5. Cultural rupture and the longing for order

The world had once again become chaotic, wrote the young Danish poet Tom Kristensen in his poem Landet Atlantis (The Land Called Atlantis), part of his debut publication of 1920. This statement signalled a widespread cultural reflection on the experience of non-contemporaneity. Throughout the era, Kristensen and other advocates of radical renewal were intensely opposed by the defenders of tradition.

The cafés of revolution

The old harmony and sense of beauty was exploded. A new world was to be created through strife: ‘In chaos I raise my gun / towards beauty’s bright star, and aim’. Yet this gunshot was a part of a creative destruction, founding a new sense of beauty: ‘Superb like a devastated railway station / are our youth and our strength and our wild ideas, / Superb like a pistol’s ice-green star / born in a moment of piercing noise / shrilling against the window panes / in the cafés of the revolution’.

Reflecting key features of expressionist and futurist poetry recently developed in other parts of Europe, Kristensen’s poem expressed a reinvigorated sense of rupture, radical agency and the imminence of either catastrophe or redemption, all permeating the cultural self-reflections of the world war era. New cultural meanings and forms of practice emerged in tandem with the European experience of war and industrial growth, based on oppositions: between classes, between rural and urban, between organisation and dissolution, and between tradition and renewal. And as so often before and since, such new conceptions were evident within the history of art, literature and ideas. Within these fields, Kristensen’s celebration of the moment of rupture co-existed not only with longings for a new order in the future but also with nostalgia for bygone realities. The old and the new contrasted palpably within the present.

With an outlook that was close to Kristensen’s, a new generation of visual artists developed abstract or non-figurative art in a break with the old Romantic ideals of beauty and naturalism from the second half of the nineteenth century. Cubist painting, with its fragmentations of the motif, reached Denmark during the First World War via the influential cultural magazine Klingen, inspiring painters such as Harald Giersing and Vilhelm Lundstrøm. In the mid-1930s, surrealism achieved Danish resonance within the artists’ association Linien (The Line), which included the painter Wilhelm Freddie among others. Instead of the ideal of harmonious order, the focus shifted to the message or simply to heterogeneous subjective impressions.

‘Football players. Sofus heads’, painted in 1917 by Harald Giersing

Football players. Sofus heads, painted in 1917 by Harald Giersing (1881–1927). In this painting, football is seen through the new modernist perspective; emphasis is placed on movement, colour and dynamics. Sophus Nielsen was a legendary Danish football player who scored ten goals in the semi-final against France in the 1908 Olympics. The painting was based on a press photo from a national match between Sweden and Denmark in June 1917. Photo: ARoS Aarhus Art Museum

Functionalism and the desire for a new order

While the sense of rupture conveyed by Kristensen and surrealist art was particularly strong in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the functionalist architecture and design that emerged around the same time proved more long-lasting and influential. Its clean lines and the absence of old-fashioned frills constituted not only a tribute to modernity as a new, streamlined order but also an attempt at shaping that order for the future. Taking part in international trends, several prominent Danish functionalists left strong marks on Danish cities and interior design while also gaining international recognition. The buildings of the campus of Aarhus University, the first of which was designed by local architect C.F. Møller in the 1930s, are remarkable examples of the lasting legacy of inter-war functionalism. Arne Jacobsen’s architecture and furniture expressed the same basic approach, as did the futuristic ‘PH lamp’ adorning so many Danish homes and offices, carrying the initials of its polymath designer, Poul Henningsen. On a larger scale, high-quality public housing from the 1930s and 1940s followed the same basic ideals, though with varying degrees of conspicuousness.

Tellingly, however, such celebrations of new modernity often met with difficulties when contradicted by elements of tradition, and in some cases such contradictions affected the final results. Even Tom Kristensen’s poetic celebration of rupture and revolution was written in accordance with traditional lyric norms of metre, rhythm and rhyme, perhaps as a pre-emptive concession to the real elements of tradition and traditionalism in Danish cultural life. When, in 1937, Arne Jacobsen presented his initial plans for a functionalist town hall in Aarhus, powerful local forces accepted his basic idea but protested the lack of a high-rise clock tower – the traditional mark of vertical urban power. Jacobsen conceded. To this day, the town hall in Denmark’s second city tells of inter-war compromise between tradition and modern renewal.

