Authors on Museums: Denmark’s oldest museum is all about a single artist. Alan Hollinghurst, author of “The Line of Beauty”, revisits a temple of idiosyncrasy

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011 

I’d had no more than a quarter of an hour there, five years before, but it had left me with strong and peculiar memories. The works themselves, the hundreds of sculptures in plaster and marble, had been impressive, but the building that housed them was what stayed in my mind. I’d seen nothing else like it: a massive free-standing Egyptian temple, painted a bright ochre; figures moving in frescoed procession around its outer walls, cream and ochre and plum against black backgrounds; a glazed inner cloister, in which statuary gleamed or hid in stripes of sunlight and shadow; and running round it, red, green or purple rooms in enfilade, like cells or stalls, each holding a white marble hero or goddess. The inspired colour scheme of these rooms, faded and subtilised by time, was unusually striking. It continued in the long central courtyard, frescoed with soaring palm trees, where the great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen himself was buried, as if in a northern dream of the south. 

I’d been in Copenhagen for a book fair, and my Danish publisher, knowing I was interested in buildings, had urged me at least to have a glance at this “most singular” museum before catching my plane home. At the time I had barely heard of Thorvaldsen. The museum’s collection was evidence of a major artistic figure, if not exactly of a major artistic personality. The neoclassical idiom of his work, with its idealising reliance on antiquity, lacked the kind of expressive individuality that I felt I most prized. 

Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) was the son of a poor Icelandic woodcarver and a Danish mother. He was sent as a boy to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he won prizes at every stage, culminating in the Great Gold Medal, which came with a travelling scholarship. So in 1797 he went to Rome to learn carving in marble (not readily available in Denmark), rapidly developed a successful practice and ended up staying there for the next 40 years. I had seen him likened to Keats as a humble-born genius who had mastered the educated repertory of classical allusion, but I had seen nothing of the teeming individuality of Keats, the intimacy or originality. I wasn’t sure I knew how to look at Thorvaldsen. Could I even tell him apart from Canova, the great contemporary whose death in 1822 left him the most celebrated and sought-after sculptor in Europe? 

I guessed that the essential thing, with work of such restraint, was to have plenty of time for it; and this spring I returned for a whole day, starting with a privileged hour before the public was admitted. I would be able to dwell on the sculptures, and return to them in changing aspects, as the shafts of sunlight steepened and slid across them. For nearly a century after its opening in 1848 the Thorvaldsens Museum was lit only by natural light; in the depths of the northern winter it must have been a most mysterious and sepulchral place, the works emerging from the shadows only for a few hours each day. On a dazzling March morning it promised to come to life.