Jens Birkholm – The Funen Painter in Berlin

28/11-2020

30/5-2021

The painter Jens Birkholm (1869–1915) is one of the pivotal artists featured at Faaborg Museum. Like his contemporaries Fritz Syberg (1862–1939), Peter Hansen (1868–1928), Anna Syberg (1870–1914) and Johannes Larsen (1867–1961), Birkholm was born in Faaborg. A descendent of seafaring people on his mother’s and father’s side alike, he opted to train as a house painter instead. He never enrolled at any artistic school or academy and was not part of the vibrant study environment at Zahrtmann’s school, which would have such a crucial impact on the others members of the group later known as the Funen Painters. Instead, he went abroad as a journeyman, spending some years travelling in Europe before settling in Berlin. Here he had his artistic breakthrough.

In Berlin, Birkholm found his subject matter among the impoverished and marginalised people of the working class. As industrialisation gained momentum in the latter part of the nineteenth century, many people moved from country to city, facing cramped, unhealthy and poor living quarters as well as harsh working conditions. Birkholm’s sensitive and empathic depictions of vulnerable people were praised in certain circles, but they were also criticised for being sad and drab.

After ten years in Berlin, Birkholm returned to Faaborg. He continued to work with subjects such as poverty and the precarious nature of existence, for example by painting scenes from the Faaborg workhouse. But he also worked with landscapes and scenes from everyday life like those cultivated by the other Funen Painters, not least in countless paintings from the rolling hills of Svanninge Bakker.

Birkholm lived in Faaborg until his death, but throughout the years he maintained his connection to Berlin and also travelled elsewhere, including Italy and Tunisia. Jens Birkholm died of tuberculosis in 1915.

In the years when Faaborg Museum was first created, 1910–15, only thirteen of Jens Birkholm’s own works were purchased for the collection, meaning that for many years he was not very prominently featured at the museum compared to the other main figures of the artists’ colony. However, interest in Birkholm has grown in recent decades, not least as a renewed awareness of his social-realist depictions seen from a cultural and historical point of view. Here, however, Faaborg Museum focuses on him from an art-historical point of view. With his manner of painting and choice of subject matter, Birkholm was a unique figure and something of a lone wolf, not only among the Funen Painters, and in some respects he pointed the way ahead for a new generation of artists such as Aksel Jørgensen (1883–1957).

With support from foundations and private donations, the museum has been able to acquire significant works by Jens Birkholm over the course of the last twenty years, not least several pieces associated with Birkholm’s ten-year stay in Berlin. Today, the Faaborg Museum collection boasts forty-eight works by Birkholm. They are the focal point of the research-based special exhibition Jens Birkholm – Poverty and Beauty, opening in November. Thanks to a large grant from the Danish Agency for Culture, a substantial part of the museum’s Birkholm collection will be treated to conservation and preservation work in 2020, ensuring that the works are ready for public display.