H. C. Andersen Watching Art
"La pittura e una poesia che si vede e non si sente, e la
poesia e una pittura che si sente e non si vede."
(Leonardo da Vinci, in Trattato della pittura.)
H. C. Andersen was gifted with rare visual talents. In his Levnedsbog (Book of Life) he begins by stating, "The face of a person, whom I have seen and talked with only once, I will remember very clearly later on; I have a perfect capacity of mirroring". 1996, p. 19.)
All his poetical works were first composed in his mind's eye, and we know that initially the theatre, the literary genre closest to visual arts, attracted his interests. Already his father had built him a theatre with pictures, which could be changed by moving a thread. His father had also nourished his fantasy with A Thousand And One Nights, The Bible and the comedies of the DanishNorwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg. And after the father's premature death, his son went on playing theatre all alone.
In his earliest memoires, H. C. Andersen also describes how a casual theatre poster could inspire him to new dramatical activity and its complete miseenscene. He declares, "the postbearer, Peter Junker, gave me faithfully all the posters; yes, if the weather was bad I got a whole bundle, because he didn't want to run with them. I didn't know the plays written on them, but by beginning with the characters I created a content and then started to imagine how everyone should be dressed." (op.cit., p. 37.)
In the very beginning, H. C. Andersen only wanted to work in the theatre. And before he started his classical studies in Slagelse, he spent his youthful years at The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where he first hoped to make a career as a singer and later on as an actor, while in his spare time he often played with his puppet theatre. In Mit Livs Eventyr (The Fairy Tale of My Life) H. C. Andersen writes about that period: "Yes, I was then still so much a child and though I was sixteen years old, just as at home in Odense, I still played with dolls and puppet theatres made by myself; every day I was sewing clothes for my puppets, and in order to get coloured pieces of fabric for that use I went into the shops of Østergade and Købmagergade and asked if they could give me samples of materials and silk ribbons. My fantasy was so full of these puppet beauties that I often stood still in the street staring at the fine ladies, dressed in silk and velvet, while in my thoughts I was playing with the idea of making robes for kings, drags and clothes for knights out of their clothes. In my fantasy I saw all their arraying and beauties under my scissors; all that took several hours of thought exercising." (1951, p. 64.)
As a poet he first of all hoped to be a dramatical writer with plays like Agnete og Havmanden (Agnete and the Triton), Maurerpigen (The Mauretanian Girl) etc., but his plays failed to gain the success he had hoped for. His contemporaries judged them slovenly and carelessly worked through. He simply worked too fast, and he also was dyslexic.
But recently Tove Barfoed Møller in her thesis on Meer end Perler og Guld (More than Pearls and Gold) (1995), has demonstrated that H. C. Andersen, indeed, was made for the theatre. She points out his true flair for the theatre and its special needs. And she stresses his great importance for the Casino theatre in his later years, where he was a member of the board of directors as well as a regular playwright.
Through his whole life the poet was also a visual artist. And it was only natural that the theatre in its highest form attracted him, for it was just the place where he could fully unify his many talents, as well as his capacities for declamation and for singing, his literary gifts, his choreographic sense for every movement, his talent as a stage manager, with his highly evolved visionary sensitivity for costumes and props, the flair of an artist's eye for the pictorial unity of everything taking place on a stage.
H. C. Andersen's collaboration was often invited, but with his way of being different, it must often have been rather tense and exhausting for everybody involved. But he also knew how to change the situation, making himself the center of attention and all the others children. And then nobody was bored. As a young man it was mostly the puppet theatre that after dinner was put into action. But as he started to write, he often read aloud from poems, plays and fairy tales, or he communicated by drawing and paper cutting. As the good friend of children that he also was, he even produced several picturebooks for the children of his closest friends. They contained plenty of cuttings from the newspapers and reviews of the time, dockets, tickets and many other things, which like in a multicoloured collage were glued on sheets of paper, in order to be inserted into new contexts, and often with the addition of the poet's own drawings and some written comments in rhyme.
And then there were Andersen's own personal cuttings, of which some were inserted into the picturebooks, while others became small and independent pieces of art. Today we know of several of that sort, so imagining that many must have been ruined by the small and eager hands of children, or maybe simply thrown away by orderly people, - he must have spent a lot of time on that activity. For surely the artist also understood how to entertain and to give joy with his scissors. His paper cuttings are distinguished by the quick and sure movement that already with their outlines create equilibrium and elegance.
