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Denmark - Art & Design (Literature, Painting, Architecture, Music, Cinema & Danish Culture Canon)

Updated on March 12, 2017
Flag picture used for illustrative purposes under fair use policy.
Flag picture used for illustrative purposes under fair use policy. | Source

Art & Design

What is Art? Where is it? Can it be found in Life or can it be found in Death? Is Art made purely 'by design' or is it designed by fate to give us control on how to understand Life and Death?

What is Design? How is it related to Art? Is Art a way of showing us the designs of nature or is Design a way of showing us nature's Art? Where does Art begin and where does Design end? Are they the same?

Is it possible to understand one without understanding the other?

That's like saying that you can completely understand Life without ever understanding Death or that Death can have its symmetry without Life. While these questions might be difficult to understand for momentary mortals, there are some who have taken the time and effort to figure out their intricacies, their 'ins and outs', and to stop their unyielding uniqueness in the face of humanity’s history. It is due to such great people that we can say that we have an idea of what Art and Design are. It is quite easy to say that we owe a lot to such people.

Denmark is a country in Europe. More specifically, it is a Nordic country in Northern Europe. Denmark is situated southwest of Sweden and south of Norway and in its south lies Germany. Officially, it is called the Kingdom of Denmark. It comprises of Denmark, Faroe Islands and Greenland. Together, it is considered as the Danish Realm and it is officially called the Kingdom of Denmark. It has a Scandinavian background and so it has close ties to its neighbours like Sweden and Norway. They have ties of both culture and history with its neighbours. The Danish language is also close to the languages spoken in Sweden and Norway (namely Swedish and Norwegian) and they are mutually intelligible.

The people of Denmark are called Danes or Danish people. Danish people are well known in the field of Art and Design. They have also made impact in the fields of Literature, Painting, Architecture, Music and Cinema. Danes also have their own Danish Culture Canon which will be useful for preserving their heritage for future generations. They also maintain their own concept of 'Hygge' which is unique to them. Overall, Denmark is ubiquitous in the world of Art & Design.

The Little Mermaid

Literature & Painting

We shall start with Literature. Hans Christian Andersen is the first person from Denmark that everybody meets. They meet him through his collection of fairy tales. A lot of his stories were turned into movies by Hollywood and Disney. He is probably the most well-known person from Denmark. It is impossible to find a child anywhere in the world who has not read at least one fairy tale written by him. He has been translated into over 150 languages and that is second only to the Bible. His fairy tale 'The Little Mermaid' has been made into a Blockbuster Hit animated movie by Disney and has been included into the Danish Culture Canon which is a list of the best cultural items belonging to Denmark.

Danish literature is also well known for many other famous writers such as Søren Kierkegaard for his philosophical essays, Ludvig Holberg for plays, Piet Hein for poems, Karen Blixen (penname Isak Dinesen) for short stories, etc.

Plus there are also modern authors like the Nobel laureate Henrik Pontoppidan and Herman Bang who have become internationally accepted for their great artistic works. In other words, Danes have made their mark on Literature.

Now let's move on to Painting. Danish art is something that has a long history. Artifacts from the 2nd millennium BC like the Trundholm sun chariot show proof of this. We can even find parts of the Nordic Bronze Age art, Norse art and Viking art inside Danish art. There are a lot of Danish painters who have made their mark in the world of Art. Though the old kings used to bring painters from abroad to paint their royal portraits, slowly Denmark started getting its own talent to do this prestigious honour. Though the commonly accepted style was the European pattern, eventually around the 19th century, Denmark started showing signs of its own potential for artistic renewability. During this phase, called the Danish Golden Age, there was a great interest in soft lighting and strong contrasting colours. The Danish Golden Age started a distinct tradition of Danish art that continues to flourish even today.

A lot of art work can be found in churches too. There are many frescos in Danish churches that attract people from around the world. Danish medieval painting is well known due to church frescos like those of the 16th-century artist called the Elmelunde Master. Around 600 churches in Denmark have church wall paintings on them, which is the highest concentration of surviving church murals anywhere in the world. A lot of them date back to the Middle Ages and they are mainly focused on famous stories from the Old and New Testament.

