The son of a Evangelical inner-mission parish priest, Danish painter and graphic artist Johannes Holbek was born in a small town called Årby, near Kalundborg, Denmark in 1872. Just thirty one years later he walked into, or was brought into Copenhagen Municipal Hospital’s Sixth Ward suffering with manic-depressive psychosis after a huge physical and mental breakdown.
He died there a couple of days later. Of unknown causes. On 14 May 1903.
He’d had a great start as an artist. After technical college in Copenhagen and inspired by an exhibition featuring the work of Van High and Gauguin, he began making trips to that magnet for budding artists, Paris.
Holbek secured himself a place at the reknowned École des Beaux-Arts and studied there under the legends Jean-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Moreau who was especially important to the development of his style. According to his friend Jens Lund, he “spoke fluent French with a rare beautiful, distinctive pronunciation,” and “lived the spartan life of a poor painter down there.” He also hung out in the workshops of the French historical painter, Fernando Cormon and illustrated the poem Enoch Arden by England’s then poet laureate, Lord Alfred Tennyson.
Paris was his high point. From there, Holbek’s career appears to have travelled downhill, a huge boulder gathering speed. Bouncing toward the bottomless abyss. He returned to Denmark and began drawing satirical cartoons for the newspapers Politiken and København. Whilst working he continued to paint. He submitted his works to the Danish artists association Den Frie Udstilling and the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition. His paintings were rejected. He then applied to work as a cartoonist for Fliegende Blätter (Flying Leaves), a hugely popular, high circulation German weekly humor and satire magazine. The magazine employed many well-known artists at the time, but they turned down Holbek.
In early 1903, he was suddenly dismissed from his regular job at København. His political satire for the magazine Politiken had become so bitter, so misanthropic and utterly ruthless that his boss, Edvard Brandes terminated his employ there too. Without notice.
For some time Holbek had been working obsessively, writing and illustrating books that would summarize his life and his philosophy. He was desparately tired, overworked and overwrought. Perhaps this explains his dismissals, his huge breakdown and his subsequent death.
Holbek was clearly disturbed. His was a desperate form of free-thinking, a stubborn angry stand. At one point he writes that he wants to exterminate “all Human Life on Earth, since the Earth turns out to be uninhabitable for Humans”.
Holbek left behind two books he’d written and illustrated. One was called Omkring Midlet (About the Means) which seems to have vanished without trace. The other was called Dekadent Barbari (Decadent Barbarism), a copy of which resides deep in the volumous archives of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
Decadent Barbarism (1904) was published posthumously by Holbek’s friend, the Danish painter, designer and graphic artist, Jens Lund. Holbek’s writing articulates a longing for growth, liberation and to burst free of the tiny space society allowed him for his art.
“The true work is what no one sees,” said Holbek.
In truth, Holbeck turned up with quality goods. The world just wasn’t ready. It wasn’t him, it was them. He was an authentic. His images were ahead of their time. Way ahead. Many of them look although they were produced in San Francisco in 1968, not in Copenhagen at the turn of the century.
Johannes Holbek made true work. it poured out of him, it was excellent, and his Decadent Barbarism remains so.
And he was only 31.
Credits : Images courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Reference : “Decadent Barbarian – Johannes Holbek” by Henrik Wivel for History of Sanish Literature/Periods 1870-1920 ; Wikipedia ; “Johannes Holbek by Jens Lund” 9 July 1919 article from the magazine, Nationaltidende.
“Johannes Holbek is and will always remain, one of the most instructive artists and one of the incorruptible spirits that Denmark has had.”
Danish author Johannes Jørgensen, 21st Feb. 1904.
“Danish artistic society owes the painter and illustrator, Johannes Holbek a redress…through his efforts in Danish art, Johannes Holbek has earned it.”
The artist Jens Lund, 9th July 1919.