2019 with a career step into new realms that will realise some of her “old research dreams.”
There will be in addition a brand new “and very exciting” project involving a 16th century Venetian shipwreck that will be turned into a special exhibition, about which she and colleagues are currently negotiating with large international museums in New York and Europe.
Ms Pedersen has been curator since August 2008 of the modern collection at the Copenhagen institution Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a leading European museum which among its treasures boasts Danish and French painting and sculpture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Established in 1897, the Glyptotek houses in total 10,000 works, and in addition to its modern collection is renowned for its sections on Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Etruscans,
She has been notably associated with research and curation of the small-scale sculptures of the French artist, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and with the output of other practitioners of the impressionist era.
Best known for his paintings and pastels in vibrant colours, during most of his career Degas modelled sculptures in wax, clay and plaster, and some were cast in bronze after his death. The Glyptotek is one of only four museums in the world to own a complete collection of the bronzes.
Having just left the Glyptotek, Ms Pedersen is to “follow up on old dreams of research and projects outside of 19th century French art. I will pursue international projects and collaborations, some in the US and some in Europe.
“For now,” she said, “I am working on a research project with the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and will continue to do so for some time ahead. It is a huge privilege to collaborate with great and very skilled experts in my field.” The research with Getty scientists and conservators will focus on one painting by Degas, Dancers practising in the foyer. “We shall discuss the painter’s practice and the process of this individual work, and possibly re-date it – all based on our research and data collected here at the Getty’s impressive lab.”
Another project concerns a shipwreck from 1583 off the Croatian coast. Divers recovered items of precious and every-day cargo in excavations mainly between 1967 and 1974. “The cargo is spectacular,” said Ms Pedersen.
“The ship, named Gagiana, was going from Venice to Istanbul with luxury goods from all over Europe. This is a time-capsule or cross-section of a moment in time that holds a vast potential in term of both naval history, routes at the time, the vessel and its design and of course the narrative of how, when and why the ship sank.
“I am thrilled to be involved in this exciting and original project. Underwater archaeology has always fascinated me deeply; the team behind the project and the on-going excavations on site are highly skilled, professional and most inspiring to be around. Imagine, uncovering a whole story from the bottom of the handsome Adriatic Sea, a dream!
“It is my goal to curate exhibitions around the story and cargo of this rare ship and to include many disciplines in discussing all aspects of the adventure, shipping routes, cargo insurance in 1583, the wonderful findings to be made accessible to a museum audience through new technology and indeed, the simple joy of looking at beautifully crafted objects from one of the most important periods in the history of our civilisation.
“We have just started discussing international venues for the shipwreck and I hope it will find support amongst international networks of shipping and insurance interests as well as museum professionals.”
In addition to this, “I am working on a publication about my curatorial approach, a ‘handbook’ demonstrating some of the experimental approaches and discussing ways to use the permanent collections of a museum. When I first started as a curator, I really needed such a book and never found one. Having lectured at the University of Copenhagen, at the Fine Arts Academy and most recently at the University of California, the students encouraged me to write it all down and potentially share both discourses as a publication and a follow-up for courses and master classes in the US.”
She said: “Having been a curator at the Glyptotek for more than 10 years, this felt like it was the right time to leave for a new adventure. The organisation is in the midst of a big change. Having done so many exhibitions and research projects on the collection, it is a good time for me to leave it to others to carry on in the field. I have done my share of ensuring this wonderful place is on the world map of museums and am very content leaving it to others to continue the success”
An important factor has been the completion of her dissertation for her PhD on Degas, his studio practice and his love of process, the latter “even as a visually important part of the ‘end’ result, the actual aesthetic expression of the art work as we meet perceive it today.
“With the dissertation behind me, I am ready for new challenges!” she enthused.
Of her specialities, she recalls: “I chose this road at a time when everyone else in my generation seemed to be much more interested in contemporary art. I have always been fascinated with the foundation of contemporary art rather than contemporary art itself. I want to know how we got here.”
The Degas exhibition of the bronze sculptures, currently showing at Glyptotek has been running for more than five years.
Ms Pedersen has aimed to capture as much the spirit as the sight of the sculpture of Degas, which she says shows a self-conscious artist who aimed to fuse academic traditions and contemporary techniques. “Degas was able to connect the past and the future in his idiosyncratic and celebrated expressions of paintings, drawings and sculpture. He looks forward, meanwhile looking back at the same time.”
One of the central attractions has been the piece Ballet dancer aged fourteen. Glyptotek owns this sculpture, and there are other versions at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
The scandal-provoking sculpture was originally made of wax to convey skin colour, with real hair which is from a pair of small wigs, a bow in her hair, and tulle skirt, and exhibited in 1881 at the sixth Impressionist exhibition. “In my opinion, she represents the essential Degas method. He does this work just once, because she is a sensation. If he had done it again, it would no longer be a sensation,” said Ms Pedersen. “One of his tools in becoming an original artist at the time is to insist on experiment to be an integrated part of his entire enterprise as an artist – experiment on several levels, from display to material, motif and mixing of material across techniques.”
In Paris at the time, ballet girls were of the working class, and many had a side-line in prostitution, so controversially the sculpture was not representing someone from ‘nice’ society. “What is shown is someone developing in physique and revealing her character.”
At around this time, Degas was sitting in courtrooms, sketching the accused. The dancer was exhibited accompanied by two drawings of criminals.
