This brief outline of Poul Gernes’ life could hardly have been put together during his lifetime. For reasons of principle, this artist did not wish to be portrayed with any kind of biography. For Gernes, it was only the work that mattered. According to his way of thinking, the person behind the work was irrelevant to the case. Should we aspire, however, to arrive at a clear understanding of his efforts, his own background is not entirely irrelevant. He was born in 1925 into the home of a craftsman in Copenhagen. His father earned his daily bread as a shoemaker while his mother took care of the chores at home. Throughout the course of his life, he maintained a respect for the ordinary person; in his works, there is a recurrent conception that art is, in fact, a craft, endowed with special social and mentally hygienic potentials, especially by virtue of its decorative capacities. At the age of eighteen, Poul Gernes became an apprentice to a lithographer. Without ever having received any other artistic training, he managed – already from his early years – to survive as an artist, with his income supplemented with teaching.
He made his debut in 1949 at the Artist’s Autumn Exhibition at Charlottenborg, a juried exhibition that is still held annually at Den Frie exhibition building in Copenhagen. It appears that Gernes, at the outset of his career, was operating under the most recent influences of modernism, seeing as his early paintings were created in a concrete and non-figurative style. It wasn’t long, however, before he started to lose faith in the value of an individual artistic expression. In a society where respect for the general welfare and the social collective carried far greater weight than any considerations paid to the isolated artistic achievement, it wasn’t possible anymore for him to justify making ‘easel paintings’. As a consequence of this, he began to nurture an ever-expanding awareness about art’s utility function and he set out to design furniture, lamps, wallpaper and the like.
Gernes sensed the need for a completely different type of dialogue between the artist and the modern society. In 1961, together with art historian Troels Andersen, he started the Experimenting Art School as an alternative counterweight to the tradition-laden Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. The “Eks-Skolen”, as it quickly came to be known, came to be a forum for more wide-reaching experiments. Here, a new and more socially conscious art was being stimulated and tested out, with a collective and untraditional experimental form of teaching as the catalyst and Gernes became, as Troels Andersen later put it, “the driving force in the school”. It was Gernes who took charge of the instruction. What we had here was “anarchy under artistic responsibility”.
The backbone of the “Eks-Skolen” was the collective and social responsibility embraced by the instructors – and also the students, who accordingly came to form an integral part of the environment. Art should not necessarily manifest itself as an individual enterprise. Neither was the value of art, as such, to be restricted to particular materials with a particularly extensive history or a particular economic value. Everything – including wreckage and randomly found objects – could be incorporated actively into the artistic process – and be utilised. The Eks-Skolen’s artistic mantra was, as much as anything else, constituted as a rebellion against abstract expressionism’s private soulfulness and the French-oriented art’s refined tastefulness, which had been predominant in Denmark during the period after the Second World War. Instead, these autodidact separatists were receptive to the impulses emanating from the United States and Germany in the nineteen-sixties. Accordingly, at the Eks-Skolen, art was not supposed to be created for the sake of the artist but entirely for the sake of society and the collective artwork supplanted and superseded the private one. After the school’s gradual dissolution that started in the early 1970s, Poul Gernes continued to create and exhibit in collective groupings. The most well known of these groups was “Arm og Ben” [Arms and Legs], where he re-collaborated with some of his artist comrades from the Eks-Skolen in the nineteen-seventies, one of them being the artist Per Kirkeby, with whom Gernes created the film, Normannerne [The Normans], working on this project from 1974 to 1976.
Notwithstanding the fact that the advent of democracy had emancipated the artist, modern art was still fenced in by formidable social barriers. And it was precisely these barriers that Gernes sought to break down through the numerous public works for which he now assumed responsibility. Of these, the site-specific work at the Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev was by far the most comprehensive and the one that kept him busy for the longest period of time, engaging the artist from 1968 to 1976. The enormous hospital’s site-specific decoration and systematic colour scheme was Gernes’ magnum opus as a socially integrated artist – or decorator, which he frequently referred to, in all his signature modesty, as being his genuine function.
After this tremendous exertion in Herlev, Poul Gernes gradually moved away from painting pictures in the traditional sense. During the last sixteen years of his life, he worked exclusively with site-specific projects in the public space. During the years 1985-1991, he also worked as a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, at the School for Wall and Space. And here, typical of Gernes’ way of going about things, he attempted to alter the contents in the training offered at this institution.
