Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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"The Stunning Designs of Georg Jensen," Antiques and the Arts Weekly, July 29, 2005 As a boy, Georg Jensen (1866-1935) was apprenticed to the local knife factory.  In the normal course of events, he would have finished out his training and spent the next four or fives decades there. Instead he went on to become the most important silversmith of the past century.  The story of Jensen’s belated—and at times, reluctant—acceptance of his vocation is told in the exhibition of his jewelry designs that will be on view at the Bard Graduate Center  until October 16, 2005.  Jewelry was not simply one aspect of Georg Jensen’s production; it was at the heart of the firm’s early success.  In those early, undercapitalized days, there was a fast turnover in brooches and belt buckles that helped the Jensen smithy to expand, in less than twenty years, from a small, second-floor storefront to an international company. Jensen was for many years an elusive figure.  He published his autobiography as a short magazine feature and his early biographers preferred the pamphlet format.  More substantial works were published after his death, though these were accessible principally to readers of Danish.  Recent scholarship (much of it in English) confirms Jensen’s modesty and benevolence, but it also reveals a less serene man than the contemplative nature- lover of his self-portrait.  Jensen was born in 1866, in a rural village near Copenhagen.  His mother was, before her marriage, a housemaid and his father worked in the knife factory. For a time, it looked as if Jensen would follow the same course.  However, his factory apprenticeship   was interrupted by the family’s move to Copenhagen in 1880.  Jensen, by then in his mid-teens, started anew with a goldsmith, who retained him as an apprentice until 1886.  After his training was finished, Jensen was employed by another goldsmith, but he was too unsettled to stay there long.  What Jensen really wanted to be was a sculptor.    It was not a new ambition.  He had been modeling clay figures since childhood and had taken classes in drawing and modeling during his apprenticeship with the goldsmith.  An introduction to a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts was the first step to his admission, in 1887, to the Academy’s school of sculpture.  The next years augured well for the young artist.  His work was chosen for the annual spring exhibition at Charlottenborg Palace in Copenhagen, once when he was a student and a few times after gradutation in 1892.  Beginning in 1897, he also participated in the Free Exhibitions, which were the avant-garde alternative to Charlottenborg.  There was even the opportunity to visit France and Italy, thanks to a travel grant awarded by the Academy.  Despite an auspicious start, Jensen had trouble earning a living as a sculptor.  He could not depend on his family for money, and his financial responsibilities were increased by early marriage and fatherhood.  Thus began a series of design jobs with poor and uncertain remuneration that took Jensen further and further away from sculpting.  He worked for various ceramic firms, which made use of his talent for modeling.  In 1898, he and two friends began to make art pottery on their own.  Their vases and bowls were praised and illustrated in the press.  The critical attention accorded their work was significant because there were many better known firms in Denmark that were also producing art pottery.  In 1899, the Danish Museum of Decorative Art acquired the “Maid on the Jar,” a heavy, unglazed terracotta jug that was exhibited that year at Charlottenborg and possibly again the following year at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Nonetheless, pottery proved to be no more lucrative than sculpture, and Jensen was forced to look about for a more reliable source of income.  He had in the past fallen back on smithing, but these were stopgap jobs to supplement his student budget and, during the flailing years, when he could not make a living as a sculptor. By the turn of the century, Jensen’s views had changed, and he saw metalwork as compatible with his artistic vocation rather than as an expedient respite from penury. Jensen’s eventual acceptance of his  profession coincided with his exposure to the new ideas, which rejected the traditional hierarchy that rated painting and sculpture above the applied arts. Copenhagen might not have been one of the great art capitals, but it was possible to stay abreast of what was happening in places like France and England.  There were exhibitions at the Danish Museum of Decorative Art, and foreign and local art publications.  As a member of the Danish delegation to the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Jensen would have seen firsthand the respect accorded the applied arts.  The Danish Arts and Crafts movement, which was known as Skønvirke (for “beautiful work”), flourished from 1880 to 1920.  One influential figure in Skønvirke circles was Mogens Ballin (1871-1941), the painter turned craftsman, who ran an metal workshop in Copenhagen.  Ballin was inspired by English designers like William Morris and C. R. Ashbee. He made jewelry and hollowware, using inexpensive materials like bronze and pewter. Beginning in 1901, Jensen was the foreman of this workshop, which employed about thirty people.  It would have been a stimulating place to work, thanks, not least, to Ballin himself, who was an associate of Paul Gauguin and an early collector of van Gogh.  Ballin was, moreover, generous about crediting his designers, and he allowed Jensen to exhibit his work under his own name. Nonetheless, Jensen wanted to work on his own.     In 1904, with financing from a local businessman, he set up his smithy—a cramped, second floor space—in a fashionable part of Copenhagen. Jensen specialized in silver jewelry, which was a field that required less investment than hollowware.   