Last weekend I found myself doing a bit of time-travel at the Louisiana museum. My last visit was over 50 years ago, soon after it opened and…miraculously I remembered it! That takes some doing, considering the hundreds of museums I’ve visited since, but in this case it’s hardly surprising, as the museum is absolutely stunning. In fact… unforgettable.
The location is hard to beat, wedged between sea and forest, perched high above a strait that connects the Baltic with the North Sea. Across the Oresund lies the silhouette of Sweden (above, seen from the ‘Panorama Room’, where you can sit and lap up the view).
So fresh, clean air is guaranteed, as well as intermittent showers, as you stroll between low buildings across lawns and through trees. The architecture blends seamlessly into its surroundings, a perfect example of the mid-century modern genius of Danish design (which I’ve written about before).
At the Louisiana, this quality is much thanks to its visionary founder, Knud W. Jensen, a wealthy businessman who introduced the Danes to 20th century art when the museum doors opened, in 1958. His original 19th century home stands in the grounds – and in fact gave the name Louisiana, which referred to three wives of a former owner – all bizarrely called Louise.
Typical of Denmark, an eminently comfortable, egalitarian, forward-looking country of barely 6 million people, the Louisiana has a rare intimacy. There is no monumentality, no pretentiousness, no sense of an overpowering temple to art; here the public joins the art, moves through it and enjoys it.
Some exhibition rooms are surprisingly small, others soar, then stairs or a corridor will lead to an unexpected vista of the outdoors – sea, garden, pond or forest. More often than not there’s a sculpture – as above, a playful trio of pieces by Max Ernst. Even nature becomes art here – as with this monumental tree-trunk.
The original architecture of wood and glass is intact, joined by four decades of extensions, all harmoniously designed by Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert. Surprisingly, the curator told me that they’re not envisaging further expansion – they’re happy with the space they have. What a contrast to the museums of Europe, always trying to be bigger and better.
The only comparable art museums I know oin terms of setting were both designed by the great Catalan architect, Josep Lluis Sert, responsible for the Miro Foundation (1975) in Barcelona and the Fondation Maeght (1964), in St-Paul de Vence. Both of them integrate the outdoors and have extensive sculpture collections, yet lack the fluidity and, in terms of collections, the international scope of the Louisiana.
Plenty of 20th century greats feature in the collection, dominated by sculpture (something I clearly remember from my childhood visit) – from Henry Moore to Giacometti, Max Ernst and Alexander Calder. Those are the early works, but today they’re joined by, among others, a remarkable piece by Richard Serra (above) – two curved planes of steel slotted into a cleft below a footbridge, by Nobuo Sekine (below) reflecting the woods, and by Louise Bourgeois – spidery as ever.
But the greatest impact comes from a gallery of Giacometti sculptures – starting with small pieces in a mezzanine room. This overlooks a high-ceilinged space ending at an entire wall of glass – through it, among clusters of trees, willows bow gracefully over a lake; inside, a Giacometti man walks, and a woman stands. Quite beautiful.
I won’t even start on the painting, as there are dozens of compelling pieces – including a beautiful, small-scale Rothko, as mesmerising as any of his larger paintings. A Yayoi Kusama installation (thronging with visitors), three large canvases by Yves Klein, Gerhard Richter, Andreas Gursky, Pop Art, Picasso et al…
One of the most striking recent acquisitions is by the American photographer, Catherine Opie. An entire room displays 50 photos taken in the Beverly Hills home of Elizabeth Taylor, just before and after her death. The two women never met, though apparently Taylor was glimpsed watching Opie work from the garden.
It’s a revealing series, building up a picture of incredible order in what had been a disordered life, the glitzy trappings of stardom (wardrobes packed with handbags, fur coats, evening gowns) beside reflections of an old lady who needed a manual to work the TV/ DVD remote (well I do too). It’s a fascinating documentary, and each photo is an art composition.
Finally, in the beautiful café overlooking the sea, we collapsed. First, though, the clouds drifted by, bringing a gentle drizzle, next minute the sun glowed and crowds rushed outside to eat, drink and enjoy the view. I was with them, and with Alexander Calder‘s dancing sculptures, soaking up art and memories.
Getting there: The Louisiana is in Humlebaek, a tiny coastal town on the northeast coast of Zealand. Copenhagen airport is less than an hour away by car, or you can take a train from Copenhagen’s central station in 35 mins.