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Poul Henningsen: Cubism and the Conscience of Modernism

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 79-98 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Det uopnaaelige Maal for Kritiken er ikke at have Ret, at blive læst, at skrive godt. Kunsten er: ikke at blive misforstaaet.

(The unobtainable goal for the critic is not to be right, to be read, to write well. The art is: not to be misunderstood.)

In his essay "Kunst og politik, før og efter krigen" (Art and Politics, Before and After the War), Sven Møller Kristensen, discussing the emphasis on political tendencies in the arts in Denmark in the period between the two world wars, does his best to delineate artistic views among that time's prominent "venstrefløj" (1970, 84) [left wing]. Mentioning the works of Strindberg, Martin Andersen Nexø, Goethe, and Molière, Kristensen uses the thoughts of Danish philosopher Herbert Iversen as a springboard to illustrate that "kunst først og fremmest er kunst, og at kunsten indirekte har en ideologisk-politisk betydning. Det er netop den opfattelse der skal blive typisk for den radikale retning i mellemkrigstiden" (86) [art first and foremost is art, and that art indirectly has an ideological-political meaning. It is precisely that perception that proves to be typical for the radical direction in the time between the wars]. Kristensen proceeds to discuss the efforts of prominent Danish journals at this time including Klingen, Clarté, Monde, and naturally Kritisk Revy. He adds that "'alting hænger sammen' var en sætning man ofte hørte" [a sentence you often heard was 'Everything hangs together']. Ultimately, Kristensen sees "hovedrepræsentanten" (90) [the main representative] for the far-reaching cultural criticism of the 1920s and 1930s in the architect, designer, journalist, and songwriter Poul Henningsen. Kristensen notes that the polemical Henningsen, the leading voice of Denmark's avant-garde between the two world wars, focused his highly critical eye on myriad aspects of culture and brought them together in a unifying context. He defines Henningsen's approach as a social and political orientation within aesthetics—though not with the purpose of political agitation.

This article will illustrate that Henningsen's arguments rested on his desire to establish a normative position that would make him immune from the very criticisms he could then direct at both traditional and modernist approaches. His writings and responses to developments in design and architecture, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, disclose his efforts to construct a theoretical haven based on his essentialist interpretation of cubist thought. In Henningsen's rhetoric, he believed his position would be socially beneficial without functioning solely in a political manner and would result in aesthetic improvement without forcing specific aesthetics on design developments.

Through hundreds of articles in a number of publications, Henningsen, known simply as PH, maintained parallel careers as both a broad social commentator and the designer of lamps, some of which have remained in production for more than eighty years. Many years of scientific study on the directional diffusion of light led to his world-renowned series of hanging, wall, and table lamps. Henningsen employed a three-shade system of curves based on the shapes of plates, saucers, and cups. In 1925, one of his lamp designs—the first in his enduring PH-series— won a gold medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Trained as an architect, though he left the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Architecture School after only two semesters, Henningsen began writing for the Danish newspaper Politiken in 1921 and soon became the paper's first architecture critic. His earliest articles reveal a firm commitment that aesthetics should not trump societal concerns, his voice becoming one of conscience for the cultural radicals of his time. One senses in many of his essays that he was searching for a visual language that would address both issues and merge them into an all-encompassing perspective. As early as 1923, PH participated in the International City-Building Congress in Göteborg and remained deeply concerned about the social ramifications of growth in the world's expanding cities. Neel Pørn indicates in PHs Arkitekturkritik (1994; PH's Critique of Architecture): "arkitektur blev i PHs pen ikke blot et spørgsmål om at løse...

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