Lively children bathing in the sea and female mountaineers, Venetian facades flooded in sun-yellow light, theatrical women and striking self-portraits as both superhero and antihero. Over a period of seven decades, the Danish artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1863-1958) created works that refused to be categorized. They repeatedly aroused scandal and shook the Danish public. Deviation from the ordinary mainstream was Willumsen’s driving force, and the image boom in popular culture at the time was a powerful inspiration.

Testing the boundaries through social criticism, extreme explosions of colour and film-like visual narratives were bearing elements throughout his oeuvre. Willumsen’s flair for self-dramatization and his use of mediated images ring familiar bells today as we consume and share mass quantities of images on a wealth of social media platforms. The contemporaneity and relevance of Willumsen as one of the pioneers behind the modern breakthrough in Danish art calls for thorough illumination. In collaboration with J.F. Willumsens Museum, ARKEN unfolds the artist’s radical oeuvre in an exhibition that features all the major works from the museum’s unique collection.

The old art has its own language which the world, through time, has learned to understand. A new art has a new language which one must learn before one understands it.

In the summer of 1900 Willumsen travelled to New York. He was thunderstruck and seduced by the pulse of the city, the sticky summer heat, the towering skyscrapers and the blazon of shrill billboards in the streets. In New York Willumsen began scissoring and pasting illustrations from newspapers and magazines into scrapbooks. With a voracious appetite for visual images, he encountered the sensory bombardment of mass-media images, that had been smouldering since the middle of the 1800s.

The volume of printed newspapers and magazines kept growing, and modern photography developed. People experienced a boom in illustrations, photographs and advertising. Like the digital noticeboard Pinterest, Willumsen’s scrapbooks of cuttings take you on a voyage of discovery through his personal inspiration and image bank. Willumsen set up his cuttings in dynamic sequences so that motion and narrative flicker across the pages of the folders. Inspiration from film’s moving pictures recurs in Willumsen’s works, which burst through the surface like frames in a strip of film.

The easily accessible style of the new mass media inspired Willumsen. Even the newspaper comic strips The Katzenjammer Kids and The Yellow Kid found their way into the scrapbooks. Willumsen’s unique way of combining classic and popular culture motifs was ahead of its time. He experimented at an early stage with simple lines, caricatured form and loud colours. ARKEN’s exhibition turns the spotlight on Willumsen’s connections with the popular culture of comic strips, film posters and film clips from the media landscape of his time.

In A Mountain Climber from 1904, Willumsen’s new love Edith Wessel scans the landscape. The mountaineer is the epitome of the active, healthy, emancipated woman – the female ideal of a new century. Unimpeded by a corset and dressed in sporty clothing, she thrives freely in nature.

The women in Willum­sen’s life are consistent sources of inspiration. He marries twice: first Juliette Meyer and later Edith Wessel – both women working as sculptors. Willumsen’s conceptual and theatrical approach to painting culminates when he meets the French painter and dancer Michelle Bourret, who becomes his companion.

Light on her toes with wildly twisting hips, we meet Michelle Bourret in the great dance trilogy. The scenery is flat, the pastel colours gay: we are in the world of the theatre, where roles can be assigned freely. The dancer performs roles traditionally given to men. She is dressed as the acrobatic Harlequin – not his female counterpart Columbine. In the waltz her feet are placed to take the lead. Take it away!

There is something abnormal about Willumsen’s colours. This is a cocaine addict incessantly increasing a dosage that would end up killing off any ordinary human being.

When the Musée D’Orsay in Paris showed a major retrospective exhibition of Willumsen in 2006, one picture had to be omitted. The monumental The Wedding of the King’s Son was considered inferior by the director at the time. The painting shows an exalted bridal couple facing a group of wretched poor people who are invited to the wedding feast. All the figures were depicted with harsh realism when the work first saw the light of day in 1888. In 1949, however, Willumsen edited and developed the work.

The change was spectacular: suddenly the prince and his bride were lit up in garish colours – as if cut from a Disney film. The contrast with the ragged wedding guests is enormous. The prince has the facial features of the young Willumsen and looks like a comic strip hero in gaudy pink and bright green.

Until a few years ago, the work had been ignored in Danish art history. It features by and large everything in Willumsen’s art that has over the years been all too much for reviewers, art historians and French museum directors: the caricatured line of the comic strip, kitschy colour combinations and theatrical staging.

At ARKEN’s exhibition The Wedding of the King’s Son is a major work. It demonstrates the extreme polarities in Willumsen’s transgressive life’s work. The kitschy and the caricatured give the late Willumsen paintings nerve and topicality. In his at times peculiar self-portraits, he is both the eccentric on the stage and the hyper-self-aware stage director with supreme ability to balance pathos and parody. So accomplished and so bizarre that it is impossible to dismiss them as cliché: old Willumsen, hovering in space as a supple tiger, is indeed – as the title of the painting from 1938 indicates – a heavenly riddle.