Lena Fritsch, the Ashmolean Museum’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, shares a story about the colourful prints of Peter Hedegaard. In them, she found a hidden connection with her own father, and a secret story about love and friendship that crosses borders.
To see these prints for your yourself, please visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/museum-secrets
Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Lena Fritsch
About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.
Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean.
I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.
In this episode, we are taking a trip into the Ashmolean’s Print Room, is tucked away in one wing of the museum. This is one of of the great hidden treasures of Oxford. It’s a quiet room packed with draws and draws of works on paper, such as sketches, prints, and watercolours. You sit down at a table, and the brilliant staff lay out masterpieces right in front of you. You can spend an hour in the company of Michelangelo or Raphael, looking at their works up close.
And the amazing thing about the Print Room that it usually open to everyone, as long as you book in advance. It’s currently under temporary closure to keep everyone safe during these strange times, but soon enough we hope to welcome you back to it.
And spending time exploring the Ashmolean’s collection of prints and drawings can be a revelatory experience, as curator Lena Fritsch tecently discovered. Here she is, to tell us more.
Lena: This story is personal. It is a story about the wonders of working as a curator. Perhaps it is also a story about the wonders of life.
When I joined the Ashmolean in 2017 as their first Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, I knew that most of the modern and contemporary collections would be drawings and prints. What I didn’t know was that many of them entered the museum as gifts and that there was no collection strategy. Well, it is a slightly eclectic mix and it includes surprises! As the museum doesn’t have enough space and as works on paper should not be exposed to light for too long, the majority of works on paper are usually hidden in draws. One of the joys during my first months at the Museum was discovering hidden gems, while familiarising myself with the collection…
I soon discovered a series of abstract prints by Danish-British artist Peter Hedegaard from the 1960s. The works are minimal, focusing on bright colours and simple geometric forms, mirroring the artist’s fascination with colour, the relationship between colour and composition, and colour theories. They are self-contained works that represent hard-edged abstraction but they are not “cold” or “unemotional” at all: they convey a joyful, poetic atmosphere and mirror the artist’s interest in the emotional responses to abstract art. They appear very retro-60s and yet feel very contemporary. I loved the colours, the style and the technical quality of the printing.
I was not familiar with Peter Hedegaard and did some research. I found out that he was born in Copenhagen in 1929 and the family had moved to England when he was a child. He studied literature in Grenoble and in Oxford at Hertford College, but was also very interested in visual art and music. As a self-taught painter and artist he lived in London and was very active in the 1960s and 70s, creating a large number of prints as well as drawings and large-sized paintings, before deciding to not longer make works. There was a brief period in the ‘90s when he created works again. In 2008, Hedegaard passed away.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s his work was exhibited in various galleries in London, Cambridge, at Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford as well as the Oxford Gallery, and he had a show at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. It was also exhibited in Germany and France, and he is represented in collections ranging from the V&A and British Museum to the Daimler Art Collection in Stuttgart. However, after minimal art fell out of fashion in the 1980s, Hedegaard’s work was not exhibited for decades. It has been overlooked.
A couple of years after I discovered Hedegaard’s prints, Isolde Hedegaard, the artist’s widow contacted us. Visiting the Ashmolean, she wanted to see Peter’s works in the print room. Together with my colleague An van Camp, the Ashmolean’s curator of Northern European art, we soon found ourselves chatting away in the café about Peter’s prints, art, music, and life.
I learnt that as of 1967 it was actually Isolde who made Peter’s screen prints. With Peter’s help she set up a work area on a ping-pong table in the living room of their home in Belsize Park and taught herself. They soon had a routine: Peter designed the works and mixed the colours and Isolde printed for her husband, meticulously paying attention to detail. He never attempted to learn screen-printing while Isolde, who has always loved math, helped with the technical side of things. She also managed the printing of shapes that were rather difficult technically, such as circles. Isolde said she never realised that she was good at screen-printing until one day a professional printer saw the work and praised the quality of it. She was asked to work for another artist’s studio but declined – her focus was bringing up their family and she never considered working for anyone but Peter.
Then we talked about our German heritage – Isolde is originally from Bochum, not too far away from my hometown – and we talked about life in London, a city of 8.9 million people. The very first time I visited London was in the mid-90s as a child, with my parents. My father, Johannes Fritsch, who was a composer, had a German-American friend in Belsize Park. He was also a composer and musician: Rolf Gelhaar. Together with his wife and children he lived in an Edwardian house, full of character. My father and Rolf had met in the early 1960s, touring the world with the avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as members of the Karlheinz Stockhausen Ensemble. After they performed at the famous EXPO World Fair in Osaka, Japan in 1970, they left the ensemble and their father figure, and founded the Feedback Studio Köln, the first composer-run studio and publishing house in Germany.
Speaking about music and art, Isolde told me that Peter had always loved classical music and avant garde music, ranging from Nielsen to Rachmaninov to Stockhausen. Peter and Isolde had moved to Belsize Park in 1963. Then she said that their friendly neighbour, who had recently passed away, was in fact a composer. Now there are not that many composers in Belsize Park: it turns out that the neighbour Isolde was referring to was Rolf. The house in London where I stayed during my very first visit was almost right next to Peter and Isolde Hedegaard’s home, where they created the prints that I then discovered in the Ashmolean’s collection!
I’m keen to tell people about Peter Hedegaard’s work and hope that the artist, whose estate is now represented by rocket gallery in London, will soon be rediscovered. The works in the Ashmolean are gorgeous prints, not only representing minimal art of the ‘60s but also high quality screen printing. They are collaborative works really and would not exist without Isolde Hedegaard. And for me personally, these works remind me about the very strange conundrums that life has to offer. Perhaps my father, Rolf Gelhaar and Peter Hedegaard are all sharing a glass of red wine in heaven, discussing music and laughing about this weird coincidence.
Lucie: Thanks for listening to today’s episode. If you want to have a closer look at Peter and Isolde’s uplifting prints, check out the link in the podcast notes.
If you want to go on adventure in the Ashmolean’s prints and drawings collections for yourself, keep an eye out on the Ashmolean’s website for the reopening of the Western Art Print Room.
Join us for our next museum secret, in which we are going to meet a camel with a complicated past.
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