We humans gather the strangest things. A collector might horde stamps, wines, or experiences. Maybe cars, books, or other objects. Last weekend, on a quick trip to Copenhagen, I got to see what the royal family of Denmark collected: ivory, precious stones, and gold — and wax figurines, glass plates, weird miniatures… . And then on to see other collections, while trying not to purchase beautifully designed Danish objects for my own horde at home!
I am not sure why I love looking at old objects, whether the prehistoric axe heads in the Danish Ethnografiska/National Museet, or the tiny lathed bits of ivory at the royal castle, which is a modest structure filled to the brim with royal tidbits. One of the guides at the castle told us that the family’s children — I think particularly the girls — learned to lathe, in order to pick up the principles of math and physics. (I shudder to think how many elephants died for this European ivory habit, past and present.)
The castle is packed with portraits. A seeming hodgepodge of portraits in one hall triggered some thoughts on the history of painting (and one reason I like looking at old things) — I’m so used to John Singer Sargent and Impressionist portraits from the late 1800s to early 1900s, that I forgot that photography was blossoming at the time. That nascent form of perfectly captured images sent artists scrambling in the other direction, with some really interesting exceptions: An image of the Danish queen in her 20s (soft, amorphous) set side by side with this same woman again as an elderly widow in her 60s, painted with every wrinkle, highlighted the painter’s use of photography as a tool to get details to record the royals in the detail that was unavailable in previous generations. It’s not quite Chuck Close, with every hair follicle and pore in place. But it’s an amazing painting, somehow.
Pre-photography, for more true likenesses, the royals made wax models with life-sized bodies and casts of their faces. A trio of three stands in one room of the castle, with King, Queen and Crown Prince (whom I thought was a Princess when I looked at it in the darkened room). I had no idea that Madame Tussaud’s wax museum was not the first, though it makes sense: to bring wax figures of famous people to the masses after the rich royalty pioneered the process. Still: Spooky, spooky, spooky. I got shivers in that room.
But that’s not the only way to recreate someone for remembrance. In addition to the tiny painted portraits or carved amulets with three-dimensional faces at the castle to which I am accustomed, the collections at the national museum included tiny mannikins, doll-like creations of real people, from several to 20-plus centimeters high (that’s a few inches to just shy of a foot). I never knew that miniatures were all the rage for historical likenesses of typical towns’ folk, or of the Danish trading company agents sent to China.
Speaking of colonial agents, the Danes were no slouches. The national museum holds an impressive collection of skins, tools, and more from the native peoples of Greenland. I was particularly taken by the oil portrait of a young woman, made when the Danes had first arrived. I thought about the photographs of modern Greenlanders on display at the ethnographic museum in Budapest, talking about the impacts of climate change. It’s like time travel to think that these people probably are using similar hunting weapons and sealskin clothing today, augmented by modern 4-wheel-drive vehicles and other newer technologies. (The photographs stood beside these people’s quotes about how warm it is now in the Arctic, and how the ice is gone, and their traditions of fishing and hunting are being pushed out — what price to pay for the rich southern nations’ consumption-based lifestyle and oil-burning habits?) Another hint at how the world has changed, like the hints embedded in an oil painting made with the help of a photograph.So, thank goodness for collectors. How nice to see the artefacts from parallel time periods, in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere — the intricate Chinese doll portraits beside carved ivory clocks; the samurai costumes beside a clever “Eskimo” harpoon; the Central Asian saddle embroidered in silks next to the flat images painted on wood of a Christ from a Middle-Ages church. What beautiful objects we humans have made and collected, over all periods of time, from prehistoric amber bead necklaces to modern art. And what horrible things we have done to get them and keep them.