Hans Christian Andersen and the Image
The intimate knowledge and confidence, many of us have with Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, is to a large extent due to the pictures that an infinite number of illustrators have attached to the texts. This circumstance, the attraction towards actual visualization for those who have the skills, emphazises the fact that Andersen first and for all was a man of the eye, with a formidable ability to generate images through words. Already in the book Skyggebilleder from 1831, which describes the poet's meeting with Germany, Andersen cultivates a pittoresque style:
From a site in the garden, that streched towards a part of the Ocker river, one would find one of the most friendly landscapes imaginable.
It was a bleachpond, a large meadow, yellow of flowers; somewhat distant were archaic spots between beaches and tall poplars, and in the horizon rose Harzen with Brocken heaving as a grey thundercloud between the rest of the sunlit cloudmountains, - it was a complete painting! In the mountains, one only has foreground without background, and in the plains the opposite, foreground, yes, but no background; here were both, as one would wish.
So the poet should do as the painter: describe reality as was it a painting with foreground, background, perspective, and so forth:
One finds plains and mountains, cities and images of phantasy, little pieces, quickly drawn with pen and ink. The poet doesn't yield to the painter!
The pittoresque in Andersen's early writings lives on in the faity tales in the sense, that "the seen" often nourishes the creation of the tale. The story becomes a version - an interpretation, so to speak - of an image. As an example, one could mention the story "Psyken" ("The Psyche") from 1861, on which Andersen comments:
An event from my first stay there (in Rome) 183334 came to my mind and gave me the first germ: A young nun was to be buried, they dug her grave, and found in it a magnificent statue of Bacchus.
The image from which the tale emerges, is this burial - seen as a symbol: from the grave arises the statue. That is the basic image of the tale, its myth, one could say: The untried love (the nun) versus the transformed eroticism (the work of art). From this complex arises Andersen's story about the artist as a tormented creature on the edge of society, without any contact with ordinary life in a socialerotic sense of the term; and conseqently it becomes the story about confusing art with reality. One could go a step further, claiming that the nun not only represents untried love, but rejected or suppressed eroticism, enevitably producing its "contra-image" - the unrestrained sensualism: Bacchus. And thus configurating a "creative paradox" of good and bad, voluptuous and sanctimonious, dionysian and apollonian; a creative paradox to which I shall return.
We find in Andersen's writing a lot of examples where the image is there before the story. The inspiration has a visual origin in pictures we might not fully understand or be conscious of. (An obvious example is of course Billedbog uden Billeder from 1840.)
These preliminary remarks aim at emphazising that Andersen's literary use of pictures is very far from a traditional illustrative purpose. His images are raw material, they are present before the story, before the "meaning".
Andersens Own Pictures
As is well known, Andersen also produced more traditional pictures. However, he never illustrated a single one of his own fairy tales. Suggestions have been made that Andersen's reluctance to do so was due to his recognition of his own artistic limitations as far as drawing and painting is concerned. However, he left about 70 pencil drawings, 250 pen & ink drawings, and more than 1500 paper cuttings, collages and inkspot creations. Rather than accepting that Andersens selfcriticism should have caused him to find the drawings inept (which is very unlikely considering the eagerness Andersen performed in showing his works to professional artist's), it might be interesting to investigate further what Andersen's works of art actually were used for. For that purpose it is expedient to divide Andersens pictures into two categories: 1) the pen & ink drawings from his travels, and 2) the paper cuttings, pencil drawings, collages, etc.
Whereever Andersen went, it was material for him to record and denote the surroundings he was confronted with. This was done partly in his travel journals and partly in the pen & ink drawings he continously produced while travelling. In his journals, the drawings often join the handwriting in the most beautiful way to produce a total graphic statement of great expression (fig.1). The drawings of course disclose that
Andersen was not a skilled draughtsman: the perspective is incorrect, the proportions aren't reliable, etc., but those are all "faults" that don't annoy the eyes of the beholder of the 20th century. So a modern view may reveal qualities of the drawings that Andersen's contemporaries had no presuppositions to recognize. It is in such a modern framework that the painter Kjeld Heltoft says in his book about H. C. Andersen as an artist:
I wonder if not an artist like van Gogh, who was 22 years old when Andersen died, would have loved to see the drawings.
In many respects, it may be difficult to know what van Gogh "would have loved", and I find it extremely important not to state a "Kunstwollen" from misrepresentations in the pictures that at least partly have their origin in lack of mere draughtsmanship.
The comparisons of Andersen's pen & ink drawings with van Gogh's art have almost become convention in works on Andersen's pictures. Hans Edvard NørregårdNielsen says in Jeg saae det Land that many of Andersen's drawings have a fullness in expression which anticipates that of the great dutchman, and the most recent book on Andersen's pen & ink drawings, published in connection with the wonderful exhibition at Fyens Stiftsmuseum (1996), quotes some of van Gogh's letters in which he states his love of Andersens fairy tales, and thereby the book draws vague and subtle lines from Andersen to early modernism. However, none of the books take the trouble of showing Andersen's drawings together with van Gogh's, and thus pleading for a connection in the most obvious way.
