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Knud W. Jensen discusses the Louisiana Museum ; part 1

BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:30:01


Knud W. Jensen, founder and director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humblebaek, Denmark, talks about the importance of having a place for art to be shared, stored and preserved. The Louisiana Museum is unlike traditional museums, as it is housed in what was once a residential home.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Architect, whom I knew, who spoke of looking for cities to light. At this moment I am at this place, it's called the Louisiana Museum, and "museum" is not the word. It's far, far more than that. We're facing a sound -- if we could describe this place right now, Mr. Jensen, and I'll ask about you. We're in your office now, we're facing the sound, north of Denmark, and we see, that we can see the coastline of Sweden, can't we?

Knud W. Jensen Oh yes, I think that's very important, that we have placed our museum here in the midst of a very fertile and beautiful landscape. And that people could sit down in the cafeteria after walking through the museum, seeing the works of art, and then relax and look at the sea and feel at ease. Because you get tired from seeing art, it demands something from you, and you need something to drink and to eat, and the relaxation afterwards. So that's why we have placed it out here.

Studs Terkel And talking to Mr. Jensen, we haven't said a word yet about this place itself. It isn't -- there are great works of art here, but it's not something -- and by the way, a moment ago I was wandering about on this cool, autumnal afternoon inside this place. There are young people, students, there are little children, in fact there's rooms for little kids to play in with colors, there's elderly people -- but I sense something. There's a Picasso exhibition on right now, the feature, but the sculptural garden outside, were the works of Henry Moore and of Arp and of Jacopetti.

Knud W. Jensen Yes.

Studs Terkel Giacometti!

Knud W. Jensen Giacometti.

Studs Terkel Yeah, Jacopetti, let's forget about him, [laughter] he's a film director whom I care not about at all. But now, tell us about the idea of this place, the vision that you had, Mr. Jensen. It's called Louisiana because of the nobleman who married three women named Louise.

Knud W. Jensen That's true, yes. Well, this place was created by this nobleman a hundred years ago, married three times, each time a Louise. And I kept this name, Louisiana, which he gave the villa, the old villa, because I think this was just a funny story about this man and his three wives, and his fidelity to the name of Louise. So we kept the name and opened it up in '58 as a museum of modern art. We used the old villa as an entrance pavilion, and then we we had the modern building connected with the old house with a long glass corridor, so that you can enjoy nature on your way down to the rooms with works of art. And I have been walking through museums my whole life. I liked, I should have liked to be an art historian as as a youngster, but I went into my father's business instead and I carried on this business until the year of '56 when the famous Kraft Foods Kraft Foods of Chicago came over. It was my greatest customer and bought my firm, the company I I was the owner of. And then I got a certain amount of money free, and I could do what I liked. So I said to myself, why not try to to make a museum another way, in another version, another solution as the museums you have known since your youth. Because, after all, the museums have been built in a very dark period of the history of architecture. It was large prestige building, with columns, marble staircases, palms, and gentleman dressed in admirals' uniforms, and so on, which was the predominant type of museum created around a hundred years ago. And so, I thought that modern art didn't suit very well into that kind of a museum, and we should have to, ought to try to create an atmosphere which was appropriate and was suiting for modern art, which didn't suit well into the old kind of building.

