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Resumé af Anne Sofie L. Jordts speciale

Specialetitel: Carl Rasmussens blik på det grønlandske landskab (Carl Rasmussen and the Greenlandic Landscape) | Københavns Universitet


During the 19th century, many Danish artists became interested in Greenland and its unique landscapes. This was also the case for the relatively unknown artist Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841-1893), who started painting Greenlandic landscapes around 1870 and did so until his death in 1893. Although Carl Rasmussen has been forgotten in Danish art history, he was fairly popular at the time and had frequent exhibitions at venues such as Charlottenborg in Copenhagen. Furthermore, his paintings were often shown and praised in various newspapers and popular magazines. Carl Rasmussen's Greenlandic motifs have therefore contributed to the general Danish view of Greenland and the Greenlanders, a view which, to some extent, is still present today. Consequently, Carl Rasmussen's representations of the Greenlandic landscape can help us understand how we tend to have very fixed ideas about Greenlandic landscapes and Greenlandic culture, while, at the same time, the Greenlanders themselves feel the need to present counter-images to this. In my thesis, I have analysed Carl Rasmussen's motifs from Greenland, using an understanding of the landscape as a cultural construction. Therefore, the main focus of my thesis is Carl Rasmussen's gaze at the landscape, a gaze with which he was able to form the landscape according to his own preferences, especially while he was away from Greenland and “watched” the landscape from a distance. In other words: the landscape is restored by the artist’s gaze and becomes not just a random piece of nature, but rather a constructed or shaped space in nature. Understanding this approach is particularly important because Carl Rasmussen made his paintings at a time when Denmark's interests in Greenland became bigger, and where landscapes in general were very important in European art. Thus, my research has aimed at viewing Carl Rasmussen's landscape paintings from Greenland from a new perspective and not just as ordinary late nineteenth century landscapes.

Seeing landscapes as cultural constructions is linked to the alienation of urban individuals from “real” nature, an alienation that derives from Industrialisation, and due to which a longing for genuine nature arises. Parallel to this sentimental longing for nature, I have also investigated how the landscapes from Greenland could be used as a medium for the Danish colonial government to maintain the Greenlanders in a pre-modern, traditional time warp. The relationship between Denmark and Greenland in the 19th century was characterized by the fact that Greenland was both a distant and very different Danish colony and at the same time was regarded with great ethnographic interest, an interest which grew even more as a result of the many expeditions of the time. It is this cultural context which also became the starting point for Carl Rasmussen's approach to the landscapes in Greenland.

Theory and methods: landscape as a cultural construction

In my analysis of landscapes as cultural constructions, I have relied on a number of important theories. First there is the geographical focus on cultural landscapes, a theory which has also inspired the art historians Jacob Wamberg and W. J. T. Mitchell, who both work with landscape painting. For Wamberg, what matters most is Western man's distance from nature, which has resulted in what he calls a Modern Paradigm. Mitchell, on the other hand, takes a closer look at the landscape as a medium, which can be used for colonial purposes. The artist painting a landscape can consequently be seen as someone perceiving the landscape or constructing it according to his own cultural understanding or intentions.

According to Jacob Wamberg, landscapes in Western visual art can be interpreted in relation to the cultures that created them. Looking at man's relationship to nature and how this has developed in and outside of the world of art, Wamberg examines the landscapes of Western civilization and how these by no means are natural but must be considered as "cultural artefacts" that have only reached full maturity with modern urban culture - both as a three-dimensional form and in the framed form, the landscape image - which culminated in the 19th century, in Carl Rasmussen’s lifetime. 

Wamberg sees the landscape as a compensation for being alienated from nature, thus feeling a need for reinventing nature through landscape painting. Modernity hence objectifies the landscape so that it can be revived aesthetically by the subject. The objective and the subjective so to speak cause the individual to face the world as "imagined", for example through categories such as the sublime and the picturesque. 

In my opinion, however, this somewhat sentimental approach to nature makes even more sense if it is linked to W.J.T. Mitchell's understanding of the landscape as an agent or medium. The landscape does not only consist of aesthetic enjoyment or perception but can be seen as a tool, a form of power-agent. This theoretical angle is extremely relevant to use to expand the analysis, as Mitchell’s focus on the imperial gaze can be used on Carl Rasmussen who paints landscapes in Greenland, a Danish colony. Mitchell subsequently sees the landscape as a tool that has been used very efficiently by European imperialism.