From the beginning, Jensen’s jewelry had certain characteristics.   Pieces were made of silver with a matted or oxidized finish and decorated with cabochon-cut (that is, rounded) semi-precious stones. Botanical motifs were prevalent, and the Jensen form was sculptural, not smooth and shiny.  A typical brooch, which was made the year Jensen set up shop, has the thick, tactile, hand-hammered quality associated with his jewelry.  It is decorated with two small carnelian stones and a pendant cluster of grapes, a motif that Jensen used often in his work.    Jensen’s confidence and fertility were not exactly newfound.  He had enjoyed a growing reputation when he was still Ballin’s foreman.  Yet his new designs were more consistently original than anything he had done before.  For comparison, the curators have included two pieces that he had made only a few years earlier.  The famous cast-silver Adam and Eve (1899) is one of his only pieces to depict the human figure.  The stocky man and woman in bas-relief, set in a striated frame, suggest nothing of what Jensen would be capable of only half a decade later.  Another piece on display—this one showing greater skill and refinement—is the dragonfly belt buckle (1903).  Jensen is already applying cabochon-cut semi-precious stones (in this case, opals).  The piece reveals, though, the plodding influence of Art Nouveau designers like René Lalique, whose work was collected by the Danish Museum of Decorative Art.  Jensen’s adaptation of Art Nouveau motifs would not always be so heavy-handed.  Witness the “whiplash” brooch, which has S-shaped tendrils set inside a wreath of silver leaves and moonstones.  It was designed  before World War I and was in production for decades.   Jensen never faltered once he hit his stride.  He  arrived in the morning with pockets full of new designs.  Sometimes the design was incomplete, so Jensen passed it on to a silversmith to complete.  His confidence in his craftsmen was total and they reciprocated with loyalty.   Jensen was a man of lifelong friendships.  His marriages, tragically, tended to be of shorter duration, with four of his five wives predeceasing him.  He was a habile recycler of motifs.  The dove, one of the most frequently recurring motifs in Jensen’s jewelry, was originally designed by Christian Møhl-Hansen, who was one of the many artists to work for Jensen on a freelance basis.  It was first used for a brooch (ca. 1907-1909), and was used on a range of objects. The dove is traditionally shown craning its neck backwards to look at its wing.  Such is the case with a bracelet (des. 1927; manuf. 1933/34) that Jensen designed at the end of his career.  Here a chain of backward-looking doves is alternating with leaves and small round stones.  More unusual is the brooch (des. 1925; manuf. 1933/44) that Jensen designed about the same time, which shows the dove looking straight ahead.  These variations aside, both pieces are pure Jensen with their heavy, sculptural form, botanical motifs, and use of small, round stones. Another proof of his efficiency was the custom of using different stones for the same design.  Pricelists usually list at least one half-dozen stone choices for each model.     Sometimes, though, only a small number of a given design was made.  Such is the case with one of the exhibition belt buckles (1907), a larger than average piece, with a red berry pendant from the center.  It is believed to be one of ten in existence.   The first years of the Georg Jensen smithy were remembered nostalgically. Jensen worked side-by-side with his two assistants, often singing nonsense ditties that he had made up.  His business model was simple:  A small street-level showcase displayed recent production.  When those brooches and stick pins sold out, the showcase was refilled.   Beginning in 1907, his marriage to wife number three (Johanne Nielsen) brought an infusion of in- laws to help with bookkeeping and other administrative responsibilities.  His brother-in-law, Harald Nielsen worked all his life for the firm, starting as an apprentice.  But in less than a decade, the small, familial workshop had expanded to become a large operation employing more than sixty workers.  In 1916, the company became a joint-stock company, and by the mid-1920s, there were stores in Europe and New York.    Jensen was ambivalent about this growth, which resulted in a large staff and financial complexity.  In one sad episode, he tried to relive the early days, by setting up a workshop in Paris.  He moved there in 1924 with his wife (the fourth one) and five workmen.  Despite the respect for his work, Jensen was disoriented by French culture.  In 1926 he returned to Copenhagen to take up his responsibilities as “Artistic Supervisor”—one of those euphemistic job titles that masked, he felt, his diminished influence in the company. After Jensen’s death in 1935, the company continued to flourish.  The exhibition tells the story of these later designers, too.  Henning Koppel (1918-1981) was one of the many important designers who worked at Georg Jensen.  He joined the company in 1945 after studying painting and sculpture in Paris and in Copenhagen.  He was a generation younger than Jensen.  Koppel was influenced by abstract sculptors Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi; hence the vaguely avian-shaped links in the and bracelet. Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe is another designer who made a name for herself at Georg Jensen.  She started with the firm in the 1960s, and  was one of the designers most in touch with the period.  Her neck ring and pendant (1967) reflect her desire to create jewelry that would follow the contours of a woman’s body. The Jensen legacy lives on.
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