When we read the fairy tale "Den lille Idas Blomster" ("Little Ida's Flowers"), we can easily recognize the author himself in the young student who makes the small Ida dream. In the fairy tale "Gudfaders Billedbog" ("Godfather's Picturebook") however, we get a picture of the poet in the role of a Godfather: "Godfather could tell stories, so many and so long; he could cut pictures, and when Christmas was to come, he took a writingbook with clean white pages and on these he glued pictures taken out of books and newspapers, and if he didn't have enough for what he wanted to tell, he drew them himself." (V, p. 46.) In the same text he added, a bit ironically, the following, "'This book has to be treated very well', said Father and Mother; 'it must only be seen on special occasions.' On the volume Godfather had written, 'Just tear the book into pieces, it isn't that important, other small friends have already done worse things'." (ibid.)
And today we know that some of these picturebooks really have survived. In his book H. C. Andersens Billedkunst (Hans Christian Andersen as an Artist) (1969) Kjeld Heltoft tells us that at that time he knew of 13, and that the latest had shown up in 1968.
In 1984 Christines Billedbog (Christine's Picturebook) was published in several languages, among which also Italian. It is a book with cuttings from 1859 that H. C. Andersen made together with Adolph Drewsen, the grandfather of the then only threeyear old Christine. In a long essay in the Italian edition, Francesco Saba Sardi, the editor and translator, writes that in addition to giving us a fine idea of the possibilities of cutting at the time, the picture-book points ahead towards the collageworks of Modern Art, and in this context he mentions Picasso and Braque. Moreover he finds that it points towards later art of cinema and modern cartoons.
From the hand of the artist we also have, as is well known, many pencil drawings, later redone with a pen, which have their strength in their directness. They can seem naive, but what we are dealing with are, in fact, some quick sketches, which with only a few and very simple lines seek to create an action and frequently only a space. As mentioned above the drawings were often created in order to entertain children. But at other times it is evident that they served to illustrate ideas for works on the stage. For example there exists a very dramatic drawing of a scene from Ravnen (The Raven), of which Kjeld Heltoft in his previously mentioned book writes the following, "Normally Andersen's plays for the stage didn't work out, and here we have a hint why. The imaginative drama has attained power from the literary. He thought that it was wonderful when only something exciting with figures and pictures took place on the stage." (op.cit., p. 31.) Trusting that judgement, the works for the theatre written by H. C. Andersen were not strictly literary, but more a kind of attempt to put some living and multicoloured pictures into movement on a stage. But then it is possibile to take another step and see his works for the stage as a type of loosely sketched plans for the stage, very much like those creating the basis of the "commedia dell'arte", which then, with the help of fine staging, could theoretically become complete masterpieces. Maybe people of his time would have gained something, if they had let the poet himself stage his plays, because some very fascinating and vivid images would probably have resulted.
H. C. Andersen had, however, to leave the staging of his plays to somebody else, and the results were not always satisfactory. Instead, with a Royal education grant, he made some long trips abroad which led to many new developments. "To travel is to live", became his motto. Studying his diaries (197177) we come very close to the travelling poet. Typical of the description of a beautiful landscape we often find the word "pictorial", as for example on the 8th of June 1831, "Hernkretschen is so pictorially wonderful", or on the 18th of the same month, "The clouds are so pictorial". On the 25th of August 1833 he writes, "From the top of the Jura mountains in the morning light I saw the whole fierce row of the Alps, as if they were painted on the horizon."
H. C. Andersen was a very eager observer of pictures during his entire life. Nearly every museum and church on his route were accurately visited and were often described with a few words in his diaries. From his museum visits we often find long lists of pictures, that today can be of value for scholars of art history, if they need to know the content of collections at that time.
And when in his diary he tries to describe a landscape, it often sounds as if he is describing a painted picture. The 14th of October in the same year, he describes a landscape close to the Transimenerlake, "The sun was just setting and gave the most brilliant colours to the sky. The mountains were light violet, the sun was going down behind an island that was turning dark blue while the whole air and the mirror of the water were a flaming gold; stark purple clouds were hanging in the sky, the coast stood with bulrush, a fisherman's boat was sailing out there, it was like a painting that I will never forget. As the sun had gone down the whole place took on the marvellous blue and green hue that I have seen in old pictures, but that I thought was against nature."
