Pleasantly Obsessed With Light : Notes on Denmark

June 5 marks Constitution Day in a nation with admirable values. Denmark has much to teach us about coping with COVID-19 and the stresses of daily life even beyond this pandemic.

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L. Wikipedia copy of Summer Evening at Skagen beach. The artist and his wife, 1899. Hirschsprung Collection. Image is in the public domain. R, Wikipedia copy of Anna Ancher and Marie Krøyer on the beach at Skagen, c. 1890, Art Museums of Skagen.

To me, the late 19th century paintings shown above have a modern feel. They remind me of the best Instagram posts. These paintings invite you into beautiful moments, ones that look casual but are in fact quite well staged.

These beach scenes were painted by Peder Severin Krøyer (1851–1909). P.S. Krøyer, as he was known, was among the most famous of what are called the Skagen Painters. In the last years of the 19th century, artists flocked together in summers in the remote seaside town of Skagen in northern Denmark.

Much has been written about the play of light in this stretch of the world where the North and Baltic seas meet. A 2005 New York Times article mentioned “the special luminosity “ of Skagen’s skies. (Note: There is a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on this article and other materials used in my research for this essay.)

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In a 2017 article in the Economic Times of India, Anita Rao-Kashi described how she braved howling winds and rushing sand to take in the “magical light” by the water’s edge. Rao-Kashi returned to her room in Skagen where she witnessed the nightfall around 10 pm.

The sky turned “a stunning shade of deep orange, almost vermilion, and clouds dotted the sky, adding a counterpoint to the blue and orange. It stayed like that for a few minutes and then gradually darkened, before the sky turned a beautiful shade of inky blue and stayed that way almost the whole night,” Rao-Kashi wrote.

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Summer evening at Skagen, 1892. Art Museums of Skagen. Wikipedia image of work in public domain.

The light is a star attraction too in these Krøyer paintings below of interior scenes. See how the windows draw your gaze in both of these works.

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Artists’ Luncheon at Skagen, 1883. Wikipedia copy of image in the public domain.
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In the Store, During a Pause from Fishing, 1882. Den Hirschsprungske Samling. Wikipedia copy of image in the public domain.

You see this reverence for light in the work of other Skagen painters such as Anna Ancher (1859–1935). She was the woman seen walking with Krøyer’s wife in the beach scene above. In a review of a 2013 show of Ancher’s work, DeNeen L. Brown wrote in the Washington Post: “The Nordic light crashes through the window like a diva in a china shop — pushing everything aside, demanding its presence be known.

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L., Sunlight in the Blue Room, 1891. Art Museums of Skagen. Wikipedia copy of image in public domain. R., Sewing fisherman’s wife, 1890. Wikipedia copy of image in public domain.

This obsession with light dominates as well the work of one of Denmark’s most famous contemporary artists, Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967), who was born in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents.

Eliasson is known for his large-scale installations that challenge our perception, often playing with light and reflection. His most famous work to date may be the 2003 Weather Project at the U.K.’s Tate Modern. It created an artificial sun and used a mirrored ceiling and mist machine to invite museum visitors to experience a cavernous section of the museum in a new way.

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“The Weather Project at Tate Modern 2003–2004” by Richard Callanan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Thanks Creative Commons for posting this.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., the Hirshhorn Museum gave Eliasson’s prismatic light sculpture, “Your oceanic feeling,” a prominent place as part of a recent remodeling of its entrance. The Hirshhorn is only an 11-minute bike ride from my house. In normal times, I’d have dashed over and snapped a photo for this essay. But these are not normal times. The Hirshhorn and the rest of Washington’s art museums remain closed to the public. There is not even a target date for reopening listed on the Hirshhorn’s website.

But below are photos of an Eliasson work I saw in February 2020 during a trip to Brazil. His “Viewing Machine” was one of the highlights of a visit to the Inhotim Institute in Minas Gerais, Brazil. This work uses mirrors reflect light in what functions as a giant kaleidoscope.

