An Introduction to Else Alfelt (1910-1974)
Like Carl-Henning Pedersen, Else Alfelt belonged to the pioneering group of experimental artists who established abstract art as an artform in Denmark from the 1930s.
Else Kirsten Tove Alfelt was born on 16 September 1910 in Copenhagen. The daughter of bank clerk Carl Valdemar Alfelt and wife Edith Thomsen, Else was 7 years old when her parents divorced, and she was placed in an orphanage. She remained at the orphanage until her 15th year. At age 12, Else experienced the world of painting for the first time when she made portraits of children and employees at the orphanage using materials from a paint box gifted to her by her aunt.
Following her eight years at the orphanage, Else Alfelt spent two years at a technical shool while simultaneously continuing to paint. An application to the Academy of Art in Copenhagen was rejected and so was her first attempted entry of paintings into the Artists' Autumn Exhibition in 1929. Not until 1936 did she succeed in having paintings accepted into this exhibition: Two naturalistic portraits.
Meeting Carl-Henning Pedersen at Den Internationale Højskole ('The International Folk High School') in Elsinore in 1933 proved seminal both privately and artistically. Else Alfelt and Carl-Henning Pedersen married and had their first daughter, Vibeke Alfelt, just one year later. The fourth member of the family, daughter Kari-Nina Pedersen, was born six years later in 1940.
Else Alfelt and Carl-Henning Pedersen.
Meeting Carl-Henning Pedersen resulted in not only a warm and loving relationship that lasted until Else Alfelt's death in 1974 but also in a fruitful artistic collaboration. Alfelt inspired Carl-Henning Pedersen to become a painter. His earliest works are clearly inspired by surrealist and cubist ideas, and Alfelt also began experimenting with abstract paintings and watercolours in between her naturalistic works, which in due time were all painted over. Straitened means during the early years meant few available materials, and even blinds and wallpaper were utilised as canvasses.
Like Carl-Henning Pedersen and large sections of the 1930s' intelligentsia, Else Alfelt's political opinions were strongly influenced by the social poverty of the era and the rise of Nazism. Many artists were preoccupied with the revolutionary potential of abstract idioms. Among them was Alfelt who, as just one example, created set decorations for a play by Bertolt Brecht.
In the mid-1930s, Alfelt and Carl-Henning Pedersen met the Danish painter Egill Jacobsen at an anti-war demonstration. Through Jacobsen, they were introduced to a circle of experimental artists - such as Richard Mortensen, Henry Heerup, Asger Jorn, Erik Thommesen, and Sonja Ferlov - who were all preoccupied with abstract art.
Else Alfelt among her paintings.
This marked the beginning of Else Alfelt’s participation in a variety of ground-breaking artists' associations during the following decades. Each made an indelible impression on art history. Alfelt was present everywhere in the artistic avantgarde: In the artists' and exhibition associations Linien ('The Line', 1934-39), Høst ('Harvest', 1932-49), Skandinaverne ('The Scandinavians'), and Helhesten ('The Hell Horse',1941-44), which was the Danish precursor for the international CoBrA movement at the end of the 1940s.
CoBrA's breakthrough came with the Internationale Expositie van Experimentele Kunst exhibition in Amsterdam in 1949. Else Alfelt was an enthusiastic participant in the international cooperation of artists, which was driven by a desire for collective experimentation and spontaneous expression. Over the years, however, the differences between Else Alfelt's 'calculated spontaneity' and the much freer approach of the other CoBrA artists became more marked, and she somewhat distanced herself from the group.
Impressed by the grandness of nature, Else Alfelt painted a series of airy and colourful watercolours in connection with travels to Lapland, Norway and Iceland during the years 1945-48. In 1951, she was the first abstract artist to be awarded the Danish Ny Carlsbergfondet's Travel Grant, the so-called 'Roman Grant'. During the 1950s and 1960s, she fulfilled her childhood wanderlust by traveling to Norway, Greece, France, Italy, Lapland, Turkey, Tunis, Switzerland, Finland, the USA, Spain, etc. She often purposefully sought out the great mountain ranges, primarily the Alps and the Dolomites.
From stays in Italy, Alfelt returned home with a fascination with the so-called Ravenna technique employed in some of that country's grandest mosaics. Another artistic landmark for her was her journey to Japan in 1967 made possible by her reception of Tagea Brandt's Travel Grant in 1961. Alfelt's Japanese inspirations were not least evident in her 1968 exhibition The Land of the Stone Lanterns when she created a zen garden in the exhibition hall to induce a meditative state.
The Sea and the Mountain, 1951.
The growing influence of CoBrA during the 1960s brought Else Alfelt a number of public commissions such as ornamentations for Rungsted Public School, the Langelinie Pavilion and the ambitious mosaic Globes in Golden Space for Th. Lang's Schools in Silkeborg.
Similar to Carl-Henning Pedersen's birds, fairy tale castles and ships, Else Alfelt's imagery is characterised by several recurring motifs from the very beginning. Symbols such as mountains, celestial bodies and particularly the Moon fill her canvasses again and again. Nature is ever-present, firstly as a concept and only secondly as a physical presence. Alfelt's art often moves in the space between actual and abstract nature. Every mountain transcends the palpable nature and points to the sky, the cosmos and eternity, e.g. her masterpiece Points Reaching for the Sky. The audience senses the mysticism of Else Alfelt's childhood memory of the Moon:
"... During the full moon, I would get out of bed and go outside to read by the moonlight or simply to bathe in the white light, see my own shadow in the night. My Moon cult still feels very real to me. [...] The Moon has given me some of my most captivating experiences."
During the 1960s, the naturalistic elements of Else Alfelt's paintings become less and less noticeable. The images dissolve in crystalline movements, spirals, ornaments, and pure colour compositions such as The Flower of the Universe, a series of 22 paintings. Her hypnotic and colouristic experiments of the late 1960s are much more like invitations to contemplation and meditation than the provocation prevalent in much of the modern art of the era.
In 1973, Else Alfelt was awarded the Thorvaldsen Medal. She died a year later after collapsing in the street at age 63. Carl-Henning Pedersen's poem of farewell to his late wife was printed in the catalogue from the memorial exhibition arranged by the artists' association De Frie Kunstnere ('The Free Artists') at Galerie Birch in Copenhagen:
"Where the road leads
from the Sun opens the day
and the Moon shuts in
the movement traverses
everything and gilds our days
and make our nights happy..."