THE DAUNTLESS DANE: THE ANTI-NAZI ART OF HARALD RUDYARD ENGMAN
In preparing for the up-and-coming events associated with the Power of Design (or PODfest) I was asked to choose an object on display in The Wolfsonian-FIU galleries that struck me as a good example of the positive power that complaints could have in fostering change in the world. Without hesitation, I immediately selected a painting on the fifth floor that I’ve always been drawn to: Menneske Pyramide (Human Pyramid)—a painting by Harald Rudyard Engman (1903-1968) which provides a scathing indictment against Danish acquiescence and collaboration in the German occupation of his homeland during the Second World War. The oil on canvas painting was executed in 1941 sometime after Engman left Copenhagen but continued to produce his bitterly satirical art in the seclusion of North Sealand.
Engman had good reason to leave the Danish capital when he did. The audacious and daring artist had opened an exhibition of his anti-Nazi art in a Copenhagen gallery on Amager Square just days before the German army invaded neutral Denmark on April 9, 1940. At a time when the Danish monarchy, cabinet, and parliament timorously hoped that their declarations of neutrality would be respected by their giant neighbor to the south, and other artists ignored such troubling themes, Engman was unveiling paintings that depicted the ugly nature of war and unflinchingly lampooned the military pretensions of Fascist and Nazi aggressors.
In one painting from this period, Engman depicts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Hermann Göring as villainous characters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a young Jewish girl standing on the slave auction block.
The public who flocked to this shocking exhibition had only a small window of time to reflect on the anti-Nazi message of this fearless (if foolhardy) artist. Just after 4:00 AM on April 9, 1940, the German government simultaneously issued an ultimatum and ordered its huge army into Denmark on the pretext of acting “to forestall a British invasion.” Greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped, the Danish army was unable to marshal anything but a token show of resistance, while the country’s naval forces disgracefully took no action at all. As Nazi bombers roared across the sky over Copenhagen and dropped propaganda leaflets calling for peaceful submission, the King, prime minister, and cabinet formally capitulated before breakfast. In return for promises that as a Germanic “brother” people, the Germans would “respect Danish sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the King and cabinet acquiesced in the occupation of the country and their status as a “model protectorate” for the duration of the war.
While Engman’s exhibition in the Danish capital was immediately closed down by the authorities, after fleeing to North Sealand the artist continued to produce paintings highly critical of the Nazi occupiers.
As the Gestapo and their Quisling collaborators imposed strict press censorship and soon began to arrest and imprison Communists, Jews and other “enemies” of the state in concentration camps, Engman deserves to be lauded for taking such a courageous and dangerous stand. Ultimately, the artist was forced to flee his homeland altogether and to take refuge in neutral Sweden, where he contributed to the anti-Nazi movement by publishing drawings in several journals and publications promoting the Allied cause and advocating resistance and sabotage in the occupied territories.
One of the most powerful and striking of his lampoons of Herr Hitler turns the tables on the dictator by labelling him a “rat” and depicting him as a pedophile. While Hitler cowers under the beam of a flashlight, he is identified by a courageous girl (with Denmark embroidered on her skirt) and is cornered by Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin dressed in policemen’s uniforms.
Although many pragmatic Danish politicians—even those who hated Hitler and everything he stood for—had bowed to the inevitable and had counseled capitulation in order to make the best of a bad situation, the iconoclastic artist stout-heartedly refused to censor his art or surrender his principles, and is thereby deserving of the title of a true resistance leader and hero.