The afternoon air was crisp on a cold November day when my family and I got down at Humlebaek station, after a journey of 45 minutes by train from the Copenhagen city center. The train had sped past a scenic landscape of the azure waters of the Øresund Sound behind a series of picture book houses before stopping at the station.
I had discovered that the sleepy and picturesque seaside town, Humlebaek, in the Zealand region of Denmark, had a world class museum, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and I was eager to see it. A few other people got down too and all of us made our way out of the station glancing hither and thither curiously. “Where is the museum?” I think this was the collective question in all our minds. A young couple from the train crossed our path but not before looking back and commenting, “Hope we are headed the right way!”
Finding the Museum
As I and my family continued to walk, I noticed the sky turning cloudy. Alongside was a road, a few cars passed by and beyond I could see large, silent houses amidst the tree lined walkways. “How much further is it?” I wondered. But it was merely a fifteen minute walk from the station. By the time I had reached the museum, it was shrouded in rain, fog and mist. Imagine my disappointment at not being able to experience the architecture of the place about which I had read earlier. I was enveloped in darkness and while I had heard of fabulous views of the sea and distant Sweden from the grounds, I could see nothing. Only the lights from the interiors were shining bright as if suggesting that I should forget my woes and step inside.
The History Behind the World Class Museum
The preeminent Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is a superb example of Danish early modernist architectural style, showcasing a perfect blend of art, architecture and nature. It is the brainchild of Knud W. Jensen who bought an old villa to recognize his vision of museums being approachable and open to all and not just elites. Interestingly the name comes from its original owner Alexander Brun (1814-93) who had married thrice. All his wives were named Louise.
Knud Jensen hired the Danish architects Jorgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert in 1958 to build an extension to the original 1855 villa which led to seven expansions and a long lasting collaboration of many years. The result is a masterpiece of unique Danish style where visitors can commune with artwork of internationally renowned artists in the midst of stunning landscapes.
My family and I entered through the historic villa with ivy covered walls, through a tiny doorway to buy the entry tickets but were soon in the new buildings where the design immediately became minimalist and cozy. Walls of windowed glass looked out into the surrounding landscape and I imagined that the views would truly be spectacular on a sunny day.
A Revolutionary Idea
I quickly forgot my discontent as I started my tour. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is an art lover’s delight. With a collection of about 4000 pieces of art from 1945 to the modern times, the museum is extensive and impressive and is one of the largest in Scandinavia. There are paintings, sculptures, videos and installations. The exhibitions are eclectic and truly represent contemporary world art.
Jensen’s vision was remarkable in that he balanced the formidable permanent collection with a rotation of new exhibitions using what he termed as “the sauna principle”. He recognized that people would throng to see the works of the world’s greatest artists – the hot ones or the crowd pullers but then would be exposed to the cold ones, the lesser known but talented artists who would then become well known. This revolutionary idea has resulted in an inimitable collection.
In the Midst of Great Art
Within a short time I had traveled through rooms displaying works by a variety of artists. Walking into a cavernous room bathed in a soft, glowing green light I was confronted by a triangular hill of dark soil while I could hear the soft swishing sounds of the rainforest around me. And to my surprise I heard a voice reading through a list of products. The installation, “Anamazon” by Pamela Rosenkranz was a presentation of the relationship between man and nature and a play on the word Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and internet company.
Dayanita Singh, a renowned photographer-artist from India had the installation “Dream Villa”, a surreal depiction of the night time through photographs of people who according to the artist “might be ordinary in the day but are transformed into an enigma by the colors of the darkness”. In another space, there was a mini forest with sunlight streaming through. “Clearing” by Thomas Demand was a novel artwork of a kind that I had never seen before – a giant photograph of a model forest made me think I had stepped into real nature. “Strips” by Gerhard Richter was decidedly modern, about a fifteen feet long digital print of colorful stripes, harmonious and aesthetic.
Entering the halls to see the vast collection of modernist and contemporary masters, I realized how easy it would be to while away a whole day here without once stepping foot on to the sprawling grounds. Lichtenstein, Miro, Warhol, Calder, Picasso and many more illustrious names – the walls were chock full of mesmerizing artworks. Alexander Calder’s vibrant Red Mobile cast an intricate shadow on one wall while David Hockney’s magnificent painting of the Grand Canyon illuminated another entire wall. One of the Mao paintings by Andy Warhol was juxtaposed with the inventive Figures of Landscape by Roy Lichtenstein.
The Magnificent Yayoi Kusama and the Giacometti Gallery
Though the art everywhere was unforgettable, my personal favorites were two antithetical exhibits, both a part of the permanent collection at the museum. The Giacometti Gallery with the distinctive sculptures of human beings by Alberto Giacometti, displayed along a corridor with large, glass windows overlooking a lawn were simultaneously primitive and modern in expression.
To simply state that Yayoi Kusama’s installation, “Gleaming Lights of the Souls” is spectacular would be an understatement. Kusama is a 92 year old Japanese contemporary artist whose works are a colorful world unto themselves. Wherever she has exhibited her signature “immersive mirror room” installations, people have waited for hours to step into her unique wonderlands. In Louisiana, the line was only about 15-20 people long. I could not believe the incredible chance I was getting.
Created in 2008, the exhibition is in a small room, which I entered, and found myself in an universe of twinkling lights. I was standing on top of a reflecting pool in a space covered with mirrors. The hundreds of little lights that hung from the ceiling continuously changed the intensity and tone of its colors to envelop the viewers in a fairytale magical atmosphere.
Cafe Food and Sculpture Garden at the Museum
Oh how I wished I could step out into the fabled outdoors of the Louisiana museum to round out the lovely visit but sadly, that was not to be. In fact the doors had been all locked to prevent visitors from attempting any such thing as rain pelted the glass windows. The landscaped sculpture park displays about sixty sculptures that blend in with the natural surroundings. On a perfect day, I would have seen Calder’s gigantic mobiles or Henry Moore’s incredible Reclining Figure No. 5 framing a sea view or one of the many site specific sculptures that are displayed temporarily. I could have walked on the lusciously green grass, stopped by the peaceful lake or explored the interplay between the sculptures and nature.
But I had to be satisfied with sitting in the enormous cafe while getting misty views of a gargantuan Jean Dubuffet sculpture, Manoir d’Essor in black and white while imagining the sea beyond. Then I took a bite of my dessert and once again my dissatisfaction melted away. The Louisiana Cafe serves Danish classics like smorrebrod, pastries, sandwiches, beverages and a buffet – all very delicious and at a fair price. And after returning back to Copenhagen I could easily say that my imperfect trip had transformed miraculously into a most perfect outing that had been a feast for the senses.
Written by: Susmita Sengupta
Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, is a freelance writer who loves to travel. She writes frequently at In The Know Traveler and many other online travel publications.