The central figure that became the most critical part of Denmark's return to the world's attention was Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. By teaching at the Danish Academy for Painting, he instructed, informed and influenced all of his students who eventually, just like their teacher, became great artists too. His influence was critical in the reformation of Danish paintings. He was instrumental in the rise of famous painters like Wilhelm Bendz, Wilhelm Marstrand, Martinus Rørbye, Constantin Hansen, Christen Købke, etc. Later, other painters such as P. S. Krøyer, Michael and Anna Ancher became famous for their paintings of natural surroundings and local people. It's funny but Art inspires Art, so eventually the town that they came to draw about became an artist's colony too!

A lot of the splendid works of Danish painters can be seen in the Danish Museum of Art & Design in Copenhagen today.


Now let’s go into the world of Design. When we talk about the topic of Design, Danish Architecture has to be mentioned in the same sentence. Today, the architecture of Denmark has remnants of various influences and trends that it got from different cultures of different lands during the ages of its long history. Currently there are many buildings following in the vein of Nordic Classicism, Expressionism, Functionalism, Modernism, etc. But this was always not so. In the olden days, there were many buildings following the different schools of Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Neo-Classical, Historism, National Romanticism, etc. During the Baroque period, the architect Lambert van Haven, who was one of the most famous architects of his era, made the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen which is quite famous. The king Christian IV made many buildings in this style which made him instrumental in giving the Baroque style its space in Danish history. Later, the architect Niels Eigtved brought a new style to the country with Rococo. This came into fashion in the 1740's. This was followed by the Neo-classical style (Caspar Frederik Harsdorff, Denmark's most prominent 18th-century architect aka the Father of Danish Classicism) and the Classical school (Christian Frederik Hansen), followed by Historicism, National Romanticism, etc.

Some of the ancient buildings can still be seen today due to Denmark's remarkable interest in preserving its national heritage. Some of Denmark's ancient buildings have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list like the Kronborg Castle which was also the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Now let's talk about Danish Architecture in the 20th century. During this time, Denmark made its stellar reputation with the international success of architects like Jørn Utzon and Johann Otto von Spreckelsen. Johann Otto von Spreckelsen won the international competition for the Grande Arche at La Défense in Paris whereas Jørn Utzon became well known due to his iconic creation 'The Opera House'. His success would be replicated in many other countries too. Danish design is well known everywhere and it is often associated with world-famous designers and architects. There are also many other prominent names such as Børge Mogensen, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Kjærholm, Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner, Poul Henningsen, Verner Panton, etc. There are also many well-known Danish designers known for their specific fields such as Georg Jensen for silver, Kristian Solmer Vedel for industrial design, Jens Harald Quistgaard for kitchen furniture and Ole Wanscher for furniture design, especially in the classical style.

MLTR - Someday

MLTR - Paint My Love

Metallica - Nothing Else Matters

Metallica - Enter Sandman


Metallica - I Disappear


“If Music be the food of Life, then play on”, said Shakespeare. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that Music has always been important to Denmark due to its long history of folklore traditions. They have a lot of folk tales, songs and stories in their culture.

Even now, music plays an important role in Denmark's cultural life which is one of the main reasons behind the survival of the Royal Danish Orchestra which is one of the oldest orchestras in the world. Carl Nielsen, who is close to Danish hearts due to his melodies for popular songs, is Denmark's most famous composer and is renowned for his six symphonies. He also composed for Adam Oehlenschläger's drama Aladdin. He has also composed concertos for flute, violin and clarinet, the operas Saul og David and Maskarade, the Wind Quintet, and the Helios Overture. The Helios Overture is famous for showcasing the movement of the sun in the sky from early morning to night time.

Another name is Hans Christian Lumbye who was called "The Strauss of the North" and another is Niels W. Gade who was famous for his 'Elverskud' which is well known for its music. In the world of contemporary classical music, there are many successful composers such as Hans Abrahamsen, Per Nørgård, Poul Ruders, etc.

