Dissection of a Superstar

The task of the Archives

Two days after sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, the greatest Danish artist of the nineteenth century, died on March 24, 1844 at the Royal Danish Theatre, an autopsy was performed on his body at his home at Charlottenborg Palace in Copenhagen. Three weeks later, the autopsy report, published in the Ugeskrift for Læger [Weekly Journal for Physicians], stated in cool, descriptive prose: “The pericardium was empty; the heart enlarged, covered with a rather thick layer of fat … the liver was large, dark brown, somewhat fragile, and not especially rich in blood. The gall bladder contained a small amount of dark gall. The kidneys, renal pelves, and urinary bladder were entirely natural … The inner wall of the small intestine was in parts engorged with blood … The large intestine was pale.” With these drily declarative words—not without touches of Absurdism—the report abruptly ends. Strangely enough, the cause of death is not noted directly in the report, though the doctors performing the autopsy were not in doubt. On the very day of the autopsy, they had informed the press that Thorvaldsen had died of “an organic sickness in the heart”—that is, a heart attack caused by ordinary aging.

This autopsy report by no means affords us our only opportunity search the mind and heart of Thorvaldsen. At Thorvaldsens Museum, there is also a quite extensive physical archive containing approximately 8,000 documents. The written autopsy report is one of these, but others include the sculptor’s correspondence: letters to Thorvaldsen from family, friends, and the enormous network of European artists, art aficionados, and customers with whom he kept in contact throughout his life. These letters are supplemented by numerous drafts and written sketches, both by Thorvaldsen himself and by those who helped the dyslexic sculptor to write letters. The physical archive also includes other types of written remains, such as bookkeeping accounts, notes, travel diaries, formal appointments, book dedications, etc.
Most of these source materials were found after the artist’s death by his first biographer, Just Mathias Thiele, in a dark basement under Thorvaldsen’s apartment in Rome. Here the documents were stuffed into a number of large barrels, which Thorvaldsen had otherwise filled with “bricks, glass, lumps of clay, and other such things”. The sculptor was known for holding on to paper, which he often reused for sketches, notes, or drafts of new letters. It seems that when the pile grew too large, he simply brought it all down to the basement.
These documents constitute the primary source for our knowledge of Thorvaldsen’s work and private life. They also contribute significantly to our understanding of European neoclassicism, sculptural practices of the day, and cultural connections between Denmark and the rest of Europe during the period. All in all, there is material here to fill numerous articles and books.
The material in the Archives has only been reviewed a few times. Even though 4,300 letters [as of 2006] have been decoded and entered as Word files, they still require systematic processing and an explanatory framework to make these thousands and thousands of data-points accessible, searchable, and usable.
Over the course of the coming years, this essential source material is to be combed through thoroughly: the contents of every letter will be identified and set into their proper context. The results will be published regularly on the Thorvaldsens Museum website in a user-friendly database, which will become a veritable Thorvaldsen encyclopedia featuring pictures, registers of persons and topics, chronological outlines, advanced search options, and explanatory commentaries at points where the text of the letters cannot be easily understood. This documentary database will be published online as an open-source resource, freely accessible to all who take an interest in Thorvaldsen, scholars and laypeople alike.
In order both to supervise this publication and to dissect and comment on the enormous quantity of information contained in these documents, Thorvaldsens Museum established a research center with the support of a magnanimous grant of DKK 4.2m from the Velux Foundation. The center is staffed by three full-time art historians and a student employee.

An un-trendy project?

This enormous task raises a number of fundamental issues regarding research practice today. Publications of primary sources are nowadays rather exotic birds on the reservation of art history—as, to our knowledge, in other humanistic disciplines as well. In art history today, publishing the sources of an artist’s work is not merely a low-status activity; it does not even register on the scale of relevance for research activity. That the publication of primary sources is regarded as by no means “cutting-edge” work cannot be attributed to an active contempt, but rather to the simple fact that such work has fallen into oblivion. With the advent of a new, theory-conscious art history in the last few decades (post-structuralism, social constructivism, or what have you), data-heavy empirical research has been pushed to the back of the line. Having too much data is un-trendy.
That being said, if the task is to investigate thoroughly a collection of documents like Thorvaldsen’s, then an empirical starting-point is more suitable than a theoretical one. On the former approach, one does not work with a preset thesis; rather, the material itself determines what direction one takes and what one focuses on. The work itself is undertaken with the “evenly hovering attentiveness” [gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit] that Freud attributed to the psychoanalyst: without knowing precisely what will come up, the researcher keeps her knowledge on standby, in case a connection should suddenly materialize.
Put another way, publishing an annotated edition of Thorvaldsen’s letters (and more) is a highly predetermined task—defying the notion that a genuine research project must allow the researchers themselves to choose their topics, approaches, and methods freely. Within art history, museum research is often referred to with a slightly patronizing tone, as if it were the skinny little brother of the “real” research undertaken in universities; here one thinks particularly of the publication of diaries, writings, or other source material that has randomly ended up at a museum, or of catalogues of a museum’s collections, etc. From a present-day research perspective, then, so-called museum research is limited by its empirical outlook; but that same outlook could just as well be regarded as an advantage. The strength of a project like the publication of the Thorvaldsen documents lies how thoroughly it is informed by empirical material. The sources reveal in detail what happened, where, and on what occasion; who was involved; and what general conditions governed Thorvaldsen’s production of art.
Consequently, it is imperative that an annotated edition of such primary sources make it possible—first and foremost—to distinguish between facts or claims that can be documented with evidence, and those that must be regarded as subsequent interpretations of such facts or claims. In this context, Thorvaldsen’s autopsy can be regarded as a manifesto for empirically-based research projects. In its clinical, positivistic mania, the autopsy report attempts to present the facts in the belief that doing so will yield a closer approach to the truth.
This edition of primary sources adopts more or less the same method, insofar as one source after another is presented as a basis on which statements about Thorvaldsen can be grounded. We attempt to present the material as soberly as possible, in order to ensure its availability for subsequent analysis. It is hoped that this presentation of the Thorvaldsen documents will become a standard reference work for further research on his art.

