Midst of Greenland’s ice sheet, open crevasses expose their depths turning from white to dark blue and even black – up there stands a group of men. They have a traction sledge, a tent and a Primus stove, resting in between two impressive abyssal cracks. No sledge tracks are to be seen around; not a clue of where they came from, not either where they shall go.
The painting is titled Kornerup on the ice and was realised in the early 1890s by J.E.C. Rasmussen (1841-1893). The work is exhibited in Nuuk Art Museum and belongs to Sermersooq municipality.
The men are relaxed, each one attending to his business; one stands with hands in pockets, another holds his hands in his lap, a third lights the Primus stove. In the middle of the picture stands the last man and looks out through a device, in the direction of the viewer – towards the landscape that continues beyond the picture.
Andreas Nicolaus Kornerup (1857-1881) took part in several expeditions to Greenland in the 1870s as an illustrator. The painting represents an expedition undertaken in 1878, in which Kornerup walked over Greenland’s ice sheet under J.A.D. Jensen’s direction and reached the so-called Nunatak’s, approximately 70 km from the edge of the glacier; that was ten years before Fridtjof Nansen accomplished the first complete crossing of Greenland’s interior. In 1878 people would still believe that a secluded realm of dwarf people was to be found in the middle of the ice cap, or that from the Nunataks one could see East Greenland.
Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen was educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He travelled for the first time to Greenland in 1870-71, especially around Nuuk, and that experience proved in many ways decisive for him and his art. He became known as “The Greenland Painter” and was to use the motives and inspiration collected in this first trip for the rest of his life.
We can say that the title of “Greenland painter” corresponds to a specific genre. The notion applies to a group of painters – particularly from Denmark – that from the mid-19th century up to the mid-20th dwelt for shorter or longer periods in Greenland, becoming known thereafter for using Greenland as a recurring motif in their art.
In her thesis Inger Trumpy places J.E.C. Rasmussen’s paintings into three genres: marine paintings, paintings of peasants everyday life and landscape paintings. All three genres are representative of his time and part of the education at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts. N.L. Høyen, both professor at the academy and leading art historian back then, struck a blow for history painting, engaging the national and the People’s history. He incited artists to travel around Denmark and Scandinavia and depict peasants every day life. Inger Trumpy demonstrates in her thesis that J.E.C. Rasmussen expanded this to also include Greenland.
J.E.C. Rasmussen lived at the time of the World Expositions. Throughout the 19th century, World Expositions had the character of fairs in which each country would give a complete presentation of its artistic, industrial and artisanal capabilities. J.E.C. Rasmussen represented Denmark at several World Expositions with his Greenland paintings. His art was not well received though, as the Danish art presented at the Exposition lagged behind European trends.
Just like in the case of other expedition painters, J.E.C. Rasmussen’s pictures are not historically correct. He keeps replicating the inspiration and motives of his first trip to Greenland. As Karsten Hermansen points out in the book …and so I paint what I saw – Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841-1893), as time goes by Rasmussen depicts Greenlanders standing more and more apart, each on his own. Moving from a representation of Greenlanders being together and in groups, we see people becoming increasingly alone – on the ice, by the sea, on mountains.
In 1893, during his second trip to Greenland, Rasmussen fell overboard from the ship Peru; he disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean and was never found again.
Kornerup on the ice is painted with a one-point perspective, so that we see all the lines delineating crevasses ending in the same vanishing point on the background. The viewer places herself in a central position opposite to the picture and gets such an overview of the whole scenery as if the landscape were observed from above – as if the painter had been looking out from the top of a hill.
We are given access to an otherwise deserted and harsh landscape, reserved for the few. Such a landscape is exclusive, as we can not see other people then the few expeditioners. The thick layer of painting around the crevasses endows the image with a peculiar almost three-dimensional texture, which underscores the dramatic representation of Greenland’s interior. These details set the scene for the men and their expedition.
These men seem to be risking their life between engulfing crevasses in order to record and map the ice cap. Such a scene endorses a definite masculinity typically belonging to the age of expeditions. As Pia Arke pointed out in her works, expeditions, colonization and conquering of lands are contextual to a specific conception of sexes. Man is here the conquering, recording and mapping (thus, the active) force, the one that explores and captures, on the other hand, the (passive and beautiful, although overwhelming) landscape. In many ways, the expedition painters – in this case Rasmussen, but similarly also the later Emanuel A. Petersen – registered a gendered landscape: they reproduce an idea of femininity as the passive and beautiful (even in the case of an engulfing landscape), that the man can conquer.
The trophy in this masculine expedition – the medal and reward earned by these men for putting their life at risk – is the Nunatak’s in the background. Kornerup’s expedition reached the Nunatak’s, which are named still today after the expedition’s leader: J.A.D. Jensen’s Nunatak’s.
Greenland’s ice cap is the stage for this expedition. The ice cap is almost a monster – a few lines in perspective create a harmony and a tribute to the expedition.
J.E.C. Rasmussen was inspired by Andreas Kornerup sketches from the expedition in 1878-79. Apart from Kornerup, two other Danes and one Greenlander took part in said expedition, which led them well 70 km onto Greenland’s ice cap – that was the longest distance ever reached by anyone at that time. On their way, Kornerup made sketches and drawings of the landscape. The four men in the painting is first lieutenant J.A.D. Jensen, the geologist Andreas Kornerup, the architect Thorvald Groth and the Greenlander Habakuk (not to be mistaken with the religious leader a hundred years before this expedition).
J.E.C. Rasmussen may have seen Kornerup’s watercolours through a common acquaintance, but a couple of them were also exhibited in Charlottenborg in Copenhagen aftur Kornerup’s death. He passed away only 24 of age, probably of tuberculosis caused by the hardships in Greenland, but he was nevertheless homaged as a hero and a rising star in the scientific milieu.
We do not know exactly when Rasmussen painted Kornerup on the ice. Three paintings are known to have been inspired by Kornerup’s watercolours. The title Kornerup on the ice came up most likely after Rasmussen’s death, as the other two paintings where titled The ice cap and Expedition on the ice cap then as well. Two of the three works have been brought to Greenland, and today one is located at Nuuk Art Museum, another is privately owned in Denmark, while the third’s whereabouts are unknown.
“Behind the Art – J.E.C. Rasmussen” is written by Stine Lundberg Hansen
Inger Trumpy, En undersøgelse av carl rasmussens grønlandsmalerier, med særlig henblikk på utvaigte ekspedisjonsbilleder, Annen delprøve til magisterkonferens i kunsthistorie Vintereksamen 1984/85 (Nuuk Art Museum has a copy of the thesis)
Karsten Hermansen, ”…saa maler jeg, hvad jeg har set – Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841-1893)”, Marstal Søfartsmuseum, 2016