Johan Rohde – The unity of art

At auction no. 776 an impressive variety of works by the artist, designer and art critic Johan Rohde are offered for sale. These all come from the collection of his son, H.P. Rohde.


Last year marked the 150th anniversary of Johan Rohde’s birth, but the scope and coherence of his comprehensive production of paintings, furniture, silver and book-craft has remained largely unknown, even though Rohde was arguably one of the most crucial figures in Danish art, applied art and art criticism around the turn of the previous century.

The Free Exhibition

Johan Rohde (1856-1935) was originally trained as a medical doctor, but relatively late in life he decided to pursue a career as an artist. After taking private lessons for a few years he succeeded in being accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1881-82. Among young artists at that time there was great dissatisfaction with education offered by the Academy and with the censored exhibitions held at Charlottenborg. Young artist felt that the established art was stagnant and out of step with the modern currents that were coming to the fore abroad. Therefore, many of these young artists sought admission to The Artists’ Free Study Schools where P.S. Krøyer and Lauritz Tuxen taught with inspiration from modern French art. Rohde spent the years from 1883 to 1887 at this school, and it was here his pictorial talent was developed. Later, Rohde became a teacher at the school and he taught a number of the artists that, in time, would represent early Danish modernism. These include Oluf Høst, Olaf Rude, William Scharff as well as Edvard Weie.

The ever increasing dissatisfaction with the exhibitions at Charlottenborg where young artists of modernist orientation were not allowed to exhibit led to the establishment of The Free Exhibition in 1891. Along with Vilhelm Hammershøi, Th. Philipsen, J.F. Willumsen and Agnes and Harald Slott-Møller, Rohde was one of the main initiators behind the founding of this association, and for many years it was very much Rohde who was the driving force behind the activities of The Free. In 1893 Rohde and Philipsen managed to create an exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s and Paul Gauguin’s works. This was many years before these painters achieved substantial international recognition, and for young Danish artists this exhibition proved extremely significant.

Travels in Europe

As of the late 19th century, travels, exhibitions and journals began to give Danish artists a very good impression of the latest currents in especially French and German art. Johan Rohde was among the artists whose entire artistic efforts were strongly influenced by international currents. For example, his contribution to the founding of The Free Exhibition must be considered within the context of similar initiatives across Europe where artists would form free and independent associations in opposition to tradition-bound academies.

In 1887 Rohde travelled to Paris, the most important city in the European art world at the time, but notably his later travels had a major impact on his own work as an artist. Shortly after the foundation of The Free Exhibition, Rohde set out on a longer journey to The Netherlands, Belgium, Paris, London and Northern Italy. Rohde profited immensely from this journey. His encounter with the older European art was further intensified by the experience of being confronted with an entirely ground-breaking expression in contemporary art – especially French symbolists such as Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Vincent van Gogh and Felix Valloton were to serve as guiding stars for Rohde in the course of his later work.

Johan Rohde’s close ties to the symbolism of the 1890’s is most striking in his soulful and silent landscapes in which canals and rivers, boats and bridges, buildings and vegetation are depicted in the changing light of the twilight hour. These are sensed landscapes that could justifiably be interpreted as evocative of personal moods, inscribed in an ornamental sequence of lines and in simplified and decorative forms. He found his motifs in Holland, van Gogh’s native country, but when he returned to Denmark, he found motifs of similar quality in the flatlands of Ribe, Fanoe and Karup, and in canal and harbour scenes at e.g. Christianshavn and in his hometown Randers – areas that probably reminded him of the canals in Venice and Amsterdam.

Applied art

Whereas modern art moved in new directions, Johan Rohde maintained his artistic idiom in the first years of the 20th century. Even if Rohde’s paintings were out of step with modern art, they constituted an important basis for his work within applied art – an aspect that is often overlooked, because the renewal in his art after the turn of the century is found in the design of e.g. silver and furniture. Rohde’s contribution to the advancement of Danish applied art is truly impressive.

The collections at The Danish Museum of Art and Design contain hundreds of drawings with sketches for everything from key bows, monograms, decorative patterns, flowerpots, lamps, curtain rods for complete interiors – even fountains and sepulchral monuments. The same goes for his sketches for silverworks, including jewellery, writing sets, cutlery and watches along with decorations for book covers. In addition to these, there are all the elaborate pencil and watercolour drawings for the same items that are often works of art in their own right.

Johan Rohde began to design furniture in 1897 and was soon quite successful, especially following the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 at which several specimens of his furniture were represented. Rohde’s furniture is an interesting expression of the encounter with a number of ancient, classical and Japanese stylistic features, reflected in the design of details, the use of exotic species of timber and in a select craftsmanship brought to complete perfection – including the decorative intarsia works.
Rohde worked with silver concurrently with his furniture design. In 1906 he began cooperating with George Jensen, and this proved to be highly significant later, since it is this particular part of Rohde’s work that has gained most attention internationally. In many respects, Rohde’s silver design was very much at the cutting edge of contemporary currents. A number of his works in silver demonstrate a simplicity and a respect for the potential of the material that clearly points to the functionalism that would not come into fashion until decades later. Several items, characterised by timeless design, are still in production at Georg Jensen.

The unity of art

Johan Rohde’s work features a number of references to Danish and international art and applied art, references that derive from his travels in Denmark and abroad. No matter what material and what kind of object he worked with, Rohde seems to have wanted to purify the artistic idiom. Although he never endeavoured to create a sheer Gesamtkunstwerk, the total interplay of the arts, his works clearly bespeak an artistic ideal that we are perhaps more familiar with under names such as Symbolism and Art Nouveau.

The motifs of his paintings carry traces of the man-made world – bridges, houses, ships and ruins from Antiquity – as well as traces of the organic and decorative forms of nature. The arched bridges in Rohde’s landscapes are repeated in the curves of his furniture. The depiction of houses in the paintings assumes cubic shapes, not unlike the drawers in Rohde’s commodes. The column motifs and volutes in the paintings recur as a classical element of his furniture and silver design. All these multifarious impulses intertwine in Rohde’s work. Together, the symbolist, the flowing, the classical, the textural, the formal and the ethereal modes of expression constitute the core of Rohde’s highly personal idiom – an idiom that had the unity of art as ideal.

Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen is keeper at Odense City Museums, and along with Gertrud Oelsner, keeper at Storstrøm Art Museum, she organised last year’s Rohde exhibition, ”ARS UNA” (The Unity of Art), at Funen Art Museum. For this exhibition they issued a publication on Rohde and his work under this very title. The exhibition, from which a number of items are now offered for sale, was later presented at the Jugendstil museum, Bröhan-Museum, in Berlin.