Kobke, the god of small things

    Christen Kobke led a quiet life. So quiet that, for 150 years after his death, he disappeared from the story of art. Vanished. Gone. Not until the 1980s, when our own National Gallery, in an inspired moment of revisionism, elbowed the obscure painters of the Danish Golden Age into some sort of a view, did most of us first hear of him. Until then, who among us even knew the Danes had had a Golden Age?

    Although Kobke’s obscurity is to be regretted, nobody ought to be surprised by it. His quietude, the gentle moods he favoured, the tiny corners he painted, the inaction that invariably constituted his action, would have been easy to overlook in any epoch, let alone Denmark in the 1830s and 1840s. Michelangelo himself would have had difficulty getting noticed in those national circumstances. And Kobke was certainly not a Michel angelo. If he’d been an animal, he’d have been a squeaking mouse, not a roaring lion.

    The show is small. Although few of Kobke’s best pictures are mis sing from it, this calm and engros sing career survey barely takes up a gallery and a half of the National Gallery’s Sunley Rooms. The journey begins with a pair of strangely unsettling male nudes, painted in Kobke’s student days in the 1830s. One shows a boy, aged about 12, sitting on a wooden box; the other a professional model, in his mid-twenties, perched a tad precariously on the edge of the same studio prop. They unsettle because, in both cases, the nakedness that is being described for us is so nervously tangible.

    These are not the heroic gallery nudes found in most academy life classes, posing expansively and pretending they have a fine Greek past. These are two awkward Danish nobodies dragged in from the street and told to sit there. The scrawny boy with rosy cheeks and the thin man with sunburnt forearms exude the shivery vulner ability a prawn might feel on being yanked out of its carapace. Nudity is clearly not something that comes naturally to these unspectacular urban Danes, forced to earn a crust during the famed artistic moment they call, a touch laughably, the Danish Golden Age.

    It was called that because, across the sciences and the arts, Denmark experienced a blossoming in the first half of the 19th century. Fine books were written. Fine paintings were painted. As this national achievement reached a crescendo, artists such as Kobke seemed to capture perfectly the new spirit of the nation’s progress. Kobke, who was born in 1810 and died in 1848, fits the era as snugly as one of his own painted gloves. The captions, however, make clear that the tranquillity he painted was something of a sham. In fact, the Danes were living through years of great hardship and anxiety. Having supported Napoleon in his wars, and lost, they found themselves invaded by bellicose Brits, who blew up Copenhagen’s harbour and strutted as victors through a defeated city. The Golden Age was actually an age of resentment and uncertainty.

    I dwell on this because it helps us to suspect Kobke’s calmness. The show is certainly sunny, full of glorious light-filled skies and airy country vistas, but is it really untroubled? Kobke’s father was a baker working for the Danish army, and the family lived in the great citadel in Copenhagen, where that army was quartered. This citadel and its watery surroundings feature in painting after painting: the long, low stretches of reclaimed land that ringed it; the drawbridge that had to be crossed to enter it; the windmills, the shacks, the overgrown verges. Kobke generally chooses the quietest corner, or a view from the side. His citadel is never a site of national pride or militaristic ostentation. If soldiers pop up in it, they are always tiny and irrelevant. What fascinates him is the way light falls on the old stones, or the tufts of grass growing between the cracks. Throughout his art, whether he is painting landscapes or people, Kobke seems always to be noticing the decay of the world he grew up in.

    He studied at the Royal Danish Academy under the pioneering realist CW Eckersberg, who insisted that all his students take their cues from nature and observe her with a scientist’s precision. Up in painters’ heaven, Eckersberg must now be seething at the sight of his finest pupil’s promotion to the European premier league of artists, while he languishes in division three. But the fact is, Kobke is as good as he is because of a quality that life seems to have taught him, not Eckersberg. I’m going to call it introspection, but it was probably something stranger and more concentrated than that. Kobke seemed genuinely to fear stepping out of his comfort zone. The landscapes he painted are always the landscapes found under his nose — the courtyard of the family house, the lane to the family gateway — while, in his portraits, the sitter was always a friend or relative. Everything he painted was loaded with personal investment. Even when he plonks himself down at twilight in front of the spectacular Frederiksborg Castle, waits for the setting sun to turn the sky pink and paints his greatest landscape, he manages to bathe the scene in a tugging melancholia.

    His best-known portrait, meanwhile, shows a fellow artist, the landscape painter Frederik Sod ring, slumped in a studio chair, palette in hand, a look of rosy-cheeked provincial optimism flooding his face. This is not the sort of painter who will ever turn into a tortured genius. This is a permanently local artist who will make a decent living, thank you, working for Danish bank managers and minor state officials. One day, he may marry one of their daughters and start his own academy. What he will never do is change the direction of art.

    It’s a lovely piece of character isation. And as with all the char acterful faces that Kobke records, you feel you are being introduced to an utterly tangible human presence by a painter who knew his sitter well. Perhaps even too well. The show has a claustrophobic tinge to it, as if we are not only observing a tiny world, but actually being sucked into it. His parents were cousins, and he, too, married his cousin. I mention this not to imply any grim Danish inbreeding, but to stress the smallness of the cosmos we are observing.

    Kobke’s world was tiny. His ambitions were modest, his brushes minute. And his achievement was to record for us, with utter clarity and in haunting detail, an intriguing moment in Denmark’s national story. It’s a real enough contri bution. And it res ul ted in some lovely moments of observation and art. But I left the exhibition feeling that to overrate all this would be as much of a mistake as to ignore it entirely.