An empirical deficit

Paradoxically enough, although this source-research project can be described somewhat dismissively as “museum research,” there are in fact only very few Danish museums with the resources—the staff, the time, or the money—to embark on projects of this kind. With few exceptions, research activity barely exists in Denmark’s art museums, despite the explicit research mandate in the Danish Museum Act. To be more precise, there is plenty of activity, but this takes place mainly in the name of the dissemination (and administration) of the museums’ materials. Exhibitions are put on as never before, but these are rarely based on research; their goal, rather than to generate new knowledge, is to contribute to an event culture quantified by the number of visitors. For the latter purpose, the dissemination of existing knowledge is more than enough; there is neither time nor energy to investigate matters afresh. Accordingly, in today’s dominant museum culture, dissemination and research live largely separate lives, with dissemination receiving so much of the focus that it can be said to pose a threat to museums’ research profiles.
Indeed, it says much about this state of crisis in research at art museums that the present source-research project is being financed externally. Even though this edition has been at the top of Thorvaldsens Museum’s wish list for many decades, the Museum’s permanent employees have simply been unable to devote sufficient time to the monumental task involved. Indeed: since the late 1930s, the project was repeatedly begun, but no such attempt ever came anywhere near completion. And this situation is by no means unique to Thorvaldsens Museum: no Danish museum would be able to justify investing so many budgetary work-years in order to realize such a project, no matter how pressing the need for it might be from a disciplinary point of view.
Yet such a need is indeed pressing. We lack documentary overviews of even the greatest Danish artists—Weie, Eckersberg, Hammershøi, Willumsen, etc.; only very few figures have been subjected to the kind of source analysis now afforded to Thorvaldsen. The worst problem raised by this “empirical shortage” is that once certain interpretations have become dominant, research deteriorates easily into uncritical repetition of those dominant views and judgments. In the case of most Danish artists, the works and sources assumed to be most important are widely familiar; but as this familiarity is often incompletely grounded in documented sources, it is difficult to revise the accepted picture.

A basis for further research

This project thus consigns itself to a no-man’s-land within the field. From an academic perspective, its hard-boiled positivism has no place in modern humanities research; while to museums’ event-oriented focus on dissemination, it is anything but sexy.
So why undertake this project in the first place? This project adheres to simple and classic virtues, not least in its notion that good research rests on a solid empirical foundation, and in its conviction that such a foundation can in fact be established. While it might at first seem redundant to point out such truisms, the “empirical deficit” and the need for data in Danish art history research make clear that a heightened consciousness of the status of empirical research is sorely needed. It should be emphasized, however, that despite this project’s positivist nature, it coddles no naive illusions to the effect that an ultimately accurate representation of Thorvaldsen’s activity can be achieved. This project does not attempt to promote its sources as a basis for making the perception of Thorvaldsen congeal into any one definite form. Beyond deepening our knowledge of the sculptor’s work, the goal of the present edition of sources is more accurately to subject common, existing judgments about Thorvaldsen’s works to critical scrutiny; to revise existing knowledge; to correct erroneous assumptions; and to generate new research. To make sources accessible is always to provide an opportunity to revisit history with fresh eyes.

Why, then, was an autopsy performed on Thorvaldsen in the first place? And why was the result published? History itself does not provide immediate answers to these questions. Leafing through issues of Ugeskrift for Læger from the 1840s reveals that autopsies were then made public only in extraordinary cases. Nothing in the autopsy report’s ruthless focus on the matter at hand gives any indication that a romantic hope was secretly being nourished, namely, the hope of finding the abnormality that might explain Thorvaldsen’s genius. Rather, the motivation for publishing the autopsy report seems to have been that, with all the intense interest garnered by the mega-star’s death, it was best to place all of the facts on display. It is this same wish for democratic openness that motivates the publication of the Thorvaldsen documents. These documents provide a crucial foundation for understanding the sculptor’s works—for the firmer the ground is under one’s feet, the further one can go.

Last updated 11.05.2017