Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen
The painter Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen (1909-57) had the dream throughout his time as a pupil at Birkerød State School of decorating the walls in the school canteen with motifs from the Danish countryside. So after returning from a couple of years' training as an artist in Norway, he sent in an application to the Carlsberg Foundation concerning this (see the transcript of a handwritten copy of the original, now to be found in the archives of the Funen Art Museum).
The New Carlsberg Foundation approved his application, and Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen thus had his wish fulfilled that very summer - and at the age of only 21.
The subsequent history of the decoration
In 1967, Birkerød State School moved from his original domicile. The municipality then used the building as a community centre. Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen's decoration in the dining hall was then felt not to suit the present time and was therefore painted over with white paint. Because of objections from outside, however, it was agreed that a type of painting should be used that could be removed again later.
In 1976, the attention of the Funen Art Museum was drawn to these hidden paintings and in 1978 it gained the opportunity to take them down. This was made possible thanks to a grant from The National Council of Museums.
It took about seven years to acquire funding to cover the first 12 of the total 18 fields of the decoration. The last 6 fields had to be abandoned, because at the time there was no sufficiently advanced method of removing the top coat of paint, which here proved to be more difficult to deal with.
In 2004, the Joint Conservation, with which the museum had been in regular contact, was able to report that a cleaning method had now been evolved by means of which it was possible with the aid of dry-ice blowing to remove secondary layers of paint, after which traditional conservation could be carried out on the primary layers. In other words, it was now possible to conserve the last six fields of Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen's decoration. This would, however, be a costly affair.
For that reason, the museum applied in autumn 2004 for funding via the Cultural Heritage Board's new pool for the conservation of items of exceptional national significance. In February 2005, the large amount we had applied for was granted, after which the difficult work of conservation began. It was completed at the end of 2005.
In summer 2006, it is thus for the first time in almost 40 years that Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen's very first decoration can be seen in its entirety.
The decoration of the canteen at Birkerød State School is an important early work by an artist who was to have great important importance for the transition from figurative to abstract art in Denmark, among other things because of his international connections. The decoration is also one of the quite few monumental works done by Bjerke Petersen that - against all odds - it has proved possible to preserve.
The scenes of the decoration
Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen's decoration of the canteen at Birkerød State School comprises 8 scenes - covering 18 fields - originally placed on four walls:
End wall with entrance:
1. The Danish beech wood:
Girl and two boys with bird and branch respectively
Three children in nature with net
The one long wall:
2. Father showing child nature
3. A dolmen
Boy and girl
Two fiddlers and dancing girls
Boy with two sheep
The other end wall:
5. The Danish garden:
The Danish garden with red house
The Danish garden with white farm
The Danish garden with trees
The other long wall:
Elders in blossom
Three girls in race
Three young men, one with laurel wreath and on a horse
Two figures in blue trousers
7. Mother showing child nature
8. Dog (fragment).
The decoration has been composed in such a way that the scenes on the opposing walls - broadly speaking - mirror each other. The woodland scene, for example, on the entrance wall corresponds to the garden scene on the other end wall. Similarly, the scenes with the mother and father respectively, each showing their child (a boy and a girl) nature, also - broadly speaking - mirror each other on the long walls nearest the entrance, while the two large scenes with music and sport respectively correspond to each other on the remaining sections of the long walls. Nature and culture in the form of wood/garden and sport/music (art) are thus depicted as opposites - or as concepts that complement each other - corresponding to man and woman, adults and children.
Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen's early decoration thus contains quite a few of the elements of the vitalistic trends of the age, which he expresses in a youthful and conscious, somewhat naive and abstract artistic idiom. Only a few years later, he was to be one of the innovative forces within concrete art in Denmark. Examples of this can be see in the permanent collection at the Funen Art Museum.