The famous Opera House is used for staging such works for the audience's pleasure. There have also been many Jazz musicians from Denmark who have made their mark in the world of Music such as Svend Asmussen, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Niels Lan Doky, Marilyn Mazur, etc.

The Copenhagen Jazz Festival has now become an international must-see event too.

Everybody knows 'Michael Learns To Rock', aka MLTR, a famous band in the 90's who were known for their love ballads such as Someday, Paint My Love, etc.

And ‘Metallica’ is a very famous Rock band whose influence in the world of Rock Music is undeniable. They have many famous songs like Nothing Else Matters, I Disappear, Enter Sandman, Sad But True, Unforgiven II, etc.

I Disappear, also appeared on the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack and was used to promote the movie which had Tom Cruise in the lead and was directed by John Woo. The band members shot the music video for 'I Disappear' at some of the same locations used in the movie and the song also played over its end credits. It's also important to mention here that Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica, is the first Danish musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

More recently, in 2013, Denmark participated in the Eurovision Song Contest and Emmelie de Forest won the competition for her song "Only Teardrops".

Casino Royale


The field in which Denmark is mostly known to the world today is Cinema. Though Denmark has always had a strong tradition of films and Carl Theodor Dreyer was already famous as one of the world's greatest silent film directors, it is only now that Danish Cinema has started making inroads into public consciousness and the world has come to recognize its power. Gabriel Axel's film ‘Babette's Feast’ was awarded an Oscar in 1987 and Bille August received an Oscar for 'Pelle the Conqueror' in 1998. In 1992, Billie August also won the Palme d'Or in Cannes for 'The Best Intentions'. In 2011, Susanne Bier won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for ‘In a Better World’.

It is important to mention one more name here. And that name is Mads Mikkelsen. He is famous for his acting in Danish films such as ‘The Hunt’. But more than that, he is currently the most famous Danish movie personality in the world. Because he has become one of the most sought out actors in the world for playing bad guy roles. So he is now a much wanted actor in Hollywood and he can also be seen in important roles in American films such as King Arthur, Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans, and even in TV shows like Hannibal. It is also important to note that he was the main villain in Casino Royale which was a reboot of the James Bond series.

We must also talk about Dogme 95 which is a cinematic movement which valued artistic integrity and went against studio interests and made its own artistic agenda against commercial aggressions over the art form of cinema. It was led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and both have made many famous films such as Lars von Trier's 'The Idiots' and Thomas Vinterburg's 'The Celebration'.

Danish Culture Canon

Who wouldn't consider MLTR as a part of music history? Which is why Denmark is proud of them and many other acts such as them. One more special thing to note here is that the Danish culture is based on the concept of "Hygge". It means something like "coziness", like relaxing with some good friends, family members, etc. Sometimes they light candles and they enjoy good food and drinks, and celebrate a friendly, family feeling. Christmas time is a good example for this type of culture. The government also follows this concept of making a friendly atmosphere by giving government funding to artists and filmmakers so that they can focus on their work while not being distracted by the worries of financial problems. This is why there is a good amount of quality work from Danish filmmakers and artists. Museums, Theaters, etc., also receive financial support which means that today's kids will get necessary access to current artists so that they can become future artists. This is a good idea and it is something that Denmark can be proud about.

Denmark can also be proud about its Danish Culture Canon which is a list of cultural items that show how far Danes have reached in the world of Art & Design. For them, it's their way of saying that though it is a globalized world today, Denmark has its own cultural pride and is proud of its heritage. So overall, we can see that the Danes have come a long way from the past and are now moving onto the future and creating inspiring pathways for the world, and especially for the world of Art and Design, to follow. From paintings of kings being done by foreign painters to being world-renowned with its own unique cultural identity, Denmark has come a long way, indeed. Now that they have their own culture canon, Danes can tell their children that they have a lot that they should be proud about, and they can tell the global audience that they have many things to offer and also that, Denmark is now ready for the world.

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