In front of waterfalls he remains speechless, because as he writes on the 12th of November, "Later on we went into a small garden, where we from above saw the two waterfalls as clouds rushing into the abyss; it was the most romantically beautiful sight that I have ever seen, but it is impossibile to paint a waterfall, and it is even more difficult to describe one." It was easier with sunsets. Here we find an example from the 31th of January 1834, "The evening was cold, but the air had that strange multicoloured appearance we don't see at home. Indigo blue clouds, with evident outlines just like distant mountains seen in clear weather. The sun went down and painted the horizon with the strongest purple; it looked like a fire." And already the following day, 1st of February, he again writes of the air, "The air is again beautiful in a strange way, the clouds dark blue, the clear air Spanish green." And there are numerous examples such as these.
All such descriptions can make one think of beautiful photographs such as those which travellers nowadays bring home from their journeys. But the indications of the colours are so surprisingly exact, as if they were visual memoirs of a painter, written down in order to be used as an aid in front of the canvas at home. And at that time H. C. Andersen, in fact, also had started to spend time with several painters, who just like him were away from home making the "grand tour" which was recommended at that time, and were spending part of it in Rome.
In the diary we also read that on the 6th of January Albert Küchler painted a portrait of H. C. Andersen, and also that on the 31th of January he drew a portrait of him for his own use. The poet compared the two and preferred the latter, in which his eyes were turned to the sky. And only a few days before, on the 27th of January, he visited Fritz Petzholdt, who was painting something for him at that time.
We also know that H. C. Andersen bought pieces of art while travelling around. His Albums IV (1980) are rich with small sketches and drawings made by contemporary artists. Here we find both gifts and purchases able to cheer him up later on at home.
From the 20th of January can we among other things read about the following episode, "On my way back I picked a lot of wild anemones; they were so wonderfully purplered that I brought them to Jensen's house, and he decided to insert one in the painting on which he was working." C. A. Jensen, also called Flower-Jensen, was wellknown for his pictorial style in executing portraits and compositions of both fruit and flowers. And H. C. Andersen, a great admirer of flowers, who all his life through with a painter's eye loved to pick flowers and to arrange them, without doubt enjoyed to see the flowerpainter during his work inserting the anemone picked by him.
Moreover, from the diary we know that in the same month he went to an exhibiton of Scandinavian artists in Rome. With regard to this visit he writes, "After lunch I went to the exhibition, where there are many beautiful pieces with flowers and fruit by Jensen, but most beautiful of all is the piece from Tyrol, with the clear lake in the foreground. There is a beautiful warpiece by Sonne with a sleeping warrier close to a cannon, and a serious man covered with a cloak is in conversation with another; it is at dawn."
From the diary we also know that he often met with other Danish authors, such as Henrik Hertz and Ludvig Bødtcher; sculptors, such as Bertel Thorvaldsen and H. W. Bissen; and painters including C. A. Jensen, Fritz Petzholdt and others, who during the winter 183435 also stayed in Rome. At Café Greco he surely took part in more than one discussion about art, and with the others he often went to visit the studios of the various artists or to see the public collections of art. He also often went alone. Nearly every day he visited a church or a museum. His journey was, indeed, very much also a formative voyage through the history of art.
Not only did he rapidly notice the pictorial aspect of a beautiful landscape, he also started to learn of the working painters' more practical experiences. His knowledge of colours became much more precise, and he also started to think in light and shade. So we can read the following diary entry from the 12th of February 1834, "The mountains were all indigo blue and on the Volsk Mountains snow was lying; the sea lay in front of us, but in a bad light." And from the 27th of the same month, "As I went home the sun sank down behind the dark mountain horizon where cypresses and oiltrees made it all look like a shadowpicture. Sea, mountains and sky were purple in three gradations, after a while the sea became purple, the mountains brownblue, and the sky the same colour but with a cleaner potency; on the borders of the waves played something yellowred, that nobody dares paint, because it will seem unnatural." Yes, now he also knew something about the limits of naturalistic painting.
We also know that H. C. Andersen often went out with his painting friends when they were looking for motifs for their works. He himself also worked, but in spite of invitations from the friends to start to use colours, he made only drawings. In the diary from his journey to Germany in 1831 we find a lot of drawings that serve as illustrations of the written pages. But in the diary from his first voyage to Italy we only find a very few rough sketches, which serve as a kind of enlarged explanation of some otherwise barely understandable points in the text.