Making an analysis based on both Mitchell's and Wamberg’s ideas has helped me to understand the underlying power structures of Carl Rasmussen's paintings from Greenland. Especially Mitchell pays attention to the importance of looking critically at the gaze of the artist – Carl Rasmussen himself – his background as a painter, his education and journeys, as well as the cultural ideas of the time. Analysing Carl Rasmussen’s landscape paintings through the theories of Wamberg and Mitchell while adding a post-colonial perspective has enabled me to interpret his representations of the Greenlandic landscape in the context of the history of the colonial power in a Danish-Greenlandic context.

Carl Rasmussen’s life as an artist

So far, not much research has been made on the oeuvre of Carl Rasmussen, and in order to write him into art history, my method has been to find and use source material by and about Carl Rasmussen. I have gained access to this through archives from the Marstal Maritime Museum, where several of his sketches, works and letters are kept. In connection with my thesis, I have also visited Nuuk in Greenland, where the Nuuk Art Museum, among other things, gave me access to articles, works and an unpublished thesis by Inger Trumpy. Finally, I have used the Danish Royal Library's digitalization of Danish newspapers from Carl Rasmussen's own lifetime to understand how his art was viewed at the time. All this material has given me an insight into the artist's life and work and made it possible to gain a deeper understanding of who he was.

Analysis and conclusion: reconstruction of landscape

Although Carl Rasmussen belongs to the periphery of Danish art history, he is nonetheless the first Danish painter from the Academy of Fine Arts who went to Greenland and painted its people and nature. When you work with Carl Rasmussen as a painter of Greenlandic landscapes, it becomes clear, especially through his letters and the focus of his landscapes, that he is critical of civilization and had a strong longing for everything pre-modern. The sale of his works also indicates that motifs from Greenland were popular, both at Charlottenborg and at several of the world exhibitions. By analyzing Carl Rasmussen's letters, examining his landscape paintings and his artistic career in relation to the contemporary art scene, it is revealed that he is influenced by how landscapes were viewed at that time. He was influenced by both N. L. Høyen's thoughts about national art, the Danish Golden Age and by modernity's search for nostalgia in nature. To Rasmussen, Greenland became an ideal source for "Nordic motifs" and a place to find his own unique inspiration. Therefore, the Greenlandic landscape soon became a recurring theme for him throughout his life and ended up as some kind of addiction for him from his first visit in 1870 and until his apparent suicide on the voyage back from Greenland in 1893.

Looking more closely at Rasmussen's many Greenlandic landscape motifs between 1870 and 1893, it becomes clear that they change significantly from his first representations to his later works, where Greenland was viewed from a distance. By connecting this development to the idea of the estrangement from nature and the meaning of distance formulated by Jacob Wamberg and W.J.T. Mitchell, it becomes clear how Rasmussen’s “gaze” or way of looking, changes as his visit to Greenland becomes more and more distant or remote. From emphasizing how the indigenous people of Greenland are integrated into the landscape, it is the landscape itself that becomes his focus when he is back in Denmark. In this way, Carl Rasmussen creates a so-called non-place in his landscape paintings, a desolate wilderness, where he can shape the landscape according to his own cultural baggage and from the perspective of a modern city-dweller. The landscape thus becomes a space for dreams and longings of the urban individual. An example of how this development can be seen in his landscapes a sketch from 1870, which shows people in a secondary landscape, whereas in the later oil painting Kayaks and Umiaq in Godthaab Fjord from 1874, the landscape has been reorganised so that it becomes the dominant part. 

But what is it that he projects onto this non-place with his gaze? By looking more closely at selected works from the 'distance period' and examining them in relation to the 'aesthetic feelings of nature', which Wamberg believes consolidate the relationship between subject and nature in the 19th century, it becomes clear how Carl Rasmussen's gaze shapes the landscape differently depending on whether it is Greenlanders who appear in it, or modern Western man. This can be related to aesthetic domains such as the picturesque and the arctic sublime. This gives an insight into a dichotomy where ships, as an image of the modern, succumb to the wild landscape, while the Greenlanders who appear in the landscapes thrive in harmony with nature. The desolate landscapes represent a paradisiacal illusion, where evocative elements such as changing weather, monumental compositions, and reshaping of elements show the Greenlanders as “noble savages” merged with nature. By moving the Greenlanders back into the landscape, they are made the object of observation for the Western gaze and can be studied in their movements with kayaks, Umiaq and seal-hunting – all of them elements that in the 19th century were believed to be the definition of true Greenlandic culture.

