Hans Andersen Brendekilde painted realistic depictions of rural life in Denmark, capturing the poverty and starkness of the Scandinavian environment. His oil paintings of pastoral landscapes also contained a deep warmth and empathy amongst the coldness - always capturing the axis of where humans and land coalesce.
Attired in raggedy old clothes, weather-beaten men converse mysteriously with wise old crones. In his paintings, Brendekilde eschews action for drama, not showing a particular moment as much as a general mood of tragedy that is falling on deaf ears whilst his protagonists scream into the ether of a world that's too exhausted to care.
The feeling that they subtly exude is often heartwrenching, tugging at the audience's nerves, playing on the fact that we can somehow relate, that we've been there ourselves before. Paintings from his era of work (late 1880s to early 1900s) are shrouded by an inherently gothic atmosphere, possessing in them an unavoidable menace in the eyes and mouths of the downtrodden.
One thing that defines the Danes' paintings is their ability to be interpreted in many ways, something that artists working within social realism are not always able to capture. Like Edward Hopper, a later and largely more urban incarnation of Brendekilde, his paintings leave faces, expressions and scenarios vague and indistinguishable enough to provoke the viewer fill in the blanks.
One such ambiguous scene is witnessed in the painting Worn Out (1889). In a barren field, a woman kneels by the body of a man - one whom we do not know is dead, but given his age and her desperate expression, seems like he is on the way to being so. In this piece, the whole of Brendekilde's art is summarised. It could be considered his magnum opus.
As affecting as it is, the viewer can find solace in his message. It's not one of loneliness and isolation - at least, not just, but one of the notion that there will always be somebody by your side. Even alone, in desperate times, someone actually can hear you scream. That's a glass half-full interpretation though. On another day, I might have thought something else.
Leaving something so relateable, but also open, means that his paintings have a way of interacting with the viewer's own psychology. His paintings are undeniably cerebral - in a way that makes them timeless, transcending the era that they are from. A mark not of an artist that only captures what he sees, but understands the minutae of subtexts and interplays that construct any given moment.
Throughout his life, the Dane was able to travel extensively due to a scholarship scheme. Meandering around the globe, he roughly captured similarly honest moments from many countries and cultures - Germany, France, Switzerland, Egypt and Syria. What he chose to paint never changed though; scenes that are imbued with significance. However everyday they are, it feels like we are witnessing key exchanges or events that will go on to shape the protagonist's futures.
Following his sojourn, and back in Denmark, the artist returned to a more focussed and realistic style again, differing slightly from the more hurried and impressionistic pieces on his journey that were probably created in this way out of necessity.
From his ability to capture the overall mood of the time, evidenced through his observations of the environment and clothing styles of the figures, Brendekilde's landscapes can be used as a documentary look at 19th century Northern European rural life - its similarities to life now, such is the eternal nature of human instincts and actions, but also how time progresses as trends and monuments change.
Brendekilde's art doesn't fit anywhere neatly. His stylistic preferences are clear, his technique rarely changing, but whether we assess his legacy as a social realist with deep symbolic elements, or as a dyed-in-the-wool documentarian of the development of Danish society - remains to be seen. He's an artist as easy to look at as to write about, the kind of painter that comes about once every few generations.
More like this:
Please, check your email.