Ripple Effects

Many questions have emerged after an artistic action against a plaster cast of Frederik V at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts made a big splash on the Danish art scene.

Statue of King Christian IX of Denmark at its current placement in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Photo: Martin Lie, Trondheim, Norway.

On Thursday 12 November 2020, the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee of the US Virgin Islands unanimously supported a proposed bill to remove the bronze bust of Danish King Christian IX (1818–1906) from its plinth in the centre of Emancipation Garden in the town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.

After many years of debate, it appears that the royal portrait will give way to Freedom (1998) by the Ghanaian sculptor Bright Bimpong. Depicting a Black man blowing a conch shell while raising his arm with a cane knife, the bronze sculpture was first erected on the outskirts of the small memorial park in connection with the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies colony on 3 July 1848.

Even though the park changed its name from Frederik’s Park to the Emancipation Garden in 1998, the bust of Christian IX remained enthroned in the centre of the gardens, a site where auctions of enslaved Africans were formerly held. As St. Thomas-based historian and community activist Michael Vante put it in the petition he started in 2019 to move the bust: “Of all the places this relic of the past could sit, it is troubling at best and sinister at worst, that the bust of King Christian IX casts the longest shadow in Emancipation Garden. When the sons and daughters of our diaspora are looking up in a park dedicated to their freedom, it is not their reflection they see towering above them but the face of their oppressor.”

Although slavery was officially abolished when Christian IX was crowned in 1863, he ruled Denmark during the great workers’ uprising in 1878 at St. Croix – often referred to as Fireburn – where Afro-Caribbean plantation workers rose up in protest against their slave-like working conditions. The bronze bust of Christian IX, cast after sculptor Vilhelm Bissen’s (1836–1913) marble bust from 1897, was installed three years after the king’s death, and at its unveiling in 1909 it became the first official memorial on the islands. 

The fact that Christian IX, who had never visited the colony himself, was celebrated in such a historically significant place in Charlotte Amalie says something about the symbolic political function of the royal portrait in Denmark’s transatlantic empire. As Vante stated to the St. Thomas Source, the desire to move the bust is not about “rejecting” Danish history, but rather about “correcting a historical narrative that centres a Danish king, and instead refocusing on and celebrating the narrative of our people’s role in the liberation and expansion of our Virgin Islands story.”

In Denmark, too, activists have recently tried to address and problematise a historical narrative by removing a bust of a Danish king. On 6 November, a group called Anonyme Billedkunstnere (Artists Anonymous) posted a video on the website I Do Art showing a plaster bust of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ founder, King Frederik V, being dismantled from its base in the academy’s Assembly Hall and thrown into the waters of the Copenhagen harbour, just opposite the place where another edition of Bimpong’s Freedom was recently erected.

In 2019 Bright Bimpongs Freedom was permanently placed in front of Eigtveds Pakhus at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. The sculpture was created in 1998 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and a gift to Denmark from the Virgin Islands. Photo: The Royal Library.

In the accompanying text, the activists explain that they threw the bust into the water “in solidarity with all the artists, students, and people all over the world who have had to live with the aftermath of Danish colonialism in the US Virgin Islands, India, Ghana, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark.”

The artist behind the bust of Frederik V, Jacques François Joseph Saly (1717–76), came to Denmark to make an equestrian statue of Frederik V, paid for by Asiatisk Kompagni (Danish Asiatic Company). But he was also appointed director of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts shortly after its official inauguration on Frederik V’s birthday, 31 March 1754. The activists’ choice of hurling this particular plaster bust into the water was motivated by a desire to “articulate the ways in which the colonial era is invisible, but still has direct consequences for minority people inside and outside the academy.” Hence, the action’s stated objective was to get the art world to start a conversation on these matters and to take “responsibility, not only for the actions of the past, but for the ways in which colonialism is still active today.” 

Judging by the enormous media attention it attracted in Denmark, one of the action’s intentions – to start a conversation – can certainly be said to have been realised. However, questions remain: Who has been heard? What types of conversation did the action engender in the public? The spectacular action soon caught the attention of Danish politicians, ministers, museum directors, art historians, historians, journalists, editors-in-chief, and artists who did not shy away from commenting on – and primarily condemning – the action in the media.

