Art, Border and Boundaries II

Art, Borders and Boundaries II

Session chair:

Anna Dahlgren, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Department of Art History Stockholm University, Sweden

[email protected]


Reflecting Boundaries: The Late Works of J.F. Willumsen

Anne Gregersen. Ph.d.-student.

Department of Arts and Cultural Studies. University of Copenhagen, Denmark

[email protected]

The late works of Danish artist J.F. Willumsen (1863-1958) have occupied an isolated position in his oeuvre and have been difficult to place in an art-historical narrative of 20th-century art in which “isms” progressively replace each other. From the 1930s and onwards the works depart from a host of modernist dogmas that were established around the time of their genesis: By virtue of their insistence on the figurative, the late works break with the understanding of abstraction as modernist art par excellence. With their mixture of styles, they question the division of art in well-defined categories. Relating in part to a classical tradition, and in part being reminiscent of the style seen in commercials and magazine illustrations of their time they destabilize the distinction between fine culture and popular culture.

A historiographical investigation of the reception of the late works as found in exhibition reviews, articles on Willumsen and art history books from the 1930s and onwards give a picture of how and why the works have been so difficult to digest. Not only have they been rejected as works of poor quality, but they were viewed as bizarre, mannered, poster-like and extreme – and for these reasons either embarrassing or interesting depending on the eyes of the beholder.

By overstepping established boundaries for what good modern art might be, Willumsen’s late works function as mirrors reflecting our conventions and norms of good taste, artistic quality and canon by being just not that. They tell us something about the definitions of high quality modern art and point out borders, which cannot be crossed without causing controversy.

By taking a closer look at some of the above mentioned modernist dogmas and especially the distinction between fine art and popular culture – referred to by Andreas Huyssen as the “Great Divide” (Huyssen, After the Great Divide. Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, 1986, 7-10) – I would like to present some ideas that could lead to an explanation of the reasons for the late work’s contentious place in Danish art history while pointing out the modernist paradigm that to a large extent has canonized certain expressions of 20th century art while disregarding others. As Huyssen argues modernism can be said to establish itself by excluding mass culture, by which it fears to be contaminated. Hence the l’art pour l’art movements, which are first seen in symbolism, aestheticism and art nouveau and then again in abstract expressionism, which is canonised as the ultimate modernist art. The idea of l’art pour l’art – or in Greenberg’s case painting’s self-referentiality – is the battle for the autonomy of a work of art at a time when it has just ceased to exist. Even the historical avant-garde, which, according to Huyssen, “aimed at developing an alternative relationship between high art and mass culture and thus should be distinguished from modernism, which for the most part insisted on the inherent hostility between high and low” was absorbed by modernist high culture and eventually became synonymous with modernism and its high-low dichotomy.

Willumsen developed a figurative, affirmative and narrative painting at a time when the phenomenon of kitsch was being identified (i.e. Greenberg’s article “Avantgarde and Kitsch” published in the Partisan Review in 1939 and Asger Jorn’s “Intimate Banalities” published in the Danish journal Helhesten in 1941) and to a large extent paired with the figurative and the banal as seen in commercial art and in popular culture. The work seem to ignore the boundaries put up in defence towards mass culture and thereby offer an interesting possibility of examining these same boundaries.


The National and the Personal: on Landscape and Wildlife Photography and the Boundaries of High Art Photography

Cecilia Strandroth, Postdoctoral Researcher

Department of Art History, Uppsala University, Sweden

[email protected]

Almost everyone familiar with the canon of photo history will recognize names such as Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), Timothy O’Sullivan (1843-1942) and William Henry Jackson (ca 1840-1882), the great names of the 19th century tradition of American landscape photography. If these photographers worked for the great government-sponsored surveys of the Western United States or on commercial assignments, they were retrospectively written into the canon of High Art photography in the 20th century. Their work is reproduced in photo histories and exclusive artist’s monographs and collected by the great museums.

On the other hand, very few people outside the small circle of specialists and followers have probably heard of equally groundbreaking colleagues such as George Shiras III (1859-1942), Allen Grant Wallihan (1859-1935), or Richard (1862-1928) and Cherry Kearton (1871-1940). Contrary to O’Sullivan and the others, they focused their representation of American 19th century nature not on landscape, but on the animal life taking place within it. While memorialized by wildlife enthusiasts and the scientific community, their work has not become a part of photo history.

How could this difference be accounted for? It is not a matter of intent: neither landscape photographers nor wildlife photographers were part of any kind of artistic context. It could be a matter of association: while later American photographers such as Ansel Adams made the landscape genre a part of High Art photography, later wildlife photographers tied their work to a scientific discourse, or became associated with the reportage aesthetics of magazines such as National Geographic. Animal studies scholars like Steve Baker, on the other hand, might argue that the difference has something to do with the general disappearance of the animal in Modernist art (see Baker: The Postmodern Animal, 2000).

In this paper, however, I will argue for an additional explanation which, contrary to the above, might have bearing for the greater questions raised by this session, on the boundaries between the visual fine arts and instrumental imagery. The landscape photography of for instance O’Sullivan was produced on government-sponsored missions of national importance, and often represents sites which in themselves nowadays are regarded as American national treasures. Photographers such as George Shiras III had a more limited and personal set of objectives. Most early wildlife photographers were environmentally aware sport hunters, who regarded the camera a means to continue with their sport without endangering the population of many popular game species, which were at the verge of becoming extinct. Shooting the animal with the camera instead of the gun could produce the same experience of personal satisfaction, while allow the target to continue its life unharmed. While photographing landscape became a matter of national interest, photographing animals became a matter of a personal inner experience.

