Johan Rohde and the Free Exhibition

Johan Rohde may be most well known for his designs in silver and his friendship with Georg Jensen, however his multifaceted talents also included furniture design, bookbinding, and before all of which, painting. In fact it was his travels throughout the art world that later inspired the taut motifs and symbolic features that became present in his designs.

Originally trained as a physician, Johan Rohde later developed a taste for fine art and started taking private lessons from the artist Wenzel Tornoe. He then attended an arts academy between 1881 and 1882. During that time period, there was a stylistic change that pitted the students, whom were developing new styles including the emergent Symbolist movement, and the teachers and judges at the exhibitions in Charlottenborg, whom maintained the older traditional styles.

Rather than continue on learning at the school where he felt dissatisfied, he instead went to learn at the Artist's Studio School, where PS Kroyer and Lauritz Tuxen instructed in the prevailing modernist trends from France. Between 1883 and 1887, it was here that Johan Rohde blossomed as a painter. Stylistically, he created a number of portraits and landscapes in contrasting tones and shadows, often described as a bit melancholic. Still wishing to buck trends, he, along with fellow painter/artists Agnes and Harald Slott-Møller, Vilhelm Hammershøj, Kristian Zahrtmann, JF Willumsen, Viggo Pedersen and Joakim Skovgaard, they founded the first Free Exhibition in 1891 in Charlottesborg, in hopes to revitalize the Danish art world. The first exhibition was a great success, and generated over 20,000 paying attendees. Following years continued the exhibition, with other artists guest to be shown. In 1893, both Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin had been invited to display their art at the behest of Johann Rohde, whom had first become familiar with the former artist's work through his acquaintance, Christian Mourier-Petersen.

Despite the awe one might have today in front of such works, at the time reviews had been mixed. The National Journal had found the guest artists' work unappealing and unpleasant, however most reviews were positive. John Jorgensen said: "There burns a fanatical fire in van Gogh's works. The colors, he cultivates, the shrill Red, the dazzling blue, the Golden Greens. He paints fields, full of poppies, sunflowers as luminous monstrances, Fruit trees in glorious bloom, variegated and colorful outlook. Wonderful gardens where grass, flowers, foliage and air jets in Adventure Jewel splendor. The man whose brush has painted these pictures, is one whose nerves occurs a hundred times stronger, deeper, than the strange man-marshland. Life dazzles him, stun him, fills his soul, so it is near to bursting.”

In 1898, Edvard Munch from Norway was invited to display as well, however the press by then had responded negatively. Again, the conservative leaning National Journal had gone as far as to say his (Munch's) contribution was the worst of them all!

The idea and concept behind the Free Exhibition, however, proved to be quite successful with increased attendance each year it had been held, and with Johan Rohde having played his part. The first few years, from 1891-1893, he had managed the event and displayed until 1895. He then hadn't displayed again till 1900 and continued on until his death.

It was also during this time and up till 1912 that Johan Rohde had taught at the Artist's Studio School, many of his students being the founders of early modernism.

These proved also to be great years for Johan Rohde, the artist, as he took time to travel, Including a long trip between 1891 and 1892 through Holland, Belgium, Northern Italy and the cities of Paris and London - into the hearts of contemporary European art, where he would study trends in both art and architecture, as well as seeking out the art of artists such as the formerly mentioned van Gogh. The experience was somewhat transformative for Rohde, whom took both new and old influences equally, and would later influence his works in design, often combining pared down forms, much akin to the newer Symbolism movement with the decorative motifs of scrolling acanthus leaves and long fluted columns (the flatware series Acorn and Acanthus are particularly demonstrative of this), many of which were perhaps discovered during his extended trip between 1895-96 to Northern Italy and later trips to Rome, Naples, and Pompeii.

By 1900, The art world had progressed beyond where Johan Rohde found his style, however his fame as a designer had begun to take hold. In 1897, he began designing furniture, primarily for himself and his close friends, however it wasn't long before he expanded his horizons and after displaying his pieces in the 1900 World's Fair, he became quite successful, with orders flowing in. His furniture, often rendered in lemon wood, was historically groundbreaking in its own right, and as with everything else, was a mixture of old and new, and occasionally his designs would hit upon a piece whose design was well before its time.

Unfortunately, like his impact upon the art world being overshadowed by his work in design, his designs in furniture were soon overshadowed by his designs for silver. Although briefly working with Mogens Ballin, he partnered with the newly independent silversmith Georg Jensen in 1906, where his designs were wildly popular both home and abroad. Stylistically, it was easy to tell the difference between Johan Rohde's designs, with their stark forms, (foreshadowing the Functionalist movement that would be fully realized with Sigvaard Bernadotte), and light decoration, still of the contemporary Art Nouveau style, with the free and lively decorative naturalistic forms of Georg Jensen himself, (Blossom being a fantastic example of Georg Jensen's design to contrast the aforementioned Acorn and Acanthus). However, it is this style, this combination of old and new, further combined with a drive to push the art form ahead while giving acknowledgment to the past, that ties together the wildly varied fields of interest.

As for the Free Exhibition, it had changed with the times as well. By 1915, the exhibition had started to become a showcase for Danish art in general, and the newer artists had founded a new association, the Grønningen , in charge of pushing the realm of art further. Coincidentally, by the 1950's-60's abstract art had found its home within the free exhibition, and artists like Soren Georg Jensen, (son of Georg Jensen, Johan Rohde's friend, and later also designer for the Georg Jensen Silversmithy), would be on display.

In 2006, 150 years after his birth, the Funen Art Museum paid tribute to both the Free Exhibition and the prolific man behind it, Johan Rhode, with their ARS UNA exhibition, where they displayed many of his works throughout his career, showcasing his many achievements in each field.