Kobke at the National Gallery

The National Gallery’s idiosyncrasies of programming grow wilder by the year, yet occasionally yield riches that compensate for the ineptitudes. Such is the case with this spring’s twin shows – the comically awful Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey is offset by the sparkling revelation of Christen Kobke: Danish Master of Light.

Denmark’s greatest painter has never had a solo exhibition outside his native country, and here at last takes his place among the European masters of the early 19th century – negotiating naturalism and romanticism in paintings that recall now Constable, now Caspar David Friedrich, yet always are coloured with a particularly Danish sensibility that makes them fresh and distinctive. His is a bravura act, sensitively distilled in this retrospective of some 50 paintings.

Kobke’s genius, like that of his famous contemporary Hans Christian Andersen, was to scale expressive heights while working in a minor key. Characterised by acutely clear rendering of light and delicately controlled colour harmonies, his signature work, “View of a Street in Osterbro outside Copenhagen”, depicts the traffic of carriages, an elegant family on a morning walk and fishwives en route to market in his home city. The monumental effect comes from a contrast between the sun’s rays falling across the broad street, striking the water pump and the poplars between the houses, and the variously toned grey clouds and sky that dominate the picture, balancing the familiarity of the scene with a sense of looming fate.

Kobke, son of the master baker to the Citadel, a self-contained community of soldiers and their families that had its own church, mill, bakery and blacksmith, left Copenhagen only once in his life, to visit Italy. He was born in 1810, just after Nelson had sacked the Danish fleet and plunged the country into military defeat, bankruptcy and an absolutist regime. Denmark’s international position never recovered, and Kobke grew up as the dynamism of public life was diverted from politics into a golden age of art, music and literature focused on everyday pleasures and the minutiae of domestic life. “View Outside the North Gate of the Citadel” illustrates his ability to invest the simplest corner of town or country with charm and truth to nature: the brick and iron structures are carefully delineated, their shadows precisely realised, a few figures, one severely cropped, give spontaneity and immediacy, with a casual note struck by the unkempt long grasses beginning to cover fortifications that, after Denmark’s humiliations, no longer had strategic importance.

“View from the Loft of the Grain Store” is as apparently artless but preparatory drawings reveal an intricate underpinning to this harmony of light and shade. The dim high interior, affording a vista over the countryside, is infiltrated with sunshine, which also seeps through the boughs of the massed dark trees. Strolling towards us comes Kobke’s sister, her coral dress warming the earth tones, her presence emphasising family, community, a beloved topography, as the animation of Kobke’s art. The Citadel was his world in microcosm, and within it the plays of mood, light, painterly texture – gentle evening glow in “Northern Drawbridge to the Citadel”, calm summer daylight in the glassy, smoothly finished “View from the Citadel Ramparts across the Moat and Langelinie” – evoke something of the affectionate variety, vernacular diction and authenticity in Constable’s Stour valley paintings.

But where Constable’s theme is nature versus modernity and progress in rapidly changing Britain, Kobke, working in a country not yet industrialised, suggests no such conflicts. Instead, his backcloth is northern European romanticism, with the thunder of his predecessors – the German Friedrich and the Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl, both trained in Copenhagen – tamed in his hands to more muted, unassuming Danish tones. “Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light”, his peak of nationalist romantic fervour, shifts between solid assertion, twilight introspection and a shiver of instability in the red fortress’s trembling watery reflections.

The massive “Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle with View of Lake, Town and Forest” is audaciously composed of three-quarters sky, with horizontal lines of fields, lake, roofs punctuated by the shooting verticals of the castle’s towers and chimney. Yet more eccentric is “One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle”, for which Kobke crawled on to the roof to paint the spires. The truncated architectural view gives the fragmentary parts of the building startling presence, the daring angles of vision making the ordinary remarkable. Beneath the tower, across a toytown bathed in soft diffuse light, a stork soars, its companion on the chimney pot remains still: time forever arrested.

Two of the most famous lines in Danish golden age poetry are Ludvig Bodtcher’s “Fresh as a glass of water is the morning air” and Christian Winther’s “From the dread abyss I turn my gaze”. Kobke crystallises that spirit in paint, in a bright, airy, ever-youthful style that claims the world as pristine and new. “View of the Plaster Cast Collection at Charlottenberg” alludes to the neoclassical leanings of his teacher Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, but addresses antiquity in everyday terms: the work’s energy derives from the figure of the black-coated young man leaning forward clumsily, intently, to examine the sculpture, injecting the classical ideal with warmth and life.

Direct, informal likenesses of family and friends have a similar awkward enthusiasm: a self-portrait as ruddy, honest baker’s son; ardent, venerating depictions of his down-to-earth, busy parents. Outstanding here is “Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring”: a skilful, abruptly cropped composition that realises with tremendous sincerity the presence of pink-cheeked young Sodring, slouching but self-composed, palette knife in hand, engaging the viewer with a candid glance as he looks up from his work. Sodring’s gaze draws us into his dishevelled atelier: details of brocaded silk waistcoat, striped shirt, black velvet collar; a meticulous still-life of plant and books on the mahogany table that includes a bright red box, the only point of pure colour in the cool ensemble; sketches tacked to panelled doors; an oval mirror reflecting easel and frame.

It is a classic studio picture and also an insight into Denmark’s final days in a corner of pre-industrial, peaceful Europe. Into this enclosed, intimate space, however, the wider world penetrates via a flood of white northern light, entering from an unseen high window. The effect is luminous, transcendent, but also casts a series of overlapping shadows – just threatening the serenity of a cultural epoch that would not outlast Kobke. His death at 37 in February 1848 cut off a major talent and was also symbolic: the same month revolution broke out in Europe, dragging Denmark into war again and instantly ending its golden age.

‘Christen Kobke: Danish Master of Light’, National Gallery, London, to June 13; www.nationalgallery.org.uk
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, July 4-October 3

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