The Vejen Art Museum

The Vejen Art Museum holds rich collections of Danish art from the turn of the century, 1900 – Danish symbolist and art nouveau works of art.

The museum was opened on the first of July 1924 in the railway town of Vejen, until 1920 on the southern boarder to Germany. The museum was built to house the life’s work of the sculptor Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941). He was born and died in Vejen – but spent a decade from 1892 to 1902 in Paris where he lived in a studio home at 65, boul. Arago. The northern end of the museum was originally his home and to the south was his studio. The latter soon became a part of the museum as the collection of paintings by his contemporaries grew.

From 1927 and a couple of decades on the museum annually received three paintings from the New Carlsberg Foundation. Over the years the collections have grown to focus on Niels Hansen Jacobsen’s contemporaries such as the art nouveau draftsman Jens Lund (1871-1924) and the symbolist painter Ejnar Nielsen (1872-1956).

History of the museum

As early as 1905 the local art association was founded mainly wanting to establish a museum. Plans were halted by the First World War. In the summer of 1914 the sculptor opened his studio/museum close to the historic meeting place, Skibelund Krat.

In 1923 a new powerstation was build in Vejen. The board decided to turn the cooling unit into a fountain, and asked Niels Hansen Jacobsen’s opinion on what to do. He immediately suggested putting his Troll Scenting Christian Flesh in the centre. There was an opposition, but due to a strong respect for the artist his idea was brought to fruition. The fountain was an instant success. Nowhere else in Scandinavia was there a fountain working all hours of the day, all year round. The Troll Fountain had a constant supply of boiling hot water circulating to be cooled and reused in the powerstation to keep the machines from overheating. When winter came The Troll was given a completely new shape as he became covered in icicles  – what Niels Hansen Jacobsen called,  “Winter fur”.

As the fountain was unveiled he declared he was going to build his home next to his studio museum in Skibelund Krat. The citizens joined forces and promised to build him a museum. A third of the building costs were collected among locals, a third came from the county, and a third was paid by the artist – the cost of building his own home as part of the museum. This setup was in part a possibility due to a local synergy that arose in the early 1900s in the interplay between the development of the Danish Folk High School movement in Rødding and Askov as well as a dynamic business life.

Niels Hansen Jacobsen

Niels Hansen Jacobsen was born and raised in Vejen. From 1884-88 he studied at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. In 1889 he made a successful debut with Loki Chained to the Rocks – a marble sculptor based on Nordic mythology and an interesting interpretation of Michel-angelo’s work (The Dying Slave, Louvre). Two years later he and his wife Gabriele (1862-1902) – also an artist – settled in Paris at boul. Arago 65, where they had a studio-home at La Cité Fleurie. It became a gathering place for Danish artists, especially symbolist friends, such as Jens Lund, Johannes Holbek, Axel Hou and Rudolph Tegner. All of whom are well represented at the Vejen Art Museum.

Jacobsen’s sculpture from 1892, Death and the Mother (based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Story of the Mother), announced his move away from naturalism. Instead he pursued a personal style combining the decorative elements of the art nouveau (the organic shapes) and the philosophical and more theoretical contents of the symbolist movement. In a radical departure from the traditions of sculpture, he sought to embody, in solid bronze, such intangible subjects as noted in some of his titles: The Shadow, The Night, Freedom at the End of the Century, Militarism and even Our Mother Tongue! He created his personal style by keeping to figurative subjects, but distorting them far from anything recognizable from a textbook on anatomy. His shapes and ideals represented the contemporary French artistic idiom, not the Danish tradition. In the spring of 1897 A Troll Scenting Christian Flesh was exhibited in Copenhagen, not in the section entitled SCULPTURE, but instead placed as DECORATIVE ART – a logical move for a real symbolist. To them all true symbolist art was decorative art!

