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Harald Engman’s Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid]: A Courageous Artistic Complaint Against Invasion and Occupation — 3/22/14

Posted by Francis X. Luca, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

Note: Go here to link to a digital version of this image that lets viewers zoom in on details and allows for collective annotation

In early April 1940, just days before the Nazis would invade and occupy Denmark, an art exhibition opened in a Copenhagen gallery on Amager Square featuring the work of Harald Rudyard Engman (1903–1968). Engman was not a particularly famous or celebrated artist; he neither dabbled in the Danish folk tradition nor flirted with the modernist traditions of surrealism or abstraction, but he had gained some notoriety in the Danish capital. A few years earlier, Engman had begun showing his paintings in a venue below the Town Hall Square, coining the name “The Underground Painters” for his band of “spiteful” subversive artists with a social satire bent. His early work included sensitive depictions of society’s outcasts—prostitutes, people of the street, the impoverished, the unemployed, and Copenhagen’s bohemians.

The paintings in the 1940 exhibition revealed the artist’s obsession with dark themes, rendered in a palette perfectly suited to the dark times ahead for Denmark. At a time when the Danish government pinned its hopes on neutrality and the public dared not whisper Hitler’s name aloud for fear of provoking the restless German giant on their southern border, Engman was unveiling paintings that unabashedly ridiculed Herr Hitler and his Nazi thugs. In one painting from this period, Engman depicts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Herman Göring as villainous characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with a young Jewish girl standing on the slave auction block.

The public that flocked to this exhibition had little time to reflect on the anti-Nazi message of this fearless (if foolhardy) artist. Just after 4:00 am on April 9, 1940, the German government simultaneously issued an ultimatum and sent a contingent of its huge army across the border into Denmark on the pretext of wishing “to forestall a British invasion.” Greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped, the Danish army was unable to marshal anything but the feeblest show of resistance against the German juggernaut. As Nazi bombers roared low over the skies of the capital, dropping propaganda leaflets calling for Danes to peacefully submit, the King, prime minister, and cabinet of the tiny nation chose to capitulate to the Germans rather than offer up a futile resistance. In return for promises that as a Germanic “brother” people, the Germans would “respect Danish sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Danish government recognized the de-facto occupation of the country and its status as a “model protectorate” for the duration of the war.

Needless to say, Engman’s exhibition was immediately closed down by the authorities that same day. Although the artist wisely left Copenhagen and went into hiding, he courageously continued to produce satirical anti-Nazi paintings in the secluded isolation of North Sealand, until safety concerns dictated his flight to Sweden. There he contributed to the anti-Nazi movement by publishing his drawings in several Swedish journals and publications, until the war ended and he was able to return to his homeland.

Engman’s Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid] was painted in 1941 during the German occupation and the artist’s internal exile. While the Danish government collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, Engman never reconciled himself to that expediency. His oil on canvas painting portrays the history of humanity from the “bottom up” and reflects the artist’s own Social Democrat and anti–National Socialist predilections. The bottom half, or base, of the pyramid lies under the dark and murky waters of the past, where prehistoric, Viking, Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian elites dominate. Turning the social pyramid on its head, the artist celebrates working class types as it progresses upward, and tops it off with a boy with angel’s wings and a slingshot in hand—perhaps his nod to the dualities of human nature.

The artist also uses bilateral symmetry to suggest parallels between a shark (man-eater) and a submarine, and between an ancient ship sunk by pirates of old, and a modern wreck named Denmark sitting on the ocean floor. The ship of state, he implies, was sunk by the Faedrelandet [Fatherland], a submarine bearing Danish flags and the slogan “nationalism.” Faedrelandet was also the title of a pro-Nazi newspaper published in Denmark—thereby suggesting subversive propaganda and the nation’s complicity in her own destruction. The gloom of the past is dispelled by the inclusion of the New York skyline at daybreak. Together with the slingshot-wielding boy atop the pyramid, the sunrise suggests that with U.S. intervention and the resistance of Danes, the nation might someday— like the fearless David of biblical fame—topple the German Goliath presently occupying their nation.

Francis X. Luca is chief librarian of The Wolfsonian and an adjunct professor of history at Florida International University. He maintains the library’s heavily illustrated blog, providing regular updates on library happenings and holdings. Read it!    

Caption: Painting, Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid], 1941. Harald Engman. Copenhagen, Denmark. Oil on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.