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Jens Ferdinand Willumsen: 1860 - 1942

Jens Ferdinand Willumsen was born in Copenhagen in 1863. Between the ages of 18 and 22 he studied at the Copenhagen Academy. His accomplished naturalistic paintings were already attracting notice when he saw an exhibition of contemporary French art and left Denmark, in 1888, for Paris and Spain.

In Brittany in 1890 he met Paul Gauguin, who taught him the various techniques of preparing a canvas, mixing colors, carving wood panels, and decorating them in polychrome. He also met followers of Gauguin's Symbolist movement, including Paul Serusier, through whom the Nabis group came about. Under these influences and that of Odilon Redon, to whom he was introduced the same year, Willumsen's art entered its second phase. His imagination, fired by new and strange ideas of the evolution of nature, produced strongly decorative paintings, and shallow wood reliefs ornamented with colors and applied metals.

In 1891 he exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Independants and with the Nabis at the Impressionist and Symbolist show at LeBarc de Boutteville's gallery. According to one of the Nabis, Maurice Denis, the novelty of Willumsen's work raised a stir in Paris comparable to that caused by Gauguin's Cafe Volpini exhibition of 1889.

Over the next ten years Willumsen devoted much time to experimenting not only with wood carving but also with sculpture and even architecture. Between 1897 and 1913 he designed the independent art exhibitions building in Copenhegan. At the turn of the century he painted a series of studies in the Jura mountains and in the Alps near Lake Geneva. The Woman Climber, 1902, was his tribute to his wife, who accompanied him on these mountaineering expeditions.

Meanwhile he did not neglect his more decorative painting. A commission for three allegorical murals depicting three stages in the life of mother and daughter occupied him a great deal in Paris between 1903 and 1905. His big Sun and Youth was painted between 1902 and 1910. Numerous large, broadly designed compositions with over life-size figures followed.

From about 1913 Willumsen developed a new, brilliant range of colors, which his visits to Tunis and Spain in 1914 and 1915 reinforced. This brought him to his third and final phase, a type of Expressionism similar in many ways to that of his Scandinavian contemporary Edvard Munch.

In 1923 the Danish government placed a commission for The Great Relief, on which Willumsen had already worked for almost 20 years. Finally placed in the Statens Museum, Copenhagen, in 1928, it consists of many different sorts of colored marble and guilded bronze and a complex grouping of symbolic figures.


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