Date of Degree

2-2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

Emily Braun

Subject Categories

History | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Other History

Keywords

avant-garde, collective, Denmark, Helhesten, modernism, occupation

Abstract

This dissertation examines the avant-garde Danish artists' collective Helhesten (The Hell-Horse), which was active from 1941 to 1944 in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen and undertook cultural resistance during the war. The main claim of this study is that Helhesten was an original and fully established avant-garde before the artists formed the more internationally focused Cobra group, and that the collective's development of sophisticated socio-political engagement and new kinds of countercultural strategies prefigured those of postwar art groups such as Fluxus and the Situationist International. The group and its eponymous journal involved the Danish modernists Asger Jorn, Ejler Bille, Henry Heerup, Egill Jacobsen, and Carl-Henning Pedersen, as well as anthropologists, archeologists, psychologists, and scientists. Helhesten's twelve issues from April 1941 to November 1944 featured essays on art theory, non-Western artifacts, literature, poetry, film, architecture, and photography, together with exhibition reviews and profiles of contemporary Danish artists. The group appropriated certain stylistic traits from German Expressionism, Dada, and Surrealism. Yet rather than partaking in a retrograde modernist nostalgia, the Helhesten artists radically reformulated the tactics of these movements into what they called a "living art," or "new realism," which emphasized subjectivity, indeterminacy, and a fundamental anti-essentialism that rejected the Nazi obsession with purity as much as it did the prescriptive manifestos of the historical avant-gardes. What emerged was purposefully unskilled, brightly colored painterly abstraction and naïve styles that were humorous and disarmingly child-like on the surface but trenchant and sophisticated underneath. Helhesten consciously challenged Nazi racist propaganda and its conception of Volk, caricatured the idealized Aryan body, defied Hitler's attempts to assert a common Nordic heritage, and critiqued the National Socialist obsession with historical continuity and order. Moreover, as a fundamental link between pre- and postwar vanguard art movements, Helhesten's living aesthetic celebrated quotidian existence through play, disruption, and heightened awareness in a manner that presaged the postwar avant-garde's engagement with everyday life.

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