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


Carl-Henning Pedersen has rightly been characterized as the 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 the wide range of blue colours are his trademark, and his characteristically expressive, spontaneous, and poetic style is known and loved by a large public. It is shaped by the abstract tradition – but is by no means without imagination. From the very beginning, Carl-Henning Pedersen's imagery is characterized by a series of figures that reappear in changing constellations: birds, suns, horses, ships.


Carl-Henning Pedersen was born in 1913 in Copenhagen. He grew up in a working-class family, an experience which deeply influenced his political outlook early on. He originally dreamt of becoming a composer or an architect, but a stay at Den Internationale Højskole in Elsinore, 1933, made him change his mind. Here he met his future wife Else Alfelt (1910-1974) who introduced him to painting. They were married the following year, and in 1936 they both had their debut at the Artists' Autumn Enhibition in Copenhagen. 


Historically, Carl-Henning Pedersen belongs to the first generation of abstract, modern painters in Denmark. He took an active part in Linien's activities - a coalition of artists who published a leading art journal and presented their abstract works in a series of groundbreaking 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 with articles and illustrations to the art journal Helhesten.


Carl-Henning Pedersen was also in the forefront during the formation of the legendary CoBrA movement in 1948. Like him, the CoBrA artists believed in a totally free art based on imagination and spontaneity.


During the 1950's, Carl-Henning Pedersen found himself increasingly occupied with exhibition activities. 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. 


The following year he was awarded the Thorvaldsen Medal. A series of commissioned ornamentations in the 1960s and 1970s allowed Carl-Henning Pedersen to further strengthen his position as one of the leading Danish 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, Carl-Henning Pedersen in 1983 agreed to create the new ornamentation for Ribe Cathedral. His ambitious design for the cathedral decoration included mosaics, glass mosaics, and murals, and his very personal interpretation of the biblical motifs was the cause of much debate in the printed press. 


Carl-Henning Pedersen's work has been featured in prestigious exhibitions in art museums and galleries all over the world, and he is represented in some of the world's most prominent museums. Throughout the years he has been in great demand, and there are constantly exhibitions of his works behing held in Denmark as well as abroad.


Until her death in 1974, Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt inspired each other as partners as well as painters, shared ideas, and grew as artists through their relationship. For Carl-Henning, Else's death therefore not only meant saying goodbye to his beloved companion, but also to his closest critic and work colleague through the last 40 years. In 1975, while staying in Jerusalem, he met the Norwegian artist Sidsel Ramson. They married a few years later. The meeting with Sidsel Ramson marked the beginning of a new phase in Carl-Henning Pedersen's life and art. In these later years, his art is painted in a freer style, more glowing in colour.     


For many years, the couple used their home in Molesmes in the French countryside as a base. Here the artist was in his proper element, close to the vaulted heaven 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?"