The media storm grew in fury after the head of the Institute for Art, Writing, and Research at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, took full responsibility for the action, which she described as an “artistic happening.” The subsequent discussion has been characterised by extreme rapidity, vehemence, and ferocity, greatly fuelled by the many hyperbolic parallels made between the destruction of the plaster bust and terrorist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the ancient city of Palmyra, respectively.

While the action has been criticised for importing American problems and strategies into a Danish context, pundits have not shied away from bringing in rhetorical ammunition from the American right wing in their harsh attacks on the action. In an editorial published on 15 November in the newspaper Berlingske, for example, Editor-in-Chief Tom Jensen described the action as an expression of an “extremist takeover [of the Academy of Fine Arts] rooted in the intolerant thinking of identity politics,” and suggested that a “vandal” like Dirckinck-Holmfeld ought to be “subjected to the following power structures: police, handcuffs, judge, and prison.”

Indeed, Academy Rector Kirsten Langkilde has barred Dirckinck-Holmfeld from the academy and suspended her from her job. And after multiple people, including the right-wing Danish People’s Party’s Morten Messerschmidt, reported the incident to the police, an investigation into the action has been launched under the category “gross vandalism,” which carries a sentence of up to six years in prison. In addition, the action has prompted Danish Minister for Culture Joy Mogensen to launch an independent investigation into the teaching, study environment, and organisational structure at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

It is too soon to say what actual impact the action will have on our understanding of Denmark’s colonial past or on the future of art education. After a month of discussion and debate, the bust affair has, regrettably, not yet managed to shift the focus away from Danish perspectives and narratives. The translocation of the bust of Christian IX on St. Thomas has, for instance, received little media attention in Denmark, even though this particular case adds important nuances to the discussion of the function of royal portraits in the transnational colonial memory culture. When politicians, museum directors, and others describe the action at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts as an attempt to “erase history,” with a capital H, it is important to take note of Vante’s reminder that a bust can never carry a collective history, but should rather be understood as a tool within the politics of memory.

Portrait of Frederik V (1723-1766) af Jacques-François-Joseph Saly, original from 1754. The destroyed plaster copy is of a more recent date, created sometime after 1950. Research by Emma Salling for the collection of Akademiraadet. Photo: Frida Gregersen.

A major paradox in the case of the bust of Frederik V is that it is the activists’ destruction of the piece can be said to have given this specific plaster copy a place in history. The plaster cast, which has perched on a pedestal in a niche at the back of the Academy’s Assembly Hall since the venue underwent its last extensive renovation several decades ago, has more than anything else been seen as an integral part of the architecture. And, tellingly, no-one knew for sure how old the bust actually was when losses had to be reckoned following its watery demise.

In the media, the bust was dramatically proclaimed to be an invaluable and original preliminary work for Saly’s equestrian sculpture of Frederik V. Even the Akademiraadet, which is responsible for the bust, stated in a press release shortly after the action that the piece was of particularly high value, most recently estimated by the auctioneers Bruun Rasmussen to be worth approximately DKK 200,000 (EUR 27,000). Subsequently, however, the owners had to withdraw this claim when it emerged that archival and material studies identified this specific bust as being of more recent date, created sometime after 1950.

The fact that even Akademiraadet itself was not aware of the work’s provenance or value is poignantly indicative of the low or non-existent status that traditional plaster casts have had in art history in recent years; being reproducible copies of copies, they have long occupied the outer margins of the art institution’s concept a proper work of art. Ironically, the action has contributed to producing new knowledge about the many versions that exist of Saly’s bust in various materials and castings, ensuring that an unremarkable 70-year-old plaster version has been firmly inscribed in Danish art history once and for all.

When the bust was installed in the Academy’s Assembly Hall, its main function was to represent the presence of the institution’s founder. In short, it had a symbolic political function. As has been pointed out by Merete Jankowski here in Kunstkritikk, that function is reactivated each year in the annual celebration held on the academy’s founding day, when Queen Margrethe visits the academy and hands out medals. If we are to understand the strong reactions prompted by the action against this 70-year-old plaster cast, the destruction of the bust cannot simply be discounted as an act of banal vandalism or an attack on Danish (art) history. Such perspectives obscure and disrupt understanding of the political and symbolic dimensions of the attack on the royal portrait, and not least why the reactions have been so intense and emotional.

