John Olsen’s ‚Impressions of Life‘ at Ribe Art Museum

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A private villa turned museum quite charmingly offers the ideal space for an intimate, personal art exhibition. The entrance hall immediately hints at the splendor of the building, with gorgeous statues and intricate floor and ceiling designs, and from there, divided by a glass door, the first part of the exhibition is displayed – the Golden Age of Danish art, framed in decadently thick golden frames that only add to the feeling of splendor. Everything about this room, from the beautiful oil paintings on canvas to the large marble statue to the exquisite white stucco designs on the ceiling invite to dwell longer and feel most welcome.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, presented on the entire top floor of the museum, focuses on the work of Danish artist John Olsen – from his early years as an apprentice artist to his later work.

As the title of the exhibition, Impressions of Life, implies, the art depicted in the exhibition offers an insight into John Olsen’s work throughout his different stages of life, presented almost like chapters in a book of life and art. The exhibition begins with a display of his earliest drawings, studies of birds so detailed they seem almost scientific.

Early on there seems to be a theme apparent, a strong focus on nature and animals, on the cusp of life and death. The titles of the different selections of art highlight this interrelation between life and death – Growth and Decay, Cadaver, Chasing Birds and Animals. More than anything, these titles skillfully reflect the art that is displayed and invite to stay longer and ponder on their meaning.

Walking through the different rooms displaying Olsen’s work, it becomes apparent that the artist masters various different techniques, from drawings with pencil on paper to prints and etchings to photography and collages. But most striking are the giant drawings with pigment on paper exhibited in the largest room of the top floor, categorized under the title Impressions of Life.

From afar, they seem to be just giant paintings, but only upon taking a closer look do the different John Olsen: Gråkrager. (Crows). 1959. Photo: Kirstine Mengel materials used for the art become visible. Hides, plants and animal organs among other materials are pressed into the pure color on the paper, leaving a coincidental imprint. Especially these works highlight the symbiosis of life and death, art and nature.

However, these works are on the brink of morbidity, and perhaps not everyone is going to enjoy the idea of a dead sheepskin being used to create art. Especially in the installment of three glass cases does this morbidity strike the eye. Olsen possesses a large collection of dead things and strange objects – others might label them as trash – that he displays in glass cases which he calls “wonder cases”. I would not go so far as to call them a wonder, or even wonderful, but what they quite successfully achieve is a further insight into the mind of Olsen as an artist, highlighting again his focus on nature, animals and death.

The museum itself – despite its rather small rooms – works excellently for the exhibition of John Olsen’s art, with his works arranged in such a way that does not feel crowded. Instead, the dimmed lights throughout many of the rooms, along with the soft gray and beige wall colors allow for a more intimate and close-up feeling, inviting to stand closer to the paintings and really take in their intricate character. The different rooms are separated by black curtains, and stepping through them is highly anticipated, as it feels like stepping into a new chapter of art.

The overall atmosphere of the art museum is calm and personal, and the many seating opportunities along with further reading material on the artists or the museum’s   history particularly invite to prolong the stay.

A visit to Ribe Art Museum is definitely worth its while and the art exhibition of John Olsen, which will remain at Ribe until the 21st of May before being passed on to the Faaborg Museum on Funen, will definitely leave a long-lasting impression.

Marie Hartkopf┃ 27th April 2018┃ Europa-Universität Flensburg

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