During his long voyage abroad (1833-34) he made a clearer division between writing and drawing. And his many drawings from his first stay in Italy were created on another kind of paper. They are sketches of landscapes or towns he saw which later served as the basis for his vivid descriptions of Italy in the novel Improvisatoren (The Improvisatore). They have only very few human figures, and then they are only stylized. His stroke is sure and strong but also a little naive. Like in his drawings from his early years the idea of space is always very clear. And every single sketch has its own definitive pictorial unity.
When his painting colleagues were working he often watched them and admired their technical skills in colouring. For example on the 31th of December 1833 he writes on the occasion of an exibition of pictures by Vernet, "It has all been painted with superb boldness; the colours, loosely thrown on, create, all together, a magnificent effect." H. C. Andersen was rather modern in his attitude, but his own boldness was limited to the stroke of the pencil.
In Kjeld Heltoft's book the drawings of H. C. Andersen are compared with works by van Gogh and Paul Klee. The name of Matisse is also mentioned.
A few months later he was in Pompeii, where on the 27th of February he saw some ancient vases and then writes, "On jugs and vases there were some very beautiful drawings; they must have been made by masters, because every line helped to create the beauty of the figures both in position and in expression, and Winckelmann tells us that they had to be painted while they were still warm, and that nothing could be erased, so that every mark they made remained. What a variety of figures!" Here it is the line, made quickly and the surely nearly stylized figure that interest him. And from his reference to Winckelmann we can tell that he also very well knew the theories of art history at the time.
Earlier he had also made some considerations concerning the art of painting as compared to the art of sculpture. Already in Rome, on the 5th of November 1833, he wrote, "I am not able to decide if the art of painting or the art of scupture is superior." Later in his life that point was resolved for him, and in Mit Livs Eventyr (The Fairy Tale of My Life) he wrote as follows, "When for the first time I went to Italy my eye was unprepared for the art of sculpture; in Paris the rich paintings drew me away from the sculptures; only, as already stated, when I went to Florence, before the Medician Venus a new world of art was opened to me, as I may express in the words of Thorvaldsen, 'The snow before my eyes melted away!' and now during my third stay in Rome, having walked many times in the Vatican, I have begun to love the sculptures much more than the paintings; but in what other cities than in Rome, and partly also in Naples, does this art form in such a magnificent way come to life! You are enchanted; you know in the piece of art to admire nature and the beauty of form becomes something spiritual." (op.cit., pp. 41213.)
Seen from a distance, therefore, in the poet's own words, he had progressed from the variegated play of colours to the form-giving line. In January 1826, during his schooldays in Slagelse he had already planned to write a tragedy about Leonardo da Vinci, but this was never to come true. We do not know, for sure, if H. C. Andersen had a first-hand knowledge of the treatise by Leonardo da Vinci on painting, in which, as is known, the artist esteems painting much more than both sculpture and poetry. For example, Leonardo da Vinci thought that painting required much more intellectual strength than modelling, because the work of a sculptor only consisted of taking away some already given material, while the creation of a painter, on the contrary, required the addition of something completely new from outside.
As we can see H. C. Andersen failed to follow the artistic ideals of Leonardo da Vinci. And we must accept that the appreciation of classical art and the work of Canova and Thorvaldsen at that time, in addition to Andersen's encounters with classical and contemporary sculpture, determined his personal taste.
Or was it perhaps an esthetic development and formation which
had to do with his own literary work? He may have been aware that
such rich use of colours in his case could have become a kind of mess,
and that in his literary work he should devote very much care to the form.
He believed that each detail should be formed, polished and made
humanlike - comprehensive. Admiration for classical art, without doubt,
taught him the art of limitation, which was of great help to him in his
literary works. In due time his own "perfect form" became the plastic and well
formed fairy tale, still rich in colour and movement, but at the same time very much locked into a given form. In any case he was ahead of his time as a playwright and a painter, being too fond of colours, too free and abstract for his time. All qualities which only later generations were to learn to appreciate.
The fairy tale was, as already said, a compromise. Here, within the art of limitations, he acted as a quiet rebel and renewer, while in a small measure he was able to enjoy himself with images. His fairy tale poetry then became a kind of painting put into action, which we can not see directly but very well hear. And today we may also add that his fairy tales would probably have won even more popularity if he himself had illustrated them.