Flemming Friborg: A brewing dynasty's idealistic vision for the arts

From a lecture to the Royal Academy of Arts by the director of Copenhagen's Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

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The founder of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914), believed in sculpture as a vehicle for understanding mankind, and made it his project to collect the best sculpture of all time for all Danes to see.

The founder of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914), believed in sculpture as a vehicle for understanding mankind, and made it his project to collect the best sculpture of all time for all Danes to see.

Jacobsen was a politician in the grand manner, and Art - for him always with a capital A - was the perfect arena in which nations could compete. His aim was to acquire the very best, but if the absolute masterpiece was unavailable, then to accept something second-class as long as it is instructive. Copies have their own merit even if they are only plaster - as long as they are executed so that the content and thus the value are maintained.

The Glyptotek should never risk descending to the level of sterile academicism, but aspire to be a truly spiritual place, dedicated to the cult of art, and with an ambience all its own. Jacobsen was obsessed with the notion of attracting visitors from every class, and he used his status as an amateur as a point of departure from which to acquaint himself with "the common people".

His son Helge Jacobsen (1882-1946) held very different and not quite as loftily ideal views on art, but added a whole new track to the rich collections: a section of contemporary French paintings, from Manet to Gauguin and Van Gogh - painters abhorred by his father.

The story of the Glyptotek thus enacts the clash between 19th century aesthetics and Modernism, but also tells the story of the rise of industrialism in Denmark, with the Carlsberg breweries and dynasty as a stage. The Glyptotek story can be seen as the story of change as such - from rural, local and occasionally somewhat nationalistically tinged ideas and ideals to a metropolitan, refined and professionalised culture - with a grand museum at its centre.

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