A basic characteristic feature of Gernes’ art was his unshakeable faith that the most simple and immediate expression must necessarily always possess the greatest social impact. The colours ought to be clear and vibrant. But even more important, they ought to be pleasurable to look at. And the shapes that emerge as a result of the differences in hue ought to fashion clear symbols – with maximum recognisability. Such were Poul Gernes reasons for supplying his artistic alphabet with circles, spirals, letters and the like – shapes that all possess a strong visual appeal and are easy to decipher, even at a distance. These kinds of lucid forms and bright colours could improve the quality of people’s lives. As evidence that he was indeed taking history into account in re-interpreting art’s social function, Gernes alluded to ancient temples and public buildings, which had originally been embellished in festive colours.
For these same reasons, Poul Gernes was not ashamed of employing stencils in his extensive work with in-situ projects, since the stencil is only one of a multitude of visual impressions in the context of the large and decorative site-specific works, where each and every form must be subordinate to the whole. In addition to this, the stencil in itself bears no traces of the artist’s personal fingerprint. This penchant for suppressing artistic subjectivity came to stand as Poul Gernes’ justification for his extensive employment of helpers, assistants and even members of his own family, in the execution of the commissioned assignments. “Gernes Painters Co.” was a family co-operative, which consisted, apart from Poul Gernes himself, of the artist’s wife, Aase Seidler Gernes, and his children. In 1989, for example, his daughter, the poet Ulrikka S. Gernes, took part in the application of colours to the façade of the Palads Biograf, downtown Copenhagen’s landmark movie-house building, which still today stands as one of the more daring and provocative contributions to the urban profile of Copenhagen.
During his tenure as a professor at the academy, Poul Gernes defended art’s social and practical dimension more staunchly than had any of his predecessors at that same institution. Among other things, he called upon the efforts of his students in connection with the creation of the site-specific assignments so that they could experience a first-hand initiation into the practices and techniques employed in this kind of artistic work. In reality, this arrangement constituted a return to that same system of craft’s apprenticeship which has, ever since the Middle Ages, perpetuated the transmission of artistic skills from one generation to the next.
With the incisive knowledge about colours’ and ornamentation’s social effect and space-engendering potentials that Poul Gernes had come to acquire, he could not see any sense at all in producing artworks that merely served as a mirror for aesthetic sentiments for deep-seated personal feelings, frames of mind and moods, and which latched onto some exclusive commercial orbit. He was so vehemently opposed to the notion that art had taken on the character of investment-object and was being utilised for economic speculation that, for a number of years, he flatly refused to participate in gallery exhibitions. In the last years of his life, after having to work on his own once again, he did however assent to having his work shown at exhibitions where the pieces were actually offered for sale; but such occasions were few.
In 1988, Poul Gernes represented Denmark at the Venice Biennial. Here, he also made use of the occasion to propagate his message of a socially intentioned art, which elicited its effects especially through the form’s practical function and the colour’s stimulating effect. This is the very same attitude that was also articulated in the many critical newspaper articles that Gernes authored on the theme of art in modern society. Counter to the cynicism of the commercial art scene, Gernes postulated a broader-based conception of art, which could inspire the individual citizen, regardless of background, and which would accordingly be of benefit to society in the final analysis. He was averse to the very notion of the museum, since his thinking proceeded along the lines that art museums – notwithstanding their preserving function – pulled art from everyday life and contributed instead to building walls separating so-called “ART” from the ordinary citizen’s need for visual and decorative stimuli in the course of his/her daily doings. However, he did come up with a proposal for a colourful annex to the Statens Museum for Kunst (The Danish National Gallery) in 1993. His scheme, however, was not carried into fruition.
Shortly after having turned 71 years of age, Poul Gernes passed away in 1996. His efforts continue to affect hundreds of thousands of Danes as they move about inside and around the vast number of schools, factories, offices, dormitories and other public and private institutions that this creative artist succeeded in embellishing with fantasy and vitality and adorning with his singularly wonderful sense of practicality. Today he has almost attained cult status in the minds of many younger artists who believe in art’s vital and social limitlessness and in its capacity to create happier citizens. (© Peter Michael Hornung – Translated by Dan A. Marmorstein and Ulrikka S. Gernes)