Studs Terkel As you're talking -- of course, this is a vision you're talking about, the vision of Mr. Jensen -- we'll ask about him and how he, how come he felt this way, has developed to the man he is, the -- by the way, true patron of the arts, a rare a rare figure indeed, I mean in the true sense of the word. But this place. So, you now had this money -- and this is not a hobby with you, it's your life -- and you came across this building. As we enter it, it seems like a house, not a museum, it's a house, this villa. And you had it extended by two architects.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, I I think it's very important that we have tried to to more to create a kind of large, one-family house in a in a beautiful landscape than to create an institution, a cultural institution, a museum. And to have an atmosphere of easiness and and relaxation, that people don't feel obliged to take off their shoes and to approach the works of art, and to feel that they are approaching something sacred or very hard to understand, and so on, but that they really get on speaking terms with the modern art. And they don't get this kind of claustrophobia which they get when they come into a closed, old-fashioned museum room, where they are left alone with the works of art. And then they maybe feel that I don't really understand this, it's probably my fault, but they feel in a way, often, I may put it so, nearby humiliated, because they really don't, can't get any contact with this kind of often very complicated modern art, abstract and surrealistic, whatever it could be. But when they turn around here they see a beautiful landscape; trees, flowers, lawns. And so they always get some kind of impression of beauty, some kind of experience, and probably they get something for the money they paid when they entered, and they like to go back again. And so they get accustomed to modern art through this kind of atmosphere we have tried to create here. This is one of the main ideas. And then another thing is, of course, to to fill the place with life in the way of concerts, film evenings, conferences, lectures, discussions, seminars. Because if you look back to the, on the history of modern, of of art museums, of of art collections, in the olden days, 200 years ago, when some prince or big shot of olden times would collect art and have a big collection of beautiful things, the best things of his own time, he would just have it in his own home and he would, it would surround him and his friends, and there would be concerts and feasts and balls and all kind of everyday life going on in the midst of these works of art. Today we, or since hundred years, we put these works into kind of mausoleums, and there they stay, and you've got to go and have a look at them. But the main thing is that also something happens within these, this kind of framework which the museum is. You've got to let something happen in in the museums. But of course, I must admit that I have learned very much from American museum people, because I think you have wonderful museums in America, and doing a very good job, especially a museum like Museum of Modern Art in New York is a fantastic museum, which have been giving a lot of inspiration to European museums.

Studs Terkel This this matter of attitude. In in the past, traditionally, people coming to see a work, a new work, modern work, say: I don't know, it's my fault, the fear of not being in an-. Yet, you have created a climate here, the trees around, the homely, homely atmosphere, in the good sense. And I'm wholly unaware of the fact that you had two architects work and extend the place. It still has a quality of home. But above all, the ease of the people and the work seem nature and art as one.

Knud W. Jensen Yes. This is the idea took -- after all, the way we shape a landscape, a garden, for instance, is a kind of artistical creation also. And to fit in buildings into a landscape, and to sort of say to remodel the landscape, to fill the buildings with art and furniture and so on, this is in a way an attempt to to create a new work of art, to create a work of art in several dimensions, so to say, because -- and then, thereby, underlining that all the visual arts, that all arts are related, are inter- interco- there's an interplay between the arts which is underlined here in this place. This is very bad English I think-

Studs Terkel No, you're doing very well.

Knud W. Jensen No, but [laughter]. After all, this is of course the main idea, to to to make something different to the old-fashioned kind of museums after all.

Studs Terkel There's nothing separated, then, just as none of the arts are separated. So you have music concerts, seminars, readings, you have a sculptural garden outside, and it's beautiful. Here, again, the works that you have, the the paintings, the drawings, inside. And yet you're saying it's all as one, just as nature and art are one. And this does something to the people! I was watching -- I come back to this theme, watching the faces of the people. Even your cafeteria here. The cafeteria sells kind of -- it's like a student place, that there, there was nothing, no Formica tabletop idea, you know what I mean, just easy. That too was part of the-

Knud W. Jensen Yes.

Studs Terkel Part of the, of the landscape.

Knud W. Jensen Well, I think that good drinking and food is very important in connection with experiencing art. You get so damned thirsty and you've got to relax afterwards, and then to sort of turn again and look again. And my favorite idea, my my my ideal would be that people should come here for a whole day and just look and eat and drink and listen to music, see a film, and go back and look at some paintings and stay a whole day in this place. There's a lot of things to be done still. We have a, we lack certain facilities for - we miss very much facilities for film showings, for study circles, and so on, and we try gradually to to enlarge the museum and so have these facilities as a cultural center, because I believe much more in the idea of a cultural center than of a of a museum. I mean, I wouldn't underestimate or whatever is said, I wouldn't say anything very bad about the old type of museum, because we've got to have these enormous treasure houses. We've got to have places where masterworks are kept together, or kept well, or preserved for the coming generations, where you can make a comparison between various periods of the arts, various styles, and so on. But we have enough of that kind of museum, so I think it's more, much more necessary today to create cultural centers where the arts, all kind of art, can meet, and meet people.