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Author photos.

Eliasson also partnered with an engineer for the Little Sun project, which makes attractive solar lamps and chargers. Eliasson, who has adopted two children born in Ethiopia, intends for purchases by people in affluent countries to fund lower-cost sales of these lamps in poor ones. When consumers buy Little Sun solar lamps and phone charges, one of these products is given to someone living off-the-grid at a much lower, locally affordable price, according to the project’s web site.

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Screenshot of Twitter profile of Little Sun.

Little Sun Foundation’s website says more than 1.1 million of its lamps had been distributed as of the end of last year. They have provided an estimated 36.5 million extra study hours for school children whose homes don’t connect to electric grids.

The Foundation brings light to those beyond the reach of our entrepreneurial distribution channels, especially school children, refugees and people affected by natural disaster,” the group says on its website.

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“Two little suns” by neil cummings is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In a 2015 article in The Guardian, Rachel Cooke noted Eliasson’s “understated gestures” and “his instinctively democratic manner.”

Eliasson would rather die than refer to himself as ‘famous’ – he prefers the word `exposed’,” wrote Cooke.

The article was titled “Olafur Eliasson: ‘I am not special’.

Impressive Chill

June 5 marks Denmark’s Constitution Day, which is described this way on an official government website:

Denmark is one of few countries in the world not having a national day, but Constitution Day gets close. On Constitution Day, the people of Denmark celebrate democracy including freedom of speech, individual rights, and freedom of assembly.”

Based on the admittedly little I know about Denmark, this strikes me as very fitting. Here is a nation with much to celebrate, but is too modest to do so.

Denmark stands at or near the top of many rankings of happy nations, such as the Better Life Index produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (Sometimes derided as a rich countries’ club, the OECD has the intention at least of helping more people live in functioning democracies that operate under rule of law.)

And Denmark tied with New Zealand as the world’s least corrupt country in a recent ranking by the nonprofit Transparency International. People in Denmark trust their government in way that we don’t in the United States. That has made a major difference in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, wrote Justin Cremer, an American expat and former editor of The Local Denmark, a news site written in English.

From the start, Danes have by-and-large bought in to the government’s plan to slow the spread of the virus and have done what was asked of them by staying at home, maintaining social distance and stepping up their hygiene,” Cremer wrote. “Sure, there have been disagreements and varying opinions, but for the most part Danes have trusted and followed the recommendations they’ve been given.

Denmark moved quickly to introduce lockdown measures, starting in midMarch. A look at the figures in the New York Times’ coronavirus map suggests the Danish approach worked better than the variety of ones used in the United States.

For every 100,000 people living in Denmark, there have been about 201 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths.

For every 100,000 people living in the United States, there have been about 543 cases of COVID-19 and 32 deaths.

These are the figures as of May 31. (For those of you who like to see things spelled out in full detail, here are the raw numbers. With a population of about 5.8 million, Denmark has had 11,669 reported COVID-19 case and 574 deaths. With a population of about 329 million, the United States has had 1,778,017 cases and 103,775 deaths.)

By April, Danish officials were able to ease restrictions. Children began to return to school that month — which I consider the most important goal in addressing COVID-19. Face masks have not been used in schools. Dorte Lange, vice president of the Danish Union of Teachers, told the BBC this hasn’t been considered a safety issue. Instead, there’s been a focus on the strategy of keeping pupils a safe distance apart and a strong emphasis on hygiene, Lange said.

We are glad to say the re-opening up to now has been quite successful,” the union leader told the BBC.

In Denmark, some of the museums are open as well. The website of Copenhagen’s Hirschsprung Collection says it will allow in 30 people every half hour and will let visitors spend an hour inside.

We urge you to still take distance and take care, when you visit the museum,” says the website for the Hirschsprung Collection, the home of a large collection of Krøyer’s paintings.

