The architect M.G. Bindesbøll understood the interplay of light and sculpture at Thorvaldsen’s Museum. Architectural subtleties like the position of the windows and the subdued colours of the walls shape the natural light that enhances the impression created by the sculptures. The inspiration came from Bertel Thorvaldsen’s atelier in Rome, which Bindesbøll visited in 1837 (Henschen 1998, 55-67). The architect could not have known that his museum building would also have photogenic potential. The medium of photography was only just being invented.

This is the second time photographic artist Trine Søndergaard (b. 1972) has made portraits at Thorvaldsen’s Museum. For the solo exhibition Versus in 2003, she photographed members of the museum staff with their favourite sculpture. During the course of a year the museum functioned as an atelier for the artist. In the heart of Copenhagen she found a different, unchanged world where she allowed herself to become more muted in her expressive form. Versus thus presages the introspection that characterises her work today. The focus on the quiet and minimal has only become stronger since.

For her new portraits in the exhibition Face to Face – Thorvaldsen and Portraiture, Trine Søndergaard chose to photograph her subjects in the small, green room facing Christiansborg Palace, where for decades the Shepherd Boy has sat on his brick-built plinth. The light falls obliquely from a high window. Søndergaard wanted to make portraits without having to relate directly to the sculptures. The room was emptied, with only the plinth remaining as an involuntary prop. An intervention whereby the artist in a sense put Thorvaldsen on hold to explore the realm of possibility created by absence.

In the portraits greying hair replaces white marble. Women around Søndergaard’s age or older pose in their own clothes, like time-bound sculptures with facial lines and fading hair colour. Even though art history is full of female portraits, the women in Søndergaard’s works are a frequently invisible age group. In the past women did not often hold public positions and were portrayed far less often as a result, especially once they had lost the blush of youth.

As well as religious and mythological motifs, Thorvaldsen’s full order book also included more profane commissions, which now occupy the nooks and crannies of his museum: marble portraits of the powerful people of his age who wanted to be remembered and honoured. Men of all ages seem to dominate, interspersed by the occasional wife or daughter.

Thorvaldsen’s sculptural portraits took time. In photographs the reproduction of a face is, on the surface, faster and more effortless. Yet in her portraits Trine Søndergaard explores a realm beyond the person before the lens here and now. She strives to extend the moment, approaching the calm or stillness embodied in Thorvaldsen’s sculptures.

Museum visitors today may no longer know who the sculptor’s portraits represent, and will experience their faces as anonymous. This anonymity is also to be found in Søndergaard’s portraits, but more as a conscious artistic choice. Her portraiture is about neither status nor outer appearance – or indeed the person portrayed. On the contrary, her works go beyond the individual to address something broader and more existential, something the anonymity of the portraits underlines. They make visible women who have been underrepresented in visual culture due to their age and the historical power structures and gender differences that are still with us, albeit in less manifest form. Women who like the artist herself are no longer young, and who she has also portrayed sensitively in former works.

Face to Face – Thorvaldsen and Portraiture opens on Thorvaldsen’s ‘Roman birthday’. He came to Rome on March 8th, 1797, a date he continued to celebrate and which many years later became International Women’s Day. Trine Søndergaard’s portraits make this coincidence meaningful. They represent a realm of possibility at Thorvaldsen’s Museum, where new and absent representations of women are given the space to come into being.

Translation: Jane Rowley

  • text: Gitte Broeng
  • published in: connection with the exhibition “Face to Face – Thorvaldsen and Portraiture”
  • year: 2020