Georg Jensen: A Man of His Time

The following is a summation of the essay by David A Taylor, appearing in the book "Georg Jensen Jewelry"



As prolific and with as much influence Georg Jensen was, it must be noted that his works were very much contemporaneous of his period. Denmark, being such a small European country, and at the time, hadn't one of the major cultural cities of other nations, such as Paris, France, or London, England. As such, developments and stylistic trends were often delayed in reaching the population. The Industrialism of other nations hadn't reached Denmark till late, and while they were still entrenched in the master/apprentice relationship fostered by guilds, parts of Europe were already developing a reactionary counter movement to Industrialism which would become the Arts & Crafts movement in England, and Art Nouveau in France.  At the same time,during the 1880's, it was this modern industrialism that quickened the pace at which information spread, which culminated in Denmark having the skilled artisans combined with access to the rest of Europe's revived interest in handcrafted items where the country would culturally find its own voice.

In the 1830's, Danish goods were typically considered inferior to those produced in the rest of Europe, to  which, was understandable as the country was primarily rich in agriculture, but had little to offer in way of raw materials for handicrafts and especially jewelry. The desire for outside products and artistic pieces was understandable, however a select group of individuals had begun to revolt against this trend, and created their own interpretations of classical works, thus setting the groundwork for the movement of the second half of the 19th century. It was also during this period that schools had begun to be established to train a broader spectrum of students the artistic skills that would be necessary for the the applied arts. Museums were also created to store collections and inspire the artists of the time, all of which was in an effort to raise the bar of Danish handicrafts.

By the 1880's, Danish artisans were in a peculiar predicament. Critics and artists alike were still  yearning for Denmark to stand on its own artistically, yet customers and the Danish populace still embraced traditional designs and copies of other European works. At the same time, there was the tension between the push to industrialize and the high standard of craftsmanship individual artisans achieved. Although the industrialization of other fields was quickly changing the agricultural based economy into a manufacturing center, which successfully created more disposable wealth in the country's growing middle class,  the craftsmanship of the new highly trained artists demanded recognition, and the Decoration Society was founded in 1887. It was this group that presented at the Great Nordic Exhibition of 1888,  and perhaps for the first time, Danish design was introduced to the rest of Europe. At the same time that this allowed for exposure to Danish artists, it also encouraged Danish artists to create their own individual creative approach to applied arts, as the Neo-antique movements earlier had encouraged and gave an outlet to those who did not wish to follow the industrialization path that Denmark was undergoing. It couldn't have come at a better time, as Europe itself was more interested in handicrafts. Further inspiration and exposure was to follow as in 1899, the Danish Museum of Art and Design held an exhibition entitled “Modern English Applied Art”, which featured the current trends in design and of the Arts and Crafts movement in England. Of particular note was the appearance of C. R. Ashbee's jewelry, which greatly inspired many of the Danish artists of the time with its emphasis on decorating being incorporated into form rather than an overlay. It also featured symmetrical designs and floral motifs that innovative and different from the norm. The Danes were  highly enthused by the exhibition as a whole and were fueled to rise to the challenge of creating their own interpretations of the concepts the exhibition introduced. In 1900, at the Exposition Universelle, the Danish Museum of Art and Design presented an exhibition of Danish works, further exposing the world at large to Danish works, while also gathering inspiration from the outside for Danish artists as well. It is also of note that Georg Jensen was in attendance for this exposition, however, working with ceramics at the time. His name also began to pop up in the British publication, The Studio, as early as 1902 (his shop wasn't to open until 1904, although around this time he had been employed by Mogens Ballins as a silversmith, perhaps taking to heart some of the inspiration from his travels earlier), in a special publication entitled “Modern Design in Jewellery and Fans”.

It is also of note, certain artists truly rose to the occasion of the time, perhaps most notably, Thorvald Bindesboll, whom, in cooperation with Holger Kyster, rose to prominence with  his abstract ornamentation developed from both  Japanese and Neoclassical influences. He is most notable for his method of transforming floral ad natural motifs into highly abstract designs, and took a wholly separate direction to the field of applied arts for his time.

Johan Rohde, a lifetime friend of Georg Jensen, was equally as diverse as Bindesboll, having contributed to the fields of painting, furniture design, bookbinding, and the decorative arts. He often pulled his decorative motifs from neoclassical inspirations, using palm leaves and scrolls in his designs, but with a sobriety that both underlay earlier, less ornamented times, as well as the Functionalism of the 30's. It is hard to believe that Georg Jensen was not influenced by Johan Rohde, considering his impact on Jensen's artistic life with his sponsorship of Jensen at the Free Exhibition (an artists' exhibition founded by Rohde himself), as well as his lifelong partnership with Jensen at the firm. 

A third artist, Henry Slott-Moller, was also very unique in his approach to the decorative arts. His approach differed greatly from the aforementioned two, in that his  utilization for enamels and color in his pieces as well as the high level of realism gave birth to yet another option in the field of decorative arts. His Helen of Troy necklace,  shown at the 1898 Free exhibition and again in 1900 Paris exposition, is perhaps one of  his most notable and well known pieces.

Finally, there was Mogens Ballin, Georg Jensen's employer. Originally trained as a painter, Ballin opened his own shop in 1899, and held to beliefs of the Arts and Crafts movement which emphasized hand-craftsmanship and to the idea of  moderate price points for his customers, so as to have something :that even the smallest purse can afford”. Although gold and silver were sold in his workshop, the majority of his works were in pewter, a less expensive alloy that was going out of fashion at the time in Denmark. Ballin's works often were decorated with more austere forms, with little detail added, which may have been to reduce work times per piece, which in turn kept prices affordable, but also seemed inspired by Bindesboll with some freeform cloud-like decorations. Unfortunately, Ballin's quality of design was inconsistent, and thus although a number of his pieces were hailed as “objects for everyday use in thousands of homes, which were improved by the virtue of the artistic attention given to them” were displayed with a larger portion of objects which were of inferior quality.

These artists have all had their impact on how Georg Jensen's own style has come about. When he participated in the Modern Danish Applied Art exhibition at the Museum of of Art and Design, his work was praised by critic, Emil Hannover, whom said, “...What young Jensen has achieved with his jewelry is to produce a selection of inexpensive pieces and at the same time give them an individual artistic character.” This comment was, however, not as much praise of his individuality, but a statement of his execution and ability to mend together all of these influences into a comprehensible solid work. He created a balance through high quality, finely executed works with great detail  and  a price that could be affordable to others, and essentially answered the question of how to make excellent works of art for the common man. Hannover further said at a later date, “Georg Jensen has created something radically new in awakening the beauty of silver, which until now remained asleep.” and his popularity amongst Danish women, “...such an extent that their dress has consequently achieved an almost national character”.

See the beginning of this series, "Georg Jensen Jewelry"