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Icons of Danish Modernity: Georg Brandes and Asta Nielsen by Julie K. Allen (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 86, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 102-105 | 10.1353/scd.2014.0002

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In his A Literary Review of 1846, Søren Kierkegaard, arguably the world’s most famous Dane, takes some pleasure at the thought that the work of the Danish author under review is unlikely to reach a foreign readership by exclaiming: “a conscious and contented joy over little Denmark!” (Princeton University Press, 1978). This vision of an exclusive and blissfully xenophobic Denmark—Danmark er et lille land is a recurring phrase among the Danes—shadows Julie K. Allen’s exploration of the country’s national and cultural identity in Icons of Danish Modernity. Two famous Danes—the literary critic Georg Brandes (1842–1927) and the silent film star Asta Nielsen (1881–1972)—serve as test sites at which Allen reads how “celebrity status” and its reception shaped the image of Denmark abroad while changing the way Danes saw and see themselves (p. 12). Though Allen admits that Brandes and Nielsen “had little professional interaction with each other” (p. 227), she nonetheless contends that parallels in their careers are compelling enough to inform a specifically Danish cultural modernity. Allen’s retelling of these fascinating stories is based on research into Danish sources that have been unavailable to readers with no Danish language skills. The scholarly apparatus she mobilizes, however, seems forced at times, and her recourse to so many thinkers and theorists across disciplines burdens her narrative unnecessarily and suggests a lack of analytical depth. Insights such as the fact that Brandes was “one of the most influential cultural nationalists in modern Danish history” (p. 48) give way to the obvious—“Danish national identity is still a work in progress” (p. 43)—or to the dreary—Brandes and Nielsen “may have felt all along … that no matter how far from home they traveled, how controversial their work appeared, or how famous they became, they could never divorce themselves from their national and cultural identities as Danes” (p. 43).

The structure of Allen’s arguments is happily more nuanced than that speculative conceit. Her introduction describes the Cultural Studies orientation of this sociological project as it explores the stereotypes of danskhed, or “Danishness.” The reception of Brandes and Nielsen serves to illuminate a “tension between collective conceptions of Danish national identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” and to reflect on endo-, exo-, and meta-stereotypes, that is, the Danes’ self-image, their image of how others see Danish culture and the actual views that others hold about Denmark (pp. 6–7). Those “others” are mostly Germans. Indeed, German culture provides the foil that allowed modern Danish culture to differentiate itself and to assert its own singularity. Allen provides the necessary historical and geopolitical background for this process of identity construction and explores some of the reasons that Brandes and Nielsen became “stars” in Germany. Chapter 1, “The Critic and the Actress: Crafting Art and National Identity,” depicts the ebb and flow of Brandes’s and Nielsen’s popularity in Denmark with and against the fact that both “have finally earned the respect of their own fatherland” (p. 42). The second and third chapters rely on the writing of the Danish Brandes biographer Jørgen Knudsen, whose work Allen brings to the English-speaking reader for the first time. Here Allen describes how Brandes sought refuge in Germany from the cultural provincialism of Denmark and established himself as an activist critic and a mediator between cultures, “ein solcher guter Europäer und Kultur Missionar” as Nietzsche put it (Nietzsche Briefwechsel, de Gruyter, 1984). Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to Nielsen and read somewhat like another book altogether, one focused on discourses in Film Studies. These chapters are lacking an engagement with important recent work like the two-volume study edited by Heide Schlüpmann (Unmögliche Liebe. Vol. 1: Asta Nielsen, ihr Kino and Nachtfalter. Vol. 2: Asta Nielsen, ihre Filme, Verlag Filmarchiv Austria, 2009). That said, Allen’s own border crossing between Scandinavian Studies, German Studies, and other disciplinary formations is refreshing and should help us to rethink institutional structures and therewith to enrich our research and teaching. This reviewer wished she had spent less time insisting on the uniqueness of Danishness and more time considering what binds...

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