Could the almost total difference in reception between early landscape and wildlife photography, at least in part, be understood in terms of these differing incentives? And, if so, what relevance could this limited example hold for the greater questions of canon formation, in photo history and in the general art history? These are the questions my paper will raise.


Breaking up borders: Icelandic Fine Art Photography today

Sigrún Sigurðardóttir, Assistant Professor and Programme director

Iceland Academy of the Arts, Iceland

[email protected]

In my paper I would like to explain and analyse the situation of fine art photography in Iceland, its relation to tradition and history, to different fields of photography and to the predominant art scene in the country.  In this respect I will draw special attention to how Icelandic photographers work with concepts of memory and man’s relation to nature and look at their work, the discourse around them and how their works have been received by critics and media alike. I will explain how borders have been drawn and how they have been dissolved.

Even though fine art photography has been gaining more and more attention on the international art scene in the last decades the progress has been slow in Iceland. As a reaction to this, eight Icelandic fine art photographers who have been taking part in international projects and exhibitions in the last years founded The Icelandic Contemporary Photography Association (ICPA) in 2007. The aim of the Association is to create a forum for discussing and exploring the photographic medium as an art form. According to the members of ICPA, the reason for how problematic it has been to practice fine art photography in Iceland can be found in the limited understanding of the photograph as a medium and artistic form in Iceland. Too much weight has been placed on the documentary value of photography – resulting in a lack of reflection about what a photograph really is and what it can be. Since 2007 the ICPA has been very active in taking fine art photography to a new level and making it an ever more important part of the contemporary art scene in Iceland. Since 2007 its members have participated in numerous exhibitions and events at prominent venues, such as the Icelandic Museum of Photography, the Nordic House in Reykjavik and the Reykjavik Art Festival. Members of the ICPA have also held several private exhibitions at the National Gallery of Iceland (Pétur Thomsen and Ívar Brynjólfsson) and at the Reykjavík Art Museum (Katrín Elvarsdóttir) and lately members of the association took part in the group exhibition Frontiers of Another Nature in Frankfurt, Germany.

What one notices when exploring the careers of the founding members of ICPA is their different background and the different ways in which they have been entering or not entering the Icelandic art scene in recent years. Four of the photographers in the group, i.e. half of them, studied photography in art schools in the U.S. while the other half gained their education and experience as photographic artists on the European continent. This has obviously brought both a certain degree of variety as well as several strong common elements which reflect the international photographic art scene.

In 2008 I worked with the ICPA on a project entitled Reflection, which resulted in an exhibition at the National Museum of Iceland and a book featuring the founders’ works, which included a philosophical text on the works and detailed interviews I conducted with the artists. The aim of this project was to encourage people to reflect on the photograph as an art form and as a medium that can be used to deconstruct and reconstruct inner and outer reality. In 2009 I was curator for an exhibition on contemporary photography in Iceland at the LÁ Art Museum. The exhibition was entitled Flash at a Moment of Danger with reference to Walter Benjamin’s writings on dialectical images and memories and attempts to regain moments and perceptions from the past. With the exhibition I wanted to stress how fragments of reality which are likely to awaken those lived experiences which reside inside us, and which we are unable to put into words, come to life in the work of the participating photographers. In the last two years I have been working intensively with different members of the ICPA, especially with Katrín Elvarsdóttir, Pétur Thomsen and Charlotta Hauksdóttir for their exhibitions at the Reykjavík Art Museum, The National Museum of Iceland, Akureyri Art Museum and Reykjavík Museum of Photography. In my lecture I will draw special attention to these artists and their work on memory and how their work addresses contemporary discourse dealing with the boundaries separating reality from what lies beyond it, with the artificial and the real world, with the individual, the human being and culture in its opposition to nature. From this perspective I will analyse how members of the ICPA have been breaking up borders on the Icelandic art scene.


Benign and malign graffiti

Jacob Kimvall, PhD student

Department of Art History, Stockholm University, Sweden

[email protected]

The Crack Is Wack Playground is a small park along the Harlem River Drive in New York City. It earned its name after a graffiti mural painted, without permission, by Keith Haring in 1986. The mural was a message of awareness to the acute problems of the so-called crack epidemic circa 1985-1993. The name is consecrated and the official website of New York City tells the history of both the park and its name. The painting has thus transformed from a crime committed in the park to a landmarked painting naming the entire park. This is most likely a unique transformation, but then again Haring is often described as a unique talent among the graffitists. In art historical surveys he is commonly one of few graffiti artists with a biography. The New York City website ( [2012-01-15]) explains his artistic path as following:

In 1978, Haring came to New York with a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. The graffiti he saw throughout the city immediately appealed to Haring’s artistic sense of spontaneity and the possibilities for political messages. Haring began using building facades and subway walls as canvases for his own graffiti art. Most of his subway graffiti was benign, as it was done in white chalk on the blank black background of unused advertising panels.

The use of the word benign here is interesting. Apart from indirectly placing graffiti both within the realm of art and of illness, it indicates that there might be a difference between Haring’s graffiti and another opposite type – malign graffiti – assumingly the graffiti that inspired him.

However, within the New York graffiti subculture and the popular literature describing it Haring seems to be considered as an outsider, and at times even completely omitted. Within the context of this subculture the most prestigious artists are considered as style masters and Haring referred to as an artist without style.

The paper will be an attempt that from the case of the Crack Is Wack Playground map out the different notions regarding graffiti as benign and malign, bordering both art and crime, of style within contemporary fine arts and graffiti subculture. Of interest are also the possibilities of writing both academic and popular art history that seek to describe the different circumstances regarding Keith Haring’s art and the art of style masters such as Dondi, Part One and Noc 167 without constructing them as oppositions: either good/bad, present/missing or superior/inferior.