If we compare drawings by the two (fig. 2 & 3), we do find a resemblance, but of what nature is that? Well, it is striking that both of the shadowless and delicate drawings have an allmost "cartographic" expression. Through various signs (lines, dots, etc.) and stylized representations of vegetation, both artists state the varying nature of the landscape - allmost comparable with symbols on a map. This scanty, highly disciplined way of drawing has been essential to van Gogh as well as to Andersen in order to recall what the landscape actually looked like. In order to seal the vision they both had to desist from goldenage virtues like temporality and imitation in their pictures, and raise their immediate impression to a symbolic level. But for neither this was the aim; it was merely the means; a mechanical gathering of raw material, the snapshot of the 19th century. With his small drawn notes Andersen was able to write his pittoresque descriptions of city and landscapes in books such as Skyggebilleder and Improvisatoren.
Andersen's pen & ink drawings are alike in their stringency and
stylization, and it is not pretencious to use the term "style" in connection with them. An obvious denomination of that style would be "naivism", not in a child-like sense of the term, but understood as an unschooled, uncensored desire to record. Consequently, Andersen (indirectly and not intended) points at his origin in the lowest part of society. A wellbred, civil education included draughtsmanship and a highly developed selfcriticism and biedermeiermodesty, properties that never penetrated Andersen's pictures, which owe a great deal of their charm to the untroubled excess of the amateur.
The same approach towards a faithful portraying of the surroundings in pictures may be found in one of the bogeys of the underprivileged in Andersen's time: Ole Pedersen Kollerød. Ole Kollerød, who was executed for murder a hundred and fifty years ago, wrote, during his stay in prison, awaiting the enevitable decapitation, the story of his life: My Story about the unfortunate faith, that has pursued me since my 6th year (first published in 1978) is a shocking document, affording a view of the inhumane conditions under which the bottom of society had to live in the first part of the 19th century. Apart from the valuable content, My Story is interesting because it offers an insight in to how the uneducated experienced existence. Though Ole Kollerød only attended school for one year, he managed to write more than 200 folio-pages (of course with an ortography that is very much his own, but again valuable, because it brings to life the zealandic dialect of Kollerød's time and class). The narration is remarkably vivid, depicting Kollerød's tragic life with a closeness to experience and a directness that still today catches the reader, probably because Kollerød speaks to us from a "precultivated" reality - free of manners and breeding. Particularly fresh for a presentday reader seem his encounters with sexuality and his ideas of instinctive justice, probably because accounts of these subjects in Ole Kollerød's time would normally undergo a drastic transformation before being printed, stripped of bodily references and neatly dressed up in allegorical clothing.
In the same spirit, Ole Kollerød has illustrated his story with drawings, which, with the words of Jutta BojsenMøller and Annette Rosenlund (the editors of the book):
bear witness of a tremendous memory and intense ability to observe. When people appear in the drawings, they are typified, often with the face seen in profile and the body in a frontal position, just as in the ancient Egyptian pictures. As in the text he often uses parataxis, he in the same way connects one pictorial element to another according to an additive principle. Each object in the picture has equal importance and is subject to the same careful and detailed treatment. The symmetry of the pictures and their lack of perspective give them an extreme character of sheet without the effect of depth.
Andersen's and Kollerød's at the same time finical and stylized way of drawing (fig. 4 & 5) could very well owe their resemblance to a common origin: a vital tradition in the lowest part of society for valuing the
ability to observe and memorize higher than that of illusion and virtuosity. That way of drawing was ideal for Andersen's drawn notes.
The drawings from H. C. Andersen's journeys are fundamentally different from the rest of his pictures, in which any loyalty to the external world is absent. Fig. 6 shows one of Andersen's pencil drawings from a
booklet made to Otto Christian Zinck, son of the singing teacher at the Royal Theatre Ludvig Zinck, whom Andersen frequently visited in the years 183033. One has to be careful not to overinterprete the drawing, but with Andersen's stories in mind - especially the dominating aspect of transformation, the wish to become something else - one can easily recognize the author of "The Little Mermaid" in the picture. The desire towards unity, wholeness, identity can be read from the kaleidoscopic gallery of figures hiding in the frozen face. And that the liberation of the bound potentials in your character depend upon suffering - another basic presumption in Andersen's universe - that is also implied by the gloomy face.
The next picture (fig. 7), Kjeld Heltoft calls a Paul Kleelike
mystery. What he means by that, he doesn't tell us, but if we compare with
Paul Klee's drawing to the ship's star of bad fortune ("Zeichnung zum Un-
stern der Schiffe", 1917; fig. 8) - we notice that Andersen's drawing resembles that of the Swiss artist in the way it profites from the lack of linearity in pictorial language. Whereas the written story directs the
reader from one end to another, the components of the picture reaches the beholder simultaneously in a veritable bombardment. This polysemantic nature appeals to an irrational composition of the picture for the one who wishes to make a basic image yet to be interpreted. Even though the drawing by Andersen probably was created in connection with one particular tale to Otto Zinck - just as Klee's drawing, both pictures tempt the imaginative spectator to make up his own story.
