You'll find no clowns or acrobats at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, but organizers of the new "War Horses" exhibit will try their best to model the museum's second floor after a circus attraction, anyway. Whimsical three-legged horses, snakes, masks, fairy-tale creatures, mythological beasts, tongue-in-cheek humor and at least one wooden barrel appear in paintings, photographs and sculptures spread out around the gallery.
Subtitled "Helhesten and the Danish Avant-Garde During World War II," the display opening May 16 pays homage to a radical circus-tent-style show created 74 years ago to the day by the Hell-Horse (or Helhesten), a collective of subversive abstract-expressionist Danish artists. When the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940, animosity toward Germany's occupation was low, if guarded, and the Danish lived in relative freedom. In May 1941, the Helhesten group staged their first and only avant-garde art show, disguised under a tent as a circus attraction, in a northern Copenhagen park. They called it "13 Artists in a Tent."
The Hell-Horse picked the location for its strategic value. Their tent resembled a nearby amusement park, to better draw foot traffic from Danish families. The 13 artists knew Nazi officials and SS units were known to visit the park. Three-legged horses, a popular symbol in Nordic and German folklore the Hell-Horse adopted as their logo, decorated the tent walls. If the exhibit smacked of joyful, childlike art, that was the idea.
"[The Helhesten] were fighting for their freedom of expression, for their ability to create art. They were fighting for everyone's freedom of expression," says Bonnie Clearwater, the NSU Art Museum's director. "They were coating their acts of resistance as a circus attraction. So many people probably came because of the proximity to the other attractions, but instead of, 'Ooh, look at all the jovial art,' it was actually an elaborate act of subversion."
Brought in to guest-curate "War Horses" is Kerry Greaves, a New York native and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen. She thought the best way to show off the Hell-Horse's brand of provocation was to re-create Hell-Horse's original circus show, reportedly attended by about 2,400 people.
The 120-work survey of early abstract-expressionism, which draws from the museum's collection and from the Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelts Museum in Denmark, is a stimulating exploration of under-the-radar artistic rebellion, masked with tongue-in-cheek wit, during a time when Nazis executed people for much less.
"Danes were in this unpredictable environment," Greaves says, stopping next to a series of six Hell-Horse drawings by Carl-Henning Pedersen. "They lived in very good conditions compared to the rest of Europe, but they were tightly controlled. The Helhesten used this horse symbol because Nazis looked at Viking mythology as a prototype of the Aryan race they wanted to create, but the Hell-Horse is not about power or bravery or purity. It's this creature that limps along to foretell death. They made it look childish and used a humorous veil to shield what they were doing."
Greaves presents the show in chronological order. The gallery's white-walled atrium carries Henry Heerup's lithograph "Asger Jorn on His Way to Paris," depicting his fellow Helhesten artist on a motorcycle exploring the modern-art-rich city circa 1937. Around the corner is Yorn's 1940 painting "Head," an orange-eyed creature created by dribbling paint from atop a ladder onto the canvas below. Swaths of pigment are still visible. Influences from Picasso's cubism, German expressionism and the surrealists spawned what Greaves, in her catalog essay, called "spontaneous gestural abstract expressionism."
"It's automatic drawing, creating an image without controlling it," Greaves says. "They were applying brightly colored paints thickly to a surface, so that the brushstrokes reminded you of the artwork's creation process. But what was truly amazing was that these abstracts seemed to be developing in a bubble at the same time as artists from the New York school were doing the same thing."
During the late 1930s, Nazi Germany condemned abstract art with its "Degenerate Art Exhibition," says Barbara Buhler Lynes, the museum's senior curator.
"The Nazis hated abstract art. Anything that wasn't naturalistic was considered 'degenerate,'" Lynes says. "Hitler explicitly condemned modern art in Germany — anything by Picasso, Gauguin, Ernst. So [the Helhesten artists] were being brave, challenging Nazi authority by making abstraction."
Other highlights from the show include a display of original Helhesten books, 12 secretly published anti-Nazi abstract-art journals that the artists distributed to poets, physicists and other high-level Danish officials. Asger Jorn's untitled wooden barrel is the Danish equivalent of a carnival piñata that uses live cats instead of candy. It is splashed with multilimbed beings with bulbous eyes that dance across a colorful landscape.
"It starts as a childlike painting, but the more you look at it, the more dark, grotesque and critical it becomes," Greaves says. "There's an eeriness and disturbing quality to them. A child might even say this is creepy."
Clearwater says several Hell-Horse members would go on to form the more popular CoBrA movement, an enclave of European artists who created sociopolitical avant-garde works after the war. "War Horses" is the second of three planned CoBrA-related exhibits at the museum, after "Spirit of CoBrA" last fall and the upcoming “Animal Culture,” which will lean on creatures in Norse mythology.
"There's such a goldmine of fascinating stories related to these European artists," Clearwater says.
"War Horses: Helhesten and the Danish Avant-Garde During World War II" will open with a reception 6-9 p.m. Saturday, May 16, at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 Las Olas Blvd. Admission is $15 and includes an art talk by curator Kerry Greaves. The show will run through Oct. 4. Call 954-525-5500 or go to NSUArtMuseum.org.