Studs Terkel See, you're talking, I noticed too, families are down here, young couples with babies. You have a special room here where little children can fool around with colors and clay, this too.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, yes. I I think that children are terribly bored by going around in a museum, and they have to do something on their own, and so they can sit here, and there's a couple of young girls who look after them and so, both the children and the grownups can relax and have a good time in coming here. I should like to do much more of that, because it's also a great question of facilities and room and space. I'd like to have a large room where peo- people, where youngsters and children could really play with, say, sculptural elements, and build up sculptures, and to really work with kind of artistic-

Studs Terkel And sort of, in a way you might describe it as sort of a palace of delights, different things, it's only-. Mr. Jensen, we should point out where we are, perhaps, too.

Knud W. Jensen Yes.

Studs Terkel A place called Humlebaek, and that's about 30 kilometers outside of Copenhagen. Yet you have crowds, 10 years, so about 2 million people have come here, entered, since the time of its building, opening.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, this year we have about, nearby 300,000 people, which is a lot in a little museum 30, 20 miles out of of a town, from the town. And, but the reason why we can have a rather big crowd here is that we -- the program must change, you can't just have a sta- static, a stable museum, where you, when people talk about it they say, "Oh well, this place, I have always been to this place, I have been to the museum, why should I go there again? I see the same things." So this is also a thing which is done everywhere in the world, that the museums are now having this program of temporary exhibitions which I think is very important.

Studs Terkel Well, I'll ask you in a moment about the exhibitions, the nature of some of the foreign exhibitions, as well as the young Danish artists. The place itself, Humlebaek, how it came -- well, right now, if you could describe this scene, which is to me, from Chicago, it's a it's a scene out of fantasy. The trees, it's now dusk, it's night, we're in Humlebaek, it's now about 5 minutes to 5. Trees are out there, the sculptures out there, the sound -- what is the sound? This is a body of water separating what, north--

Knud W. Jensen Sweden and Denmark, yes.

Studs Terkel Denmark.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, yes. Yes, it's this kind of narrow sound between southern Sweden and Denmark and Copenhagen. And you can cross over to Sweden in a quarter of an hour with a ferry boat, about 5 miles from here in the town of Elsinore where you have the Hamlet castle, Kronborg. And so we have a lot of Swedes coming over here from southern Sweden for an exhibition like this Picasso exhibition we have now. I think we have about, maybe, one-third of the public is coming from Sweden.

Studs Terkel About yourself, I think we -- I don't think it's possible to talk about this Louisiana Museum, that is more than a museum, without Mr. Jensen himself and how -- you see, you yourself now, you have some -- and you just a moment ago you came in -- you know, you inherited, and you took over this firm and, but all your life, there was something else you had in mind.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, well I was divided between my interest in the arts, literature and the visual arts, and my business. In a way, I enjoyed business too, because I think I'm more or less a man of action, and I maybe not, was not able to to do great things in studying art and writing about it, because I I like to be together with people to work, to negotiate, to act, so to say. So I enjoyed business, but it it it split me into two parts, because every day when I came back, I always had to read, and, or to go to concerts, and to to go after my interest in the, for the arts, and I -- all my friends were artists, and I was always leading, having two lives, so to say, and it, this kind of, what is it?

Studs Terkel Split.

Knud W. Jensen Split, yes, was unbearable in the long run, so now I'm more, so to say, of a whole person, because my work is, my work is my hobby, as one says. But more than that, even, I think this is so fascinating to to work in the this domain of the cultural center, and the contact between the public and the arts, and the kind of being just in between, the mediator between the new art and the public. This is a job which I like, and there's no more any any kind of split between, yes.

Studs Terkel This, again, this is all part of a whole, isn't it? You yourself are a whole man, this which you love, but you're not averse to business, but this which you love is now your life. It is not a hobby, it is your life. And, just as this place, nature, is not unconnected with the works of men that you have here too, that's also part of a whole. You think then in terms of the unity, really, don't you? Continuously, it seems to -- this reflects you, then, this place, a reflection of your vision.

