Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen's international correspondance


With its 215 items – letters, photographs and other documents – this source collection sheds light on the Danish visual artist and art theorist Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen’s (1909–1957) connections to the international surrealist movement and other fellow artists around the world. The source material offers a significant contribution to the understanding of Danish surrealism and of the Danish surrealists’ relationship with the international surrealist movement, particularly in Sweden, France and England.

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This source collection consists of documents from both public and private archives and collections in Denmark and abroad, including the Manuscript Collection at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, the Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen Archive at Museum Jorn in Silkeborg and the manuscript collection at Lund University Library. It includes a selection of letters focused mainly on Bjerke-Petersen’s international relations and professional contacts. Thus, private letters to and from family members, private papers and articles and manuscripts, including proofs of book manuscripts, are not generally included. Anyone interested in information of a more personal nature or insight into Bjerke-Petersen’s writing process will need to undertake an independent search for materials in relevant museums and archives, including the letters and images in the personal archive of Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen’s second wife, Eva-Lisa Lennartsson (1910–1999), at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm.

The collection of letters and documents does not claim to be exhaustive. Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen’s correspondence was verifiably more extensive. Yves Tanguy (1900–1955) sent more letters to Bjerke-Petersen than the one included in the collection. Also missing are Bjerke-Petersen’s letters to André Breton (1896-1966), Paul Éluard (1895–1952) and Benjamin Péret (1899-1959), among others. It appears that some letters were either lost in the mail or destroyed after reading, so only part of the correspondence is visible here. Given the wide geographic dispersion of materials in archives and institutions, some letters or groups of letters may also have been unintentionally overlooked. Nevertheless, the source collection still offers a true and fair view of the extent and character of Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen’s contacts with his international colleagues.

Letter content: An international outlook

The letters in the collection date from 1930 to 1956, with clear intermittent gaps, especially around the Second World War. Apart form an early letter from the Norwegian artist Erik Werenskiold (1855–1938) from 1930, the earliest letters focus on work in the Danish artist group ‘linien’ [the line] in 1934, Bjerke-Petersen’s collaboration with his colleagues Ejler Bille (1910–2004) and Richard Mortensen (1910-1993) and his involvement in the international exhibition ‘kubisme = surrealisme’ in January 1935 at Den Frie Centre for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen. Bjerke-Petersen’s dramatic rupture with Bille and Mortensen, based mainly on disagreement about the motives and drivers of surrealism, is described in the source material by Bjerke-Petersen himself in letters to Egon Östlund (1889–1952), the Swedish coordinator for Halmstadgruppen [the Halmstad Group], and in letters and fragments of letters to Ejler Bille and Richard Mortensen. Bjerke-Petersen’s letters present his side of the story, in which his conflict with Mortensen and Bille appears deeply personal and forms a recurring topic, also in later letters: Mortensen’s attempt at intervening, as related to Bjerke-Petersen by Egon Östlund and the English surrealist David Gascoyne (1916–2001), in Bjerke-Petersen’s two letters about ‘The International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London in 1936; Bjerke-Petersen’s terse affirmation of Bille’s talent as a painter in a letter to Museum Director Alfred H. Barr (1902–1981) in a letter about the exhibition ‘Fantastic Art Dada Surrealism’ at Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936–37; and Bjerke-Petersen’s version of Mortensen’s view of Bjerke-Petersen’s art in a letter to Hans Arp (1886–1966) in 1954.

The Swedish Halmstadgruppen artist Erik Olson’s (1901–1986) perception of the conflict as a purely Danish issue is mentioned in Viveka Bosson’s correspondence-based biography ‘En sökares vandring’, just as letters from the Danish artist Franciska Clausen (1899–1986) and polytechnics student and translator of Freud’s writings Jørgen Neergaard (1910–1937) to Ejler Bille also shed light on the conflict. Neither Clausen’s nor Neergaard’s letter, of which the latter is particularly interesting for adding nuance and also advocating Bjerke-Petersen’s point of view, is included in Jan Würtz Frandsen’s in-depth representation of the conflict in ‘Richard Mortensen: Ungdomsårene 1930-1940: Mellem surrealisme og abstraktion’. Mortensen and Bille’s letter to the editor, which lit the spark of the conflict, was printed in the national newspaper Politiken on Wednesday, 31 October 1934.

In connection with the exhibition ‘kubisme = surrealisme’ and the publication of the magazine ‘konkretion’ [concretion] in 1935–36, letters from a string of European artists appear in Bjerke-Petersen’s correspondence. Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), André Breton, Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (1899–1962), Roland Penrose (1900–1984), David Gascoyne, Herbert Read (1893–1968) and several others, along with his fellow artists in Halmstadgruppen, represented important contacts in Bjerke-Petersen’s work as a visual artists and an art theorist. These contacts laid the foundation for the Danish surrealists’ subsequent participation in the major international surrealist exhibitions in London in 1936 and in Paris in 1938 and 1947. Here, the Danish surrealist group formed close ties, theoretically as well as practically, with their fellow artists in other countries.

Striking is the absence of female artists, both as correspondents and as direct or indirect topics in the letters. In the letters, Karen Holtsmark (1907–1998) appears as an almost ghost-like Norwegian member of the editorial team for the ‘konkretion’ magazine. Individual works of art by Valentine Hugo (1887–1968), Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943) and Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and a text by Gisèle Prassinos (1920–2015) account for just a marginal share of images and text in ‘konkretion’, while a mention of Claude Cahun’s (1894–1954) book ‘Les Paris sont ouvert’ [Place Your Bets] in an article in ‘konkretion’ assumes that Cahun is male. Rita Kernn-Larsen (1904-1998) is only mentioned occasionally in the letters, while Elsa Thoresen’s (1906–1994) artistic practice comes up slightly more often. The women are there and yet, not.
Thus, a 1939 letter from Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Bjerke-Petersen stands out.