A further aspect of this iconic piece is caricature. “The art – when we look at the little dancer — is ‘artificial’ because she comes across as almost more real than life itself, and Degas methodically draws out inspiration from the caricature. She has become the icon of beautiful Impressionist art. But she exists as a wax doll, an image of the lower-class girl making a living at the Paris Opera. She is not one individual dancer, she is all dancers, an image created as a phenomenon of Paris at this particular moment in time meanwhile being one the most radical sculptures and indeed, pushing this media forward and into what can be called the ‘modern era’ of sculpture and imagery.
“After several years of Degas painting ballet dancers (1,500 paintings, monotypes, and drawings), this figure suddenly appears looking almost like a monkey or a malnourished boy. Even today, decades after she was invented, she is striking and fascinating in all of her complexity, and the museum audience of today are drawn to her.”
Ms Pedersen’s natural setting for the museum of the sculpture, unconfined by glass enclosure, enhanced the experience for many visitors, giving the impression of shortening the distance between the object and the viewer. She says that Degas’s bronzes are to be understood as exercises or as sketches, which led her to show them on warehouse-like shelves of untreated wood. This contrasted with other Degas exhibitions where the bronzes have been put on pedestals. If you want to take them seriously as exercises and an important aspect in understanding how this artist worked in his studio, they should be shown as such and not as final works on pedestals, she insists. “They were cast in bronze after Degas’s death; the originals in wax indeed, exist as a testimony to his stubborn and original way of handling his material.
“Degas was so visionary and ambitious an artist that I think we can help him a little more today for example by turning up the colours of the display walls. When the work hangs on a coloured surface, the different types of shavings and textures protrude. It is about emphasizing and celebrating the sensual dimension of art, where art exits from resembling reality. It makes us understand that without Degas there was no Cezanne, no Picasso.”
The ballet dancer has been one of 100 drawings, graphic works and sculpture in the Glyptotek exhibition Degas’s Method, based with an accompanying catalogue on Ms Pedersen’s research.
Her ideas in this direction began to develop in 2006 when she assisted the former director of the Glyptotek in making an exhibition about the French artist, specifically about his lesser-known landscapes. “Until then I really knew nothing about that side of Degas, which prompted me to ask a lot of questions to which I could not find the answers in the literature.” That year, she wrote a degree thesis on Degas, and started a PhD project at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. (Her education in addition to the Courtauld has been at Copenhagen University and the Università degli Studi di Firenze.) When she was offered a full-time job at the Glyptotek she tried to pursue her PhD work but the full-time job took precedence, so she put the PhD on hold.
“What I have been looking into since is the continuity across the works – where sculpture, drawing and painting naturally speak together. Degas has great awareness about reuse of experience in his materials.
“The theoretical part of Degas’s work becomes clear as we glimpse his method. The challenge has been that there was no language for this: much of my work has consisted of ‘inventing’ that language.”
Degas helped establish the forum for the Impressionists and exhibited with them, but after a year he withdrew from the group to set himself apart from the established art world in Paris, that is, the salon. Degas was one of the few who could do so, having the means, the assurance and the talent.
Ms Pedersen adds: “Impressionism as an artistic term contains everything and nothing. It’s Monet, it’s loose brush strokes and it’s not least plein air – outdoor — painting. It is among other things the ‘showdown with salon painting.’
“Degas, on the other hand, is determinedly in the studio, surrounded by his own art works – he would keep most of his production until his death – art and art production seem to be almost one in this very personally created environment.
“I like his approach: he appears hard working, stubborn and ambitious – almost uninviting to share with us the secrets behind his art.
He mirrors himself as part of the time wheel of great masters: of Raphael, Leonardo, Titian, Tintoretto – and he does so both in his actual practice and as he says it out loud – this at a time in art history when several other artists would be defined as what has become known as the absinth- drinking bohemian type, the flamboyant and the restless person walking the street of eternal Paris.
“He lives in a three-storey house, where he has studio on one floor, art collection on another and lives on the third – a kind of closed eco-system in the middle of Montmartre, from which he travels very little and most often only in a radius of 2 km for most of his life.”
Of her years of focus on the artist, Ms Pedersen observes: “The aim has been for me to say something about Degas which has not already been said.
“As an art historian and museum person, I am interested in encouraging people to use their eyes. We have forgotten to use our sight; recognition comes through sight and therefore, viewing is to be stimulated.”
Ms Pedersen in 2015 introduced the public to a new acquisition by the Glyptotek, Jockeys before the Race, which was compared to his portrayal of ballet dancers in that “it is the moment just before the action that captures the artist’s imagination” that captures a high degree of intensity.
She has been working on an exhibition of colourist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) with Tate Modern, London, which will continue to May 6 2019.
From October 2018 to January 2019, she curated a show on French symbolist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) for the Glyptotek, and a show which runs until April 7 2019 on Gauguin for the de Young Museum of San Francisco). In 2016 she curated Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau in collaboration with Getty for both the Glyptotek and the Los Angeles institution.
She curated two shows about Gaugin: in 2016 Gauguin’s Worlds at the Glyptotek, and a year earlier at Museo delle Culture, Milan, with colleague Flemming Friborg Gauguin: Racconti dal Paradiso. In 2015, she was involved in Man Ray. Human Equations, which was organised by the Phillips Collection, Washington DC and Israel Museum of Jerusalem, with the Glyptotek.