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The silhouettes of Hans Christian Andersen

Petra Lambeck mm
October 19, 2018

Best known for his fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, the Danish storyteller also created hundreds of paper silhouettes. An exhibition in Bremen shows his remaining visual works.

Ausstellung Kunsthalle Bremen - Hans Christian Andersen. Poet mit Feder und Schere
Image: Hans Christian Andersen

"Paper cutting is the prelude to writing," wrote Hans Christian Andersen in a letter in July 1867. The art of paper cutting was a popular leisure activity during his lifetime. But Andersen's cuts were different.

"They were modern," says art historian Detlef Klein. "They are less playful and made with a great sense of purpose."

For Andersen, the silhouettes were a pure hobby, to which he devoted a great deal of time and energy. "We do not know how many silhouettes there were, but we have to assume that — if there are nearly 400 today — there were many more," says Klein.

They usually served as a present, helped decorate floral bouquets or were used as puppetry figures.

"You can imagine how many of them must have got torn or creased," says Klein. "You could often bend the figures a little, blow at them and then move them across the tabletop."

Andersen himself would never have come up with the idea of exhibiting his silhouettes. Nor would he not have sold them, says Anne Buschhoff, who is co-curating the Bremen exhibition "Hans Christian Andersen: A Poet with Pen and Scissors" along with Stein.

He simply gave away most of this work as he was a "popular man, who was often invited to social gatherings, where he would tell stories and create these silhouettes."

Once his story and the paper cutting was finished, Anderson would give away his creations to the hosts, their children or to other guests.

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Pop art tribute

The famous storyteller's silhouettes also fascinated the pop art legend Andy Warhol. He'd known of Anderson's many fairy tales since he was a boy, but knew nothing about his paper cutting.

In 1987, just months before his death, Warhol produced a small series about Andersen's visual art. It included a portrait of the Dane and three of his silhouettes — in typical Warhol style.

Unlike Anderson's Danish biography, which has a whole chapter dedicated to the writer's design work, most German language books hardly mention these other creative pursuits.

The two curators were therefore able to open up an "almost undeveloped field," as Stein puts it. The results can be found in the catalog, which has been published alongside the exhibition.

Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark. He grew up in poverty, but moved up in the world thanks to his incredible gift for writing, along with the help of wealthy Copenhageners, who took him under their wing.

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His face sold books

His writing success began in the 1830s, with fairy tales most famously including The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl and many others.

"He was a star in the literature business," says Klein. "Not only did he sell a lot of books, but his image was also in demand. Just knowing the likeness, knowing what he looked like, helped boost his income."

The vast majority of silhouettes, almost 400 of which are currently known about, are located in Denmark. Since they are made of very sensitive paper, the exhibitors had to meet onerous requirements with regard to light and air humidity, says Stein. "Those collections that have original silhouettes don't actually like to give them away."

Nevertheless, he and his colleague Anne Buschhoff were able to convince the museum in Andersen's birthplace Odense and the Royal Library in Copenhagen to lend the artworks to the Kunsthalle Bremen.

Twenty-three original drawings by Hans Christian Andersen will be presented, along with some 40 silhouettes and many of his collages — but without much light, says Buschhoff.

"We will have to show it in a certain amount of darkness, with the aesthetics of a treasure chamber, so to speak."

The exhibition "Hans Christian Andersen — A Poet with Quill and Scissors" will be on show at the Kunsthalle Bremen from October 20, 2018 until February 24, 2019.

Silhouette art