In 1937–38 Bjerke-Petersen is on a sojourn in Paris with his wife, Elsa Thoresen, and from this time until the outbreak of the Second World War, the documents in the collection shed light on the Danish surrealists’ invitation to take part in the legendary ‘Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme’ at Galerie Beaux-Art in Paris in January 1938, the art scene in Paris and Bjerke-Petersen’s collaboration with Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp on the exhibition ‘International nutidskunst: Konstruktivisme Neoplasticisme Abstrakt kunst Surrealisme’ at the Kunstnerforbundet gallery in Oslo, Norway, in 1938. The Arps occupy a special place in Bjerke-Petersen’s correspondence, both in terms of the number of letters, the duration of the contact, from 1935 to 1954, and the more amicable and personal tone.

In his letter from 1939, Taeuber-Arp describes the near chaotic events surrounding the exhibition in Oslo (a painting by Miró (1893–1983) has been scratched, a drawing by Oscar Domínguez (1906–1957) has gone missing, a relief by Domela (1900–1992) has been broken, and Hans Arp transported sculptures and pictures in a taxi, which resulted in them getting dented and damaged). She underscores that Arp and she feel a responsibility for sorting these problems out. Biographical letters and notes from Joan Miró, Benjamin G. Benno (1901–1980), René Magritte (1898–1967), Oscar Domínguez and Max Ernst (1891–1976) offer insights into the organizational work involved in creating the exhibition, and a note with an original drawing and, somewhat later, a letter from Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) both add context to the exhibition-related materials in the collection.

A series of 12 photographs from ‘International nutidskunst: Konstruktivisme Neoplasticisme Abstrakt kunst Surrealisme’ document the actual character of the exhibition. The photographs, which are from Bjerke-Petersen and Elsa Thoresen’s private photo album, have not previously been published as a series. Principal works by Kandinsky, Miró, Magritte, Ernst, Schwitters, Domínguez, Domela, Arp and Taeuber-Arp hang side by side, interweaving and bearing testimony to the close artistic community that the leading artists of this time in fact engaged in. Together with the letters, the photographs position Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen in the inner circle of an international network.

Another, smaller group of letters deal with conditions during the time leading up to and immediately following the Second World War: in 1939, Victor Brauner (1903–1966) and Yves Tanguy both reach out to Bjerke-Petersen to discuss the difficult economic conditions in Paris and the sale of art; in letters to Bjerke-Petersen from 1945 and a few years on, Oscar Domínguez, Herbert Read and E.L.T. Mesens (1903–1971) describe the impact of the war on art and the broken international contacts among the artists.

From the end of the war until Bjerke-Petersen’s death in 1957, of particular note are three letters from Asger Jorn (1914–1973) on the publication of a multilingual edition of Bjerke-Petersen’s 1933 book ‘Symboler i abstrakt kunst’ [Symbols in Abstract Art] and the possibility of publishing Bjerke-Petersen’s theoretical work on a broader international scale, along with letters from the director of MoMA in New York, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and curator Iris Barry (1895–1969), also of MoMA NYC. The letters from Barr and Barry related to the period of 1946–47, when Bjerke-Petersen lived in New York with his family. Also from this time one finds a hand-written CV by Bjerke-Petersen and a note from Hilla Rebay, a curator at the Museum of Non-Objective Art, now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where Bjerke-Petersen presented an untitled painting in ‘Loan Exhibition (#56)’, which opened on 12 February 1947.

The letters seen in the context of Danish art history

In addition to the first-hand descriptions of the rupture in ‘linien’, in a Danish context the letters shed light on the actual conditions of the Danish surrealist group and their fellow Danish contemporaries. The letters offer very specific information that can be used to clarify and correct existing perceptions in Danish art history and, in some cases, clear up matters of dispute.

For example, while some writers have posited that Rita Kernn-Larsen took part in the surrealist exhibition in London in 1936, the letters document that Kernn-Larsen was not invited to exhibit and did not present any artworks, although two of her paintings were reproduced in a pamphlet about the Danish and Swedish surrealists that was published for the occasion.

And, in an event that has gone fairly unnoticed, it was not only Wilhelm Freddie (1909–1995) who had works of art intended for the London exhibition seized for being obscene; Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen’s painting ‘Tilbedt Exhibitionisme’ [Idolized Exhibitionism] was similarly seized by the British customs authorities and labelled offensive. And while Freddie was represented at the London exhibition, with drawings, Bjerke-Petersen’s drawings were excluded, probably, again, being deemed offensive. The English surrealist David Gascoyne’s letters to Bjerke-Petersen enable new perspectives on Freddie’s and Bjerke-Petersen’s participation in the exhibition.

The source collection thus also indirectly raises the question of whose interests are served by Danish art history. Who has the need to write Danish art history? For example, are the actual conditions, as described in this international selection of letters, congruent with Danish art history, as it is written, in this particular national context? What blind spots in current Danish art history are now becoming visible, as these letters draw our attention to them?

Furthermore, Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen’s international correspondence is proving to be much more extensive and far-flung than perhaps previously assumed and thus also sheds new light on the true significance of the international art scene for the Danish surrealists and other contemporary artists. The letters document that the impact of Bjerke-Petersen’s contacts with the international art scene on the Danish art world go much deeper.

Johan Zimsen