Jazz and other Americanisms

Music was no less controversial. While radical modernist rejections of tonality such as that pursued by the Weimar German composer Arnold Schoenberg had very limited impact in Denmark, jazz music soon became a widely and hotly contested topic. Emerging from African-American culture in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, early jazz music was immensely danceable, energetic and unconventional. It overturned traditional bourgeois concerns with melody, composition and pure listening in favour of rhythm and performance – among musicians as well as dancing audiences.

Having debated the topic for several years, Copenhagen audiences finally had an opportunity to experience live jazz music in 1925 when the New York-based African-American jazz revue Sam Wooding’s Chocolate Kiddies performed in Copenhagen. From that point, interest in jazz music only grew. When Louis Armstrong arrived at Copenhagen Central Station in October 1933, he was greeted enthusiastically by thousands of locals, primarily young people, and aside from his eight concerts he was invited to perform in a feature film. During the remainder of the 1930s and much of the 1940s, the newer type of ‘swing’ jazz music became increasingly popular as the focal point of an Americanised youth culture, and from there it was gradually integrated into mainstream popular music.

From the outset, however, jazz music was intensely contested. To many Europeans, in the wake of the First World War it signified the demise of the old conception of their continent as the centre of the world, balancing beneficial progress and honourable tradition. Stereotypically associated with the American metropolis as well as African nature, jazz appeared to combine conceptions of the shockingly new and the equally shocking old – ultra-modernity and savagery. It could thus be heard as yet another announcement of a world and a time out of joint.

The culturally conservative author Jacob Paludan’s generational novel Jørgen Stein spoke for many when it used jazz as an unquestioned symbol of harmful American modernity, and in a newspaper feature article from 1928 the author characterised jazz as ‘heathen, scathing, affectionate yet mocking, bittersweet like the drink of the time, the cocktail’. In contrast, the previously mentioned functionalist designer and architect Poul Henningsen hailed African-American culture as an invigorating antidote to the European infatuation with its own traditions. When hired by the Danish ministry of foreign affairs in 1935 to produce the propaganda film Denmark, he created controversy by allowing jazz music to carry the soundtrack as part of the film’s tribute to modernity and contempt for the romanticisation of traditions and agriculture. In this case, the opposition gained the upper hand. The film was mercilessly re-edited to allow for traditionalist sentiments, and the original cut was lost.

However, while right-wing voices tended to reject jazz music and all its implications, and leftists tended to embrace it, the latter often partook in the criticism of the rising influence of American culture. For example, Otto Gelsted’s scathing poem Reklameskibet (The Show Boat) from 1923 attacked the spurious American commercialisation of the world. A foreign ship comes to town, marketing everything from Ford cars to film stars and Odol toothpaste:

And in first place
film stars,
the Hero from the Wild West
(with Odol smile)
the World Comedian
(with Odol smile)
and the Sunshine Girl
(with Odol smile).

Whereas jazz music was a distinctly American product, much of what was widely perceived as American had roots in old Europe. For example, cinema had rivalled theatre as the favourite form of mass entertainment since before the First World War, and enterprising film producers had exported silent films from Valby and Aarhus to the rest of the world. Slapstick comedies and highly sentimental love stories were particularly popular with the general public. But the world war got in the way of exports, and with the development of sound and talking pictures, it suddenly became more difficult to sell Danish film productions abroad. This meant that Danish film productions were increasingly aimed at the domestic market but were also supplemented with films from abroad, particularly from Hollywood. In this way, the world of cinema became partially Americanised, but the European film industry had already paved the way with its own light entertainment.

The Female Louis Armstrong

In this film, Bertel Nygaard talks about jazz music and cultural struggles in inter-war Denmark. Jazz music had made its way to the Danish city Randers, and in early December 1940, if you were lucky, you could experience the Queen of the Trumpet, Valaida Snow. The film is in Danish with English subtitles, and lasts about 12 minutes. Click 'CC' and choose 'English' or 'Danish' for subtitles.