Knud W. Jensen Well, I don't know, I I believe very much in teamwork, and I have some wonderful colleagues here in the museum, people who work with me on this job. And I have been working very well together with the two young architects who made the place, and we have been having a lot of fun. Every time we make an extension, we have a long period of of reconnaissance, so to say, to examine, to analyze all all the possible ways to make big models and maq- models, maquettes, to find out how it should be. So I think I believe very much in this kind of working in atmosphere of friendship and to have to work with people of the same, the same ideas.

Studs Terkel Your your was your -- did your father have these feelings, too? Your father whose company was originally-

Knud W. Jensen Well, you see, my father was a rather, could I say, a closed, reserved man who didn't speak so much about his feelings and so on. He was a rather lonely man maybe, even. But he was a book collector, and extremely interested in the history of Denmark and Europe, and he created quite a big collection of books, 3, 4 thousand books, but mostly old, rare books. And when he died, many years ago, he left this collection of books to me. And it was just a few days ago sold on an auction here in Copenhagen. And I think even quite a few of these books went over to America, old astronomic books, scientific books, and so on, from the fifteenth, sixteenth century was ex- some of them were exported, some were kept in Denmark, and the revenue of this auction is going to be used for an extension of the museum here. So, it's just to tell-

Studs Terkel At this point, we should point out, this is probably the largest auction, I believe it was, I've heard about it, I think the largest in the history of Denmark.

Knud W. Jensen Well, I don't know if it was a large one, it was not really, at any rate, it was yeah, it was one of the great auctions in this century in this country, in the field of of of bibliophiles and whatever you call it in English. I mean, there are only created a few collections of that kind. And of course, having been educated in a home where there was such an intense interest for literature, history, old books and even also works of art, my father collected, but mainly older Danish art, it was quite natural for me to be engaged in the arts and to be interested in these things. It was just a thing like the daily bread and butter, that you read the book or go to a concert or look at paintings and so on.

Studs Terkel He had this-

Knud W. Jensen [unintelligible] problem.

Studs Terkel And then you had an impulse, he had an impulse. And it wasn't a question on your father's part of academic training, was it? It was his own-

Knud W. Jensen No, he was an entirely self-made man, who started as a son of a widow in very poor conditions and and made quite a good business during his life, in creating the greatest export business in cheese and milk powder, butter and dairy products and so on. And he died in '44, and then I I carried the firm on for another 12 years. In the meantime, I got into the publishing business, too, because so many of my friends were writers. And we even started, just after the war, a little avant-gardistic publishing house, which really gathered all the young poets and good writers at that time, '45 to '52, I think it was. We published a literary review, which really was on a very high level, called "Heretica," heretic, as you know what that means.

Studs Terkel Mhmm. Mhmm.

Knud W. Jensen And this little publishing house was kind of a, I wouldn't say [play par?] business, because it was all con amore, so to say. It didn't pay, it had a heavy loss every year with-

Studs Terkel Labor of love.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, we did, just did whatever we wanted to do, and published whatever books we wanted, if it could sell or not, we didn't care. But you see, after all, it was such a responsibility to take over the authorship of a young author, to try to sell his books, that after a certain number of years I found out that this was irresponsible to have a kind of, a con amore publishing house, instead of having a solid good publishing house which really could sell the books, which could secure the material side of the life for the artist, which could give them better conditions, and reprint their books and make paperbacks of their books and so on. So I got into this publishing house on which you have, in which you have published your book, Gyldendal. And my friends from this little publishing house took over the management of this fairly large, old publishing house.

Studs Terkel Almost 200 years old.

Knud W. Jensen Yes, and in the next years, in '70, it's 200 years old. And it publishes about 8-, 900 books, 800 books a year, 800 titles a year, which is quite a production. But it was great fun to have this little publishing house in the beginning. It started in my apartment, I had this 3 room apartment at that moment. And we had the office there, and the store there, and the authors came, and the printers came to get the manuscripts, and so on. But this kind of double life was so exhausting that after a while they moved to another place. And then after the, after 7 years, we all went into Gyldendal to try to modernize this rather, at that time rather old-fashioned publishing house, and we had a very interesting time too in that, since '52.

