She only rarely exhibited her sculptures, put few on the market and lived most of her life in abject poverty. With the exhibition Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) brings to light one of the most important and uncompromising Danish artists of the modern age.

Yellowing newspaper cuttings, drawings, personal letters, conversations recorded on cassette tapes, school photographs and books. In the spring of 2017, SMK received seven crates full of archival materials from the Paris home and studio of the Danish sculptor Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911–84). With these materials came a unique opportunity for delving into new narratives about her life and art.

The archival materials formed the basis of a new, major monographic exhibition at SMK. The exhibition Sonja Ferlov Mancoba presents 140 works by the artist – including several original plaster and clay sculptures that have never been on public display before, shown alongside drawings, paintings and collages from the years 1935 to 1984.

A global outlook runs through all of Ferlov Mancoba’s art and life. At an early stage of her career she developed her own, powerful idiom – a plastic language that grew out of, among other things, a keen interest in non-Western culture. The seeds of that interest were sown back in the 1920s, when as a young girl Ferlov Mancoba was introduced to African art in the home of the Danish collector Carl Kjersmeier. She retained this enthusiasm all through her life, further nourished by her partner, South African artist Ernest Mancoba. The couple met in Paris in 1939, married in 1942 and stayed together for the rest of their lives with their son, Wonga, born 1946.

Ferlov Mancoba felt part of a wider human network that spanned many ages and cultures. Art from African cultures was a particular source of inspiration, but so too was art from Egypt, the earliest periods of ancient Greece, Indonesia, Mexico, the Nordic countries and other regions and cultures. Her occupation with the mask is one example of how Ferlov Mancoba incorporated traits from global culture in her own art. For her, such inspiration went beyond pure form. In traditional, non-Western societies she found elements that reflected a joint search for spiritual substance. Such a search became the ideal by which she judged her own work and a cornerstone of her views on art.

For Ferlov Mancoba, the main objective was to metaphorically ‘go hand-in-hand’ and create together. As a counterpoint to the selfish, soulless and materialistic world in which she felt she lived, she strove in her art to promote the great community of man across nations and cultures. In a letter to art historian Troels Andersen, she describes her position in these terms: ‘… Only through each other can we live and breathe, and no-one creates alone …’.

Ferlov Mancoba began her artistic endeavours as a painter, but sculpture became her main mode of expression. She would occasionally draw in order to maintain the creative “rhythm”, filling in the breaks between working on sculptures. The SMK exhibition is the first show ever to unfold Ferlov Mancoba’s entire life’s work. It traces her art from the mid-1930s, when she was part of the scene surrounding the artist group “linien” (The Line) and discovered Surrealism alongside fellow artists such as Richard Mortensen and Ejler Bille. In 1936 she set out for Paris, took a studio next to Alberto Giacometti, whom she befriended, and also became acquainted with artists such as Jean Arp and Joan Miró.

She used clay and plaster to construct semi-abstract beings, guardian figures and masks. Some were eventually cast in bronze, but many never made it that far because Ferlov Mancoba discarded them if dissatisfied. She was a ruthless critic of her own work. An early masterpiece ended up in a lake because it ‘wouldn’t behave’, as she put it. She was loath to get involved in the commercial art market, selling only few of her works; a reluctance that entailed great poverty and deprivation. Ferlov Mancoba’s works are the result of an uncompromising endeavour to create a new, global, universal vein of art. Art that was of its time, yet drew on experiences and modes of expression from other ages – and from Western and non-Western cultures alike. Art that would once again connect mankind, introducing spiritual values into the soulless realities of mass culture and consumer society.

The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou in Paris, where an adapted version will be shown during the period 26.6.– 23.9. 2019.