By doing this, Carl Rasmussen establishes a contrast between the modern and the traditional, where Greenlandic nature becomes the ideal. For him, the landscapes of Greenland represent the ultimate place that has not yet been destroyed by civilization and still has power over man, as is evident from the ships in distress. In this way, the landscapes become what W.J.T. Mitchell defines as a medium, as agents of power, and when Rasmussen portrays the Greenlanders in agreement with the idealized nature, he ends up locking them down as "the picturesque other", a wild people who has not been "destroyed" by civilization. According to W. J. T. Mitchell, the artist behind the work, namely Carl Rasmussen himself, becomes a representative of the Danish relationship with Greenland and therefore central to the understanding of the landscape as a medium, as it is his  "staring eyes" that culturally shape the landscape. Therefore, Carl Rasmussen's view of the landscape is not neutral and pure aesthetic enjoyment but contributes to a cultural practice that was both shown at exhibitions and in newspapers in Denmark and internationally at the World Exhibitions. Here the Danes and others could safely look at the landscape that unfolded before their eyes and thereby transfer their own sentimental longings onto the representations of Greenland. Moreover, Carl Rasmussen's landscape paintings became a medium for maintaining a certain notion of Greenland, which was also used by the colonial administration in the mid-1800s, just as the romantic criticism of civilization ended up retraditionalising colonized West Greenlanders, so that they became like the non-colonized East Greenlanders. Therefore, Carl Rasmussen's gaze also often points in the direction of East Greenland, even though he painted in the area of Nuuk, a tendency that can particularly be seen in his expedition photos, which depict expeditions aimed at exploring the area ethnographically and making it an ideal for the rest of Greenland. Carl Rasmussen's representations and notions of Greenland are thus linked to specific cultural discourses and practices and are permeated by ideologies and interests, which created the idea of the Arctic world as a time warp.

Carl Rasmussen's Greenlandic works have clearly helped maintain the notion of the modern versus the traditional. This is still seen today, both in discussions of climate policies and in modern visual culture. As a result of this, his and other people’s views of Greenland have created some 'counter views' from Greenlandic artists, including Pia Arke and Miki Jacobsen. They both want to emphasize the complexity and movement that the Greenlandic landscape consists of, and at the same time question the fact that artists of earlier times, such as Carl Rasmussen, have succeeded in influencing our gaze through their works until today. In other words, you cannot fully understand Carl Rasmussen's art if you are not also aware of the ideas and concepts that have shaped him culturally, aesthetically and politically.

The thesis's contribution in relation to The Commonwealth

My thesis contributes to new insights into how visual art or the visual gaze has shaped and created certain ways of seeing Greenland and the Arctic area (from a Danish perspective). The Danish gaze or way of looking at Greenland, represented through the work of Carl Rasmussen, is characterized by certain dichotomies and an understanding of the Greenlandic landscape at a time with strong colonial interests in Greenland and an idea about a nature untouched by modernity. Carl Rasmussen's landscapes represent Greenland as a piece of unique, untouched nature, a pre-modern time warp meant to maintain and freeze the Greenlandic landscape and turn the Greenlanders into passive actors. He altered his motifs to fit his cultural vision of an ultimate and imaginary place. This is a notion or a way of looking at Greenland, which also applies in our time, both within visual culture, but also in various debates on Greenlandic identity, including the climate debate. The predominant discourse concerning indigenous peoples of the north is strongly affected by ideas about them as eternally static, thereby emphasizing the colonial narrative of the vulnerability of the Inuit who instead would rather like to be seen as active participants in the changes that are taking place. This contemporary discourse can be related to the ethnographic discourse from the 19th and 20th centuries, represented by Carl Rasmussen, where the Greenlanders were perceived as vulnerable individuals who had to be protected from Western modernity. It is important to learn and understand how this came about and why it is necessary to have a critical eye and put it into a larger context where a complex understanding of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark must create cohesion and present other perspectives. Pia Arke and Miki Jacobsen are among the artists who try to create a more diverse visual view of Greenland and the Greenlanders, thus providing an understanding that can potentially break down some of the dominant dichotomies that have still left their mark on The Commonwealth.

Specialet er indstillet til specialekonkurrencen 2022.

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Senest opdateret 23. juni 2024