Studs Terkel As you're talking, Mr. Jensen -- this is a very exhilarating tale, exhilarating story you tell -- perhaps you represent something that may happen tomorrow, to many people, I hope, to a number, those whose work is material and you have a longing for something else. You have taken the step and you have cut yourself off, you know, not- and you're now wholly involved with that which is inside you.

Knud W. Jensen Well yes, of course, this is, it's very important that you get something out of the only life you have. After all, death is so permanent, as you say in America. [laughter] But on the other hand, of course, it also has certain costs when you turn your back to to business and to money. There, they have in a kind of a of a tendency to, not to grow, not to [divvy?] up so much. And sometimes I think maybe was stupid not to to [late to brighten? break?] my career as a businessman, instead of developing still still larger business, and then having more money, because today, I I must say that nearby every month, I have so many ideas and so many wishes which I can't fulfill because I haven't got the money for it. Because after all, money is the material you create in, if you are in my place. I'm not an artist at all, and I could never write a poem or paint a painting, but I can develop a place like this, and this needs money. And not having any live business anymore, except the publishing business, which is, as you know, never the most profitable business, it has to be very solid and has to consolidate and you can't get much money out of the publishing business. But, then again, I mean, I sometimes miss the the days when I really earned money, because well, after all these years, there's no money in making a museum, of course. This is just a loss. And, yeah. But on the other hand, I like it, and and I choose my way and I turned my back to business and to money, and had a wonderful time.

Studs Terkel You're alive. That's rather important.

Knud W. Jensen [laughter] Yes.

Studs Terkel You're living. No, I mean, that is, this work is what is so alive to you.

Knud W. Jensen Yes.

Studs Terkel Thinking about, also, since we're speaking about foundations, this is a foundation you've created. Something very fascinating to me, too, is that there is no envy among the many -- like the Carlsberg Foundation has cooperated with you here, have they not? And you wrote about -- by the way, the writing of Mr. Jensen himself, in this marvelous catalog of Louisiana, speaks of his credo, too.

Knud W. Jensen Yes. You see, the Carlsberg Foundation is the largest private foundation for the support of the arts and science in this country. It's a marvelous institution created by the old brewer Jacobsen who created the largest brewers in Denmark, the Carlsberg Brewers. And he died, I think, just after the First World War. But this foundation has been carried on. And there's also always a kind of tendency towards certain jealousy between foundations, because one foundation wants to make this, and the other that, and so on. And they don't cooperate because they try to do their best in their own field, and they specialize, and so on. But the Carlsberg Foundation has a large budget for buying works of art and distributing them to Danish museums, and so they have also appointed us a museum worthy of having their gifts, and so on. And together we have negotiations with the artist, and they, so to say -- I choose the works together with them, of course, but then they pay the bill afterwards. This is a marvelous corporation. They sent me [Walter Henry Moore?] to negotiate about this big sculpture you see out there, and we made a deal, we found a solution. And just so, we just got a work of art which we never could have paid ourselves in this little museum.

Studs Terkel As you're talking about the Henry Moore work, the "Reclining Figure," the one originally commissioned for the Seagram Building in New York, somehow it seems just right here. Facing the water, facing the sound. You have the sculptural garden as well, outside, and again I suppose you and the the two young architects had this in mind, too, didn't you?

Knud W. Jensen Yes. I think it's quite a delicate job to, interesting job to place sculptures in the landscape. Because if you place a lot of sculptures together on a in a lawn in an English, kind of English garden like this, they will just compete against each other. So we created a special part of the garden as a sculpture garden with a smaller courtyard with defined rooms where many objects and sculptures could be put together, because then they are in the shape of archi- "architectonical" rooms, so to say. And this is a very interesting thing, because every work of art has its own radiance, its own extension, so to say, and it must be put in the very right place. You can't just play around with works of art and put them up any place. It is a very interesting job to find out how to give the work of art its, the utmost of of imp- -- what do you call -- impress- impressive as possible.

Studs Terkel On this theme we'll continue in a moment. The question of visitors, of patrons-- [recording ends abruptly]