An Introduction to Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913-2007)

Carl-Henning Pedersen has often - and rightly so - been characterised as a painter of fairy tales. His visual world is inhabited by magical and enchanting creatures which seem to belong in another world. The hovering figures and wide range of blue nuances are trademarks of his work, and his characteristically expressive, spontaneous, and poetic style is known and loved by a large audience. His style is shaped by the abstract tradition – but is by no means without imagination. From the very beginning, Carl-Henning Pedersen's imagery was characterised by a series of figures that reappear in ever-changing constellations: birds, suns, horses, ships.

Carl-Henning Pedersen was born in Copenhagen in 1913. He grew up in a working-class family, which deeply influenced his political outlook from an early age. He originally dreamt of becoming a composer or an architect, but a stay at Den Internationale Højskole (The International Folk High School) in Elsinore in 1933 made him change his mind. Here he not only met his future wife, Else Alfelt (1910-1974), but she introduced him to the art of painting. They were married the following year, and in 1936 they both debuted at the Artists' Autumn Exhibition in Copenhagen. 

Historically, Carl-Henning Pedersen belongs to the first generation of abstract, modern painters in Denmark. He took an active part in the activities of Linien - a coalition of artists who published a leading art journal and presented their abstract works in a series of ground-breaking exhibitions during the period 1934-1939. When Linien fell apart, he joined the ranks of another influential artists' group, Høstudstillingen, in 1942. During WWII, he contributed articles and illustrations to the art journal Helhesten (translating to 'The Hel Horse', the horse of Hell). Carl-Henning Pedersen was also in the forefront during the formation of the legendary CoBrA movement in 1948. The CoBrA artists all shared his belief in a totally free art based on imagination and spontaneity.

During the 1950's, Carl-Henning Pedersen found himself increasingly exhibiting his works. He received the Eckersberg Medal in 1950 and the Guggenheim Award in 1958. 1962 saw his international breakthrough when he appeared as Denmark's official representative at the Venice Biennale. A year later, he was awarded the Thorvaldsen Medal.

A series of commissions for grand-scale ornamentations during the 1960s and 1970s allowed Carl-Henning Pedersen to further strengthen his position as one of Denmark's leading artists. His momumental ornamentations include the H.C. Ørsted Institute (1959-64), Angligården (1966-68), the John F. Kennedy School in Gladsaxe (1974), and Carl-Henning Pedersen & Else Alfelts Museum (1975 and 1992).

Encouraged by Statens Kunstfond (the Danish national art foundation), Carl-Henning Pedersen in 1983 agreed to create new ornamentations for Ribe Cathedral. His ambitious design included mosaics, glass mosaics and painted murals, and his very personal interpretation of the biblical motifs was the cause of much debate in the Danish printed press. 

Carl-Henning Pedersen's work has been featured in numerous exhibitions at prestigious art museums and galleries around the world, and it can be found in some of the world's most prominent museums. For decades his artwork has been in constant demand, and exhibitions of his works are continuously being held in both Denmark and abroad. Combined with an impressive amount of international travel, we are left with the impression of an artist to whom new input and impulses were necessary for self-expression. An artist in constant motion who, as soon as a work had been completed, felt the need to share it with others. This also explains Carl-Henning Pedersen's generous donations through the years to not only his own museum in Herning but also to a number of other art museums both domestically and abroad.

Until her death in 1974, Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt were great sources of inspiration to each other, as partners and as painters. They shared ideas and grew as artists through their relationship. For Carl-Henning, therefore, Else's death meant not only a goodbye to his beloved companion but also a goodbye to his closest critic and work colleague for more than 40 years. In 1975, however, Carl-Henning Pedersen encountered the Norwegian photograper Sidsel Ramson in Jerusalem, and they married a few years later. Meeting Sidsel Ramson marked the beginning of a new phase in Carl-Henning Pedersen's life and art. In his later years, Pedersen's art became freer in style and more glowing in colour.     

For many years, Carl-Henning Pedersen and Sidsel Ramson's home in Molesmes in the French countryside served as their base. Here Pedersen was in his proper element, close to the vault of the sky and its magic, as described in Carl-Henning Pedersen: The Heavenly Gate (1985): 

"Perhaps I do not paint landscapes, but the sky, in any case. And to do that you must reside under the sky, follow the changing light of the heavens, feel the magic of being on this globe beneath the skies, and let your imagination unfold in the space of heaven - where else would "The Blue Bird" or "The Winged Horse" fly?"