Milky Ways

the cow in art and culture

29 June – 22 September 2024

Frolicking calves, innocent milkmaids – and sizzling steaks tinged with climate guilt … This summer, we celebrate the cow and its place in Danish art and cultural history as The Nivaagaard Collection opens the exhibition 'Milky Ways – the cow in art and culture' on 29 June, supported by the family workshop MOO! open throughout the summer holidays.

The cow is a strongly symbolic figure in Danish culture, but its significance is changing. Why does it hold such a special place in Denmark – and what role will it play in the future?

From being a primordial mother figure in Norse mythology and a national symbol during the so-called Danish Golden Age (the first half of the nineteenth century) to becoming the crux of heated debates about methane emissions, dairy production and animal welfare, the cow takes centre stage in the exhibition Milky Ways – the cow in art and culture.

Exploring the cow’s significance in the narratives about Denmark as an agricultural nation and about Danish identity, this new exhibition reflects the museum’s enduring interest in the relationship between outside and inside, art and nature. Here, contemporary works by artists such as Allan Otte, Lea Porsager, Torben Ribe, Magnus Andersen, Mia Edelgart, Michala Paludan and Kåre Frang directly engages with 500 years of art from The Nivaagaard Collection, letting the cow become a prism for themes such as gender, climate, consumer behaviour and identity.

Throughout the summer holidays, the family workshop MOO! invites you to enter a world of creativity. Providing plenty of inspiring art materials, the workshop also has artists at hand to guide children and adults alike, encouraging visitors to create their own artworks and stories about the much-loved yet controversial cow.

In the field behind the Nivaagaard Park, guests can also enjoy the sight of free-range cows: they are part of a planned grazing regime to safeguard the historic landscape and improve biodiversity.

From treasured to controversial farm animal

Whenever discussions about methane emissions and climate taxes have turned all eyes to the Danish agricultural sector in recent years, the cow in particular has graced the front pages of the newspapers. Being at the centre of controversy is a new development: in the past, the cow was one of Denmark’s most treasured domestic animals, occupying a key position in national narratives.

In Norse mythology, the cow Audhumbla is a primordial mother figure. Another myth relates how Zealand was ploughed out of Sweden by the goddess Gefion and her four sons, whom she had transformed into oxen. In the 19th century, romantic paintings of cows in idyllic landscapes grew popular, and for decades the cow was the source of Denmark’s biggest export, butter.

When the Chamber of the Danish Parliament was redecorated in 1949, the artworks chosen for the space were Olaf Rude’s large paintings of cattle grazing under oak trees. But since then, the Danish cattle population has halved, and several municipal authorities have recently put an end to subsidised school milk schemes and taken beef off the menu in public institutions in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. Echoing such trends, recent years have seen several Danish artists taking the cow and the products derived from it as a starting point for exploring Danish industrial agriculture and its environmental impact – as well as contemporary consumption patterns and food culture.

Try a cow waterbed and take in the scents of a herbal pharmacy

The contemporary art featured in the exhibition includes works by Allan Otte (b. 1978), Helle Hee Degaardt (b. 1967), Peter Stuhr (b. 1951), Maria Thorsen (b. 1943), Søren Aagaard (b. 1980), Magnus Andersen (b. 1987), Theodor Nymark (b. 1997) and Kåre Frang (b. 1992) as well as new works created especially for the exhibition by Torben Ribe (b. 1978) and adaptations or versions of existing works by Lea Porsager (b. 1981), Michala Paludan (b. 1983) and Mia Edelgart (b. 1984).

For several years, Porsager has worked with cow waterbeds of the kind used for bedding for indoor dairy cows, designed to mimic the softness of a field. In the exhibition, visitors will be able to touch and sit on Porsager’s Erasure Beds + drooping horns (2023), an installation that includes the waterbeds for cows and a poem.

In the installation Udvortes/indvortes, (literally Topical/Oral, a reference to the realm of medicine), Paludan brings together native Danish plants that have been used as part of reproductive medicine, such as in relation to pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and miscarriages. Often, the same remedies were used for humans and cows, for example to stimulate milk production, thus forming an interspecies herbal pharmacy. For this exhibition, Paludan installs the work with fresh herbs and flowers that will bring the fragrant Danish countryside into the galleries.

The contemporary artworks will enter into dialogue with classic works by artists such as Claude Lorrain, Lorenz Frølich, J.F. Willumsen, Theodor Philipsen, J. Th. Lundbye, Christen Købke, and Oluf Høst, and be supplemented by a range of historical and present-day materials. These include old film clips, dairy commercials, and objects from modern industrial agriculture, on loan from researchers at the University of Copenhagen.

The exhibition is supported by Aage and Johanne Louis-Hansens Fond and Grosserer L.F. Foghts Fond.

Summer workshop: MOO!

During the Danish school summer holidays Saturday 29 June – Sunday 11 August, visitors can enjoy free admission to the creative workshop MOO! every day during the museum’s opening hours. Here, children and adults can create their own textile collages using templates, scissors, glue, needle and thread. You can draw inspiration from the cow-themed works in the exhibition – or look to the vintage dairy advertisements on display in the workshop. The range of material offered includes letters that can be sewn and glued on, letting you spell out your own messages about the sensitive, ruminating and at times contentious cow.

Last year, many summer guests spent hours in the creative workshop accompanying the Alfons Åberg exhibition – and we are confident that visitors will love the MOO! workshop just as much.

The workshop was developed in collaboration with artist Sisse Hoffmann. A creative guide will be in attendance every day from 12 noon until 3 o’clock.

We look forward to welcoming guests of all ages – see you at the mooseum!

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