Niels Hansen Jacobsen’s life-long experiments with glazed ceramics began in Paris about 1894 – producing portrait busts, sketches for large sculptures, and objects for everyday use (if such a term can be used about his vases and jugs!). The shape and spirit of the latter reveal the vital role Asiatic ceramics played in Paris at the time – the sense of the unique, individually shaped form fired with layers of volcanic glaze. Jacobsen knew how to throw, but the final pieces were clearly worked over by hand. The clay was pushed, pinched, distorted in different ways, sometimes lead was added, a wooden base or final touches of silver and gilt metal.

In 1901 NHJ returned to Copenhagen to present a retrospective show of sculptures and ceramics at Den Frie (The Free – a wooden exhibition building erected by the Danish secessionist movement). He offered – at a special price – the entire exhibition to the Danish patron of art and especially sculpture, the brewer Carl Jacobsen (Carlsberg). The latter had A Troll Scenting Christian Flesh and Death and the Mother cast in bronze and placed out-of-doors in Copenhagen. The exhibition was well received by the press, but it was not the financial succes Niels Hansen Jacobsen had hoped for – only one ceramic pot was sold! And the following year came a devastating blow, as his wife died of cancer. He decided to move home for good, spending half of the year in Copenhagen, the other half in Vejen. It was not to until 1905 that he again presented a large sculptor, the large figure of King Lear. A few years later he finished the naturalistic sculpture In the Desert of the City (1908) with a touch of social indignation.

In 1908 Jacobsen married Kaja Jørgensen (1882-1928). His first drawings for an art museum in Vejen are dated the same year. Half of the financing was raised, but the Ministry of Culture was not willing to contribute. In 1911 his Father’s estate donated a large strech of land earmarked for a museum. The plans did not make headway, and in 1913 NHJ decided to build a studio-museum a few kilometers from Vejen at Skibelund Krat – which was the venue of large, patriotic meetings calling for the return of the adjacent areas to the south, then under German rule. Already in 1903 a monument by Jacobsen was unveiled there, The Mother Tongue. The following years he produced monuments commemorating different people, who had fought for the return of North Schleswig. Jacobsen also spent much of his time producing ceramics and carving tombstones – very individualistic ones shaped from large stones found in the fields around Vejen. In 1918-19 he modelled The Cloud (in bronze outside the museum) – the closest he ever came to art deco. In 1922 NHJ was asked to create a reservoir for the Vejen Power Station (used in order to have water for cooling the turbines) – the result was the decorative Troll fountain outside the museum (originally in function all year round with very hot water from the power station – quite a show at winter-time!). While creating the fountain Jacobsen mentioned that he was planning to move his home from Vejen to Skibelund Krat. As the news spread, many of the inhabitants of Vejen met and decided to offer the sculptor a combined museum-studio-home in the heart of Vejen. The first of July 1924, a year after the inauguration of the Troll-fountain, the museum was opened. A large art museum dedicated to a single artist, opened while he was still alive, is by all standards quite an achievement in a small town in Jutland!
At the age of 70 he was made a honorary citizen in 1931 (no longer having to pay tax!). During the years 1932-34 he toiled in his Skibelund studio creating his large masterpiece Playing to the Tune of Life.
The trips to the studio were beginning to tire him, and the museum was no longer large enough. In 1937-38 the Skibelund studio was moved to Vejen (the southern octagonal chamber of the present museum) financed by the New Carlsberg Foundation. Originally museum guests were only admitted to the sculpture chamber. After the artist’s death his home was made a part of the exhibition – creating an unusual art museum with a strong link between the collections and the private rooms.

Present day

Over the years the museum has grown further to include the former library from the 1940s as well as a gallery corridor from the 1970s. At present the museum covers Danish art from the 1880’s to the present day, but also features a collection of Danish ceramics  to compliment the large collection of Niels Hansen Jacobsen’s ceramic pieces (a gift from the artist). The emphasis is on Danish sculptors working with polycrome ceramics, and artists showing the development of the Danish stoneware tradition.

Following on from a large renovation project completed in the 2004, where the old parts of the museum were restored and improved, the museum will undergo the next step in its renovation and improvement plan. The gallery corridor will be torn down to make room for more storage, as well as a connecting building that will allow for better access and more exhibition space. See pictures of the new building.