The power of tradition

The pace of development also caused many to long for the beauty, security and peace that could be connected with established orders. Large sections of the population searched for these qualities in ideas of the old and the familiar. The mass audiences read the light novels of Morten Korch, with their serial romanticisations of the old rural life. Among his great successes was Det gamle Guld (The Old Gold) from 1923, in which the debt-ridden rural hero from Fyn, Niels Sværke, has to fight both his creditors and the prospect of an unhappy marriage to the wealthy but arrogant Clara, while at the same time gaining strength from the local Viking past to win both himself and his true love, the beautiful Grethe.

Similarly, the cinema was not dominated by art films, but rather by comedies interspersed with songs. One example is the 1937 film Mille, Marie og mig (Mille, Marie and Me), starring a young Marguerite Viby as the medical student Ellen Klausen, who by working as both a sophisticated night club singer and a rural housemaid finally wins the heart of her beloved professor, Klitgaard. This film produced one of the most successful melodies of the period: Jeg har elsket dig så længe, jeg kan mindes (I have loved you for as long as I can remember), composed by the highly popular Kai Normann Andersen with lyrics by music hall (revy) writer Mogens Dam. Swing jazz music also featured in the film, when Viby sang the song ‘Hot! Hot!’. Mainstream popular music consisted of light pop songs, often with strong elements of the Danish music hall tradition. And musical participation for most of the general population still consisted of singing patriotic, folk high school or association songs in the old style, just as hymn singing continued to be a highly influential part of people’s lives.

The visual art that most people loved was, again, very different from the modernist experiments of the time. Across the country, community halls, public houses and private homes were adorned with embroidered wall hangings and pretty landscape motifs. Here, too, the distinction between the upper and lower classes and between rural and urban cultures was apparent.

For every political and cultural movement that longed for the new, another would emerge to strengthen or resurrect the old in new forms. This was true of the right-wing political movements described above, and also of a number of cultural associations. Frivilligt Drenge-Forbund (The Voluntary Boys’ Association) and the Young Men’s (and Women’s) Christian Associations attracted tens of thousands of supporters for their efforts to strengthen Christian conservative values among the youth.

Disciplining bodies and rural ideals

Sport flourished in urban areas in distinctly modern forms: competitive, performance-oriented sport was organised in clubs, either connected to or deliberately distanced from the labour movement and thus expressing class divides and class communities, as well as modern conceptions of individuality. In the countryside, however, a very different and new type of sport developed, reflecting very different social and cultural ideals. This was conceived in Danish as idræt (an Old Norse term for ‘activity’, now re-deployed in opposition to the urban Anglophone concept of ‘sport’).

Under the leadership of Niels Bukh, in particular, Ollerup Gymnastikhøjskole (physical education folk high school) in the south of Fyn became a hotbed for several generations of local idræt teachers who wished to teach the growing rural youth physical strength and discipline based on strictly Christian and national ideas. Instead of urban competitiveness, the school represented a re-mobilisation of traditional ideals of order and social cohesion in new forms. Thus, rural idræt strengthened ideas of unity across class divisions.

From their respective points of departure, however, urban sport and rural idræt also expressed general societal tendencies of striving for order and organisation within communities. And many also sought to forge connections across the urban–rural divide. It was not only the Scouts who ventured out into the countryside; the urban population was also drawn by the feeling of originality, harmony and authenticity that nature and agriculture represented and that was still a personal memory for many of those new to urban life. The towns were far from immune to the ideals of idræt.

Throughout the era, the persistent fascination with rural life was also expressed in frequent dairy shows. The most spectacular of these events occurred at Bellahøj in Copenhagen in 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of the stavnsbånd, when, over ten days, hundreds of thousands of spectators helped pay tribute to Danish agriculture and its traditions. Ideal conceptions of countryside life and culture remained influential throughout the world war era, despite – and often against – the radical ruptures and promises of the new.