Through these reflections we have reached the core of the category of pictures, I've opposed to the pen & ink drawings. These pictures don't illustrate a certain story or part of reality, they are their own story, their own reality.
The best of the paper cuttings are loaded with recognizable symbols and pictures, which apart from their highly decorative effect also establish an important poetical raw material. In Andersen's well-known cutting to Dorothea Melchior from 1874 (fig. 9), we see an abundance of figures that reappear in his pictorial univers: the millman, the ballerina, the heart, the swan, Pierrot, the angel, the goblin, and so on. Interesting
are the less common images of the raven and the scull. Of course these deathsymbols can be connected to Andersen's high age, when he made the cutting, but in this particular piece, where the symbols are contrasted by the vivid expressions of the dancing ballerinas and of the courting swans, the overall expression becomes more generel. It is emphasized that life and death cannot be separated, that we die from living, and - who knows - live from dying; the myth of the bird Phenix is very much present here. The point might seem obvious and banal, but if we consider the importance of the complementarity of life and death in tales like "The Last Dream of the Old Oak Tree", "LuckyPeter", "The Ice Maiden", "The Bird Phenix", part of The Improvisatore and many others, it is nevertheless a relevant remark to make regarding this paper cutting.
Also from Andersen's last years is "The Big Shield", one of the most interesting works of art he ever made. The urge to make the shield, came from the countess Wanda Danneskiold, who gave him a similar shield of which he writes in his diary, March 1873:
With colored pictures on the one side and uncolored on the other, cut out, intricately glued to one another, appearing to be one single picture and still endless in amount, they superposed like a strange dream, everything organized with taste and imagination, I was extremely pleased with this present.
The present inspired Andersen to compose his own "strange dream" with engravings and xylographies from illustrated periodicals and photographs, he had from the royal photographer Hansen.
The shield is divided into eight fields, each concerning a particular part of the world or unfolding a specific theme. A crowd of famous persons and buildings are with a unique sense of proportions and balance brought together to pictorial suites, which could have headlines like "GermanyAustria", "Denmark", "England", "Childhood" and "Danes".
The most interesting compositions we find in the lowest parts of the shield; that is the place of jokers and fabelanimals (fig. 10) - one is tempted to call it the domain of subconsciousness.
In the 1930's the surrealistic artist Max Ernst made, what he
called "collage novels". Cuttings from late 18th century magazines - old
victorian engravings - were put together to form new pictures, which
opened for surprising associations. The untraditional formations of
traditional pictures should of course make up with the main enemies of
surrealism: bourgeois behavior, predictability, sexual taboos, rationalism, and so
on. According to the Freudian background of the surrealists, such
compositions were made to make the "Id" speak, and the collages of Max Ernst
are crowded with nasty animals and other symbols of desire, all of them messengers of a suppressed world demanding to be integrated in reality along with the upholstered bourgeois environment (fig. 11). It is remarkable that Andersen sixty years before Max Ernst used a similar technique and related compositions, whose meaning and explanation lies in the dark areas of the mind. Of course, we shall not make Andersen a Freud before Freud, but his literature and pictures tell us, that he has been aware of - and used - the depths of personality, that were not acceptable in his days. The suppressed bogeys of personality have in our century been subject to an interest Andersen couldn't dream of. However, modern psychiatry is relevant in this context, because it has used pictures as diagnostical tool. In 1921 the Swiss Hermann Rorschach introduced
famous inkspots as method of making up the mental state of his psychiatrical patients.
The Rorschachtest is a projective method, inspired by Freud's ideas of projection as a defense mechanism, through which a person unconsciously guards himself against rejected material by imposing hidden wishes and emotions on other people. Rorschach developed Freud's the-
sis to a theory, claiming that human beings react on an abstract stimulus by projecting attitudes and blocks to their own interpretation of apparently meaningless pictures. Letting patients interpret ink-spots, splashed on a folded piece of paper, then unfolded, Rorschach tried to call forward deep traumas, causing neuroses.
If we look at some of Andersen's ink-spot drawings, they are interesting because he lets us know what he projected to them, by completing his vision with the pen. At the risk of sharing the faith of many rorschach analyzed by interpreting an inkdot, I do claim that Andersen has produced a child with a bishop's hat (fig. 12). By sketching chin, nose and hair, he visualizes a figur, which appears white and innocent on the dark vibrating background. It is essential to note that the childbishop doesn't appear in spite of the dark background, but because of it. The black circumjacent deamons define the innocent child, and without the demonic reflexion, the picture of the undepraved would desolve in nothing. So finally, we get a parallel to the initiating image of the nun and the statue. For Andersen, oppositions aren't contradictions, they are complementary elements, defining one another and each owing its existence to its contrast. The inkspot pictures are raw material in the purest form, and emphasizes that Andersen only illustrated, when he was afraid to forget. Otherwise it wasn't the picture's referential qualities, that caught him. He was obsessed with the picture as a basic image, undeprived material with a potential mythical truth. In that light it would seem absurd for Andersen to illustrate his own fairytales, to produce pictures to his own pictures so to speak; that he must - in the best case - have regarded as a waste of time.