In the headline of its official announcement of the action, Anonyme Billedkunstnere specifically states that “The founder of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has been thrown into the harbour” – not a plaster cast or a work of art, but Frederik V himself. The video shows the assault on the ‘king’, who has a black bag pulled down over ‘his’ head before being carried off and tipped into the water. Acting as judge and executioner in one, Anonyme Billedkunstnere brought about this symbolic dethroning without trial. The action’s violent iconography has been central to various critics’ comparisons between Anonyme Billedkunstnere and the Taliban and ISIS.

Still from the action by Anonyme Billedkunstnere, published by Idoart.

Historically, however, the bust action can be more accurately said to inscribe itself in the tradition of the deliberate destruction of portraits, which can be traced back to an ancient Roman practice popularly known as Damnatio Memoriaethat involved destroying, mutilating, or reworking portraits of Roman emperors and other politically and socially important people. What can be learned from these past treatments? We create sculptural portraits, live with them, move them, and, yes, destroy them, and this can, in turn, help us gain insight into the various upheavals that have shaped our shared past and present. All we need to do is visit the current special exhibition Face to Face. Thorvaldsen and Portraiture at Thorvaldsen’s Museum in Copenhagen, which specifically deals with the sculptural portrait, in order to understand how intimately entangled our political stories are with this three-dimensional medium.

The fact that sculptures and monuments are subject of both iconoclastic actions and intense media debates these days should call forth more general reflections on the function that images occupy in public space. In the book The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet (University of Chicago Press, 2020), scholar of art and religion Aaron Tugendhaft argues precisely for the importance of understanding public space as a space of political images that must reflect the plurality of society: “To be free citizens, we need to think about how our political images arose, why they were chosen, and what they leave out.”

More than anything, the bust action demonstrates the need for developing more fruitful forms and formats for discussing whether and how new and old public monuments can reflect present-day society. Such a discussion cannot be reduced to a question of which new statues ought to be erected and who or what they should represent; it must also address how and why statues might be removed. In Berlin, for example, a historic building has been dedicated to housing problematic historical monuments that are no longer deemed suitable for public space: at the Zitadelle Museum, decommissioned monuments are not exhibited on elevated plinths, but quite literally placed at eye level, and visitors are invited to approach the sculptures in a hands-on manner, as artefacts that tell stories of power.

Denmark has ample opportunities for establishing something similar. Just think of the Lapidarium of Kings in the Christian IV Brewhouse in Copenhagen: a unique collection of close to four hundred sculptures made for the Danish kings in the 17th and 18th centuries – not least from the reign of Frederik V – which have, for various reasons, been taken down from their pedestals in public parks, squares, and castles and placed in a kind of ‘retirement home’ for sculptures with very limited visitation rights. Another example is the Royal Cast Collection in the West India Warehouse in Copenhagen: home to several thousand plaster casts, including a 1926 plaster bust of Frederik V identical to the one recently thrown into the harbour. Today, however, both of these collections are effectively closed to the public as a direct result of the economic cutbacks that successive governments have imposed on art institutions in Denmark for a number of years.

Securing the preservation of art and cultural heritage requires financial investment. Similarly, there needs to be political openness to developing and securing public platforms that can inform and qualify the much-overdue historical-political debates. The dumping of the plaster cast of Frederik V has, if anything, shown that the general public cares about these types of issues. Instead of using this media attention to create even deeper rifts and divisions, Danish politicians could put their recently declared love of plaster casts and sculptural portraits to use by investing in institutions and initiatives that take cultural heritage sufficiently seriously to allow room for uncomfortable, unpleasant, and problematic stories. There is a need for platforms that can lift conversations about art and colonial history out of the national battlefield, and work to accommodate transoceanic discussions about the ripple effects of colonialism, not just in Copenhagen, but also across sites such as Charlotte Amalie, Nuuk, Accra, or Tharangambadi.

Mathias Danbolt is Associate Professor of Art History at Copenhagen University, and leader of the collective research project “The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories” (Carlsberg Foundation, 2019-2022). Amalie Skovmøller is a classical archeologist and was a postdoc in the research project “Powerful Presences: The Sculptural Portrait between Presence and Absence, Individual and Mass” (Velux-fondet, 2017-2020). Together, Danbolt and Skovmøller are in the process of developing  research with the working title “Moving Monuments: The Material Afterlife of Sculpture from the Danish Colonial Era.”