The website for the Art Museums of Skagen says they remain closed due to precautions needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Necessity of Candles

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Author photo.

The photo seen above shows one of the reasons why a weekend in Copenhagen turned me into a fan of the Danish approach to life.

My husband and I grabbed dinner at a little Indian restaurant in Copenhagen during a short weekend visit to that pleasant city. In the United States, a bargain restaurant of any kind with tasty food will tend to skimp on decor. There can often be harsh fluorescent light. In Copenhagen, though, we found both good value at this restaurant and good lighting. There were candles on the tables, there was a slice of lemon in the water jug.

I’d somehow missed the wave of articles on Danish hygge before arriving in Copenhagen in late August 2017. The Economist in 2016 had informed its readers that hygge, pronounced something like hew-geh, represents a Danish attitude valuing relaxation and time spent with loved ones. Lighting too is an element of hygge. Like all Nordic nations, Denmark has short days in winter. Its citizens thus plus place great value on light, especially the warm and glowing kind.

Danes are Europe’s biggest consumers of candles, burning through about 6 kilogrammes (13 pounds) per person every year. Runner-up Austria manages just half that,” the Economist wrote.

Writing in the New York Times in February 2017, Judith Newman suggested hygge be pronounced “HOO-gah, like an old-timey car horn.” She reviewed some of the books published recently on the Danish lifestyle, including Meik Wiking’s “The Little Book of Hygge.”

Wiking lays out the principles of hygge quite simply — and simplicity is at the heart of hygge. You need: atmosphere (thus the obsession with lighting), presence (the ability to be in the here and now and turn off the phone), pleasure, equality (“ ‘we’ over ‘me’ ”), gratitude, harmony, comfort, truce (the willingness to get together and not discuss controversial issues . . . imagine that),” Newman wrote.

My husband and I arrived in Denmark by happenstance. We had arranged a trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

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We figured we’d see the Baltic countries on our way to Russia. The cheapest option to get to that part of the world turned out to be a one-way flight to Copenhagen. We arrived early on a Saturday morning and spent that day and much of the next as tourists.

We started with the beautiful Torvehallerne, which has both a covered food market and outdoor stalls and picnic tables. There were giant dahlias on sale.

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Author photos

There my husband and I tried the open-faced smørrebrød sandwiches that Danes like. We marveled at the presentation of smørrebrød at the Hallernes stall. One smørrebrød had crawfish with their heads still attached, eyes looking out at customers. We opted for a simpler smørrebrød and ate it outside on a picnic bench.

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I didn’t visit the Hirschsprung Collection. Instead, we stayed outdoors for hours on Saturday, strolling Copenhagen’s beautiful parks and plazas and waterfront.

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Even on a dreary Sunday morning, we found a nice spot in a grocery with prepared foods. The rack of bikes seen there impressed me, as had the crowds on Saturday.

People in Copenhagen seemed relaxed and fit and happy. Spending time there led me to Google “Danish lifestyle,” a search that put me onto the hygge concept. I later read Meik Wiking’s book and a few of the longer articles on hygge. They have been nice reminders of things I already knew, such as the value of time spent with friends over coffee or a good meal.

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Bikes outside, cozy spot to eat inside the market on a dreary Sunday morning.

The term hygge has been misused recent years to market products. Danish writer Laura Byager titled her 2018 article in Mashable “Your hygge-obsession is weird and misunderstood, please stop.”

In the article, Byager details how candles and blankets and yoga pants have been pitched as hygge products. Instead, hygge is about sharing time with loved one and savoring the small pleasures.

For me, hygge is comfort. It exists only in the complete absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation. It’s not an aesthetic or a trend. Hygge, like love though far less elusive, cannot be bought,” Byager wrote.

Click here for a bibliography of works used in writing this essay.

Journalist fascinated by art, history, medicine, politics and food. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 50 nations. Knows FDA, Congress.

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