From Classical to Queer

At a time when traditional gender identity is being challenged and the masculine and feminine are being performed and shifting between man and woman, it is worth casting a new glance at J.F. Willumsen’s norm-breaking artistic work with the female model.

In study drawings, painted and photographic portraits and figure studies of an often active and strong female body, Willumsen explored and challenged the female as subject, as concept and as motive force for the artistic process. From the early model studies at the Academy of Fine Arts to the caricatured portraits of the late years, the feminine mutates and transforms in the artist’s lines – sometimes classical, idealized and traditionally feminine, at other times searching and deviating with a surprising overlap between male and female identity and expression.

Today it has become common for the concept ‘queer’ to be used of what deviates from the norm. (Link in danish) Originally the word meant peculiar or eccentric, and for a time it was used in a derogatory sense for what seemed to deviate from prevailing norms – especially in connection with sexual orientation. In relation to Willumsen’s female subjects what can be called ‘queer’ arises in the break with the gender roles to which his time adhered and by which Willumsen – ahead of his time – never allowed himself to be tied down, but which he challenged in hybrid human depictions with both masculine and feminine features. In contemporary art, gender and body identity are prominent themes that are treated otherwise than in Willumsen’s time and by Willumsen, but the encounters between the works in the exhibition permit us to see parallels across time. The exhibition gives us insight into an open, frank artistic process which has much in common with the curious and unprejudiced attitude to gender, sexuality and bodily expression that we increasingly see expressed by people today.

The encounter of Willumsen’s art with collage, photography, drawings and sculpture and artworks from the 1960s until our own time by A K Dolven, Ester Fleckner, Lea Guldditte Hestelund, Per Kirkeby, Lærke Posselt and Ugo Rondinone brings out new aspects of familiar works by Willumsen such as The Great Relief and Diana the Hunter; and at the same time shows how art over the past 150 years or so reflects but also forms images that both define and challenge the cultural understanding of woman and the female – from classical to queer.