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Torben Jelsbak (Copenhagen)

Across the Great Divide. Popular Culture in the Danish Magazine Kritisk Revy (1926–29)

The Danish architectural journal Kritisk Revy (1926–1929) occupies an important position in Scandinavian cultural life and intellectual history of the interwar period. Edited by a group of young left-wing architects and intellectuals, the magazine served as an ideological platform and propaganda vehicle for the functionalist movement in Danish and Nordic architecture and design. Kritisk Revy’s modern concept of architecture and interior design was developed in close contact with contemporary currents in European avant-garde art and architecture, such as Russian constructivism, the German Bauhaus School and the Swiss architect and theorist Le Corbusier.

Yet, as part of the magazine's critical strategy of promoting a modern ’democratic’ or ’classless’ culture to replace traditional styles and genres of bourgeois culture, Kritisk Revy also embraced a wide range of phenomena emanating from contemporary popular culture such as the aesthetics of advertising and shop window design, jazz music, and film. This article analyzes how Kritisk Revy’s vision of cultural modernity was developed as a response to these two apparently opposing phenomena of cultural modernity, the artistic avant-gardes and modern capitalist popular culture.

The Danish architectural magazine Kritisk Revy (Critical Review), published in Copenhagen 1926-1929, occupies an important position in Scandinavian cultural life and intellectual history of the interwar period. Edited by a group of young left-wing architects and intellectuals with the designer and critic Poul Henningsen as founder and driving force, the journal served as a discursive platform and a propaganda vehicle for the early modernist break-through in Danish and Nordic architecture and design – or what is today internationally known as Nordic 'functionalism' and Scandinavian Design. Inspired by contemporary movements in European avant-garde art and architecture, such as Russian constructivism, the Bauhaus School, and the Swiss modernist architect and theorist Le Corbusier, Kritisk Revy’s critical program focused on the promotion of aesthetic solutions within city planning and interior design that could match the social demands of the modern industrialized society.

The critical agenda of Kritisk Revy was, however, not restricted to the field of architecture and design, but represented a much more comprehensive project of modernization of Danish culture and society. As a consequence, the magazine covered a wide range of topics of contemporary modern culture ranging from the aesthetics of advertising and commodity culture to jazz music, revue songs and film. Thus, nearly all areas of popular urban culture were embraced as part of the magazine’s critical aim of developing a modern 'democratic' or 'classless' culture to replace traditional styles and genres of bourgeois high culture.

This article analyzes how Kritisk Revy’s critical agenda and vision of modernity developed in dialogue with these two apparently opposing phenomena of cultural modernity, the artistic avant-gardes on the one hand and capitalist popular culture on the other.

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Avant-Garde and Popular Culture

The relationship between modernism, avant-garde, and popular culture is a central and much debated topic in modern art theory and cultural studies. For the earliest critics and theorists of artistic modernism, such as Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno in the 1930s and 40s, the two phenomena did not have much in common.1 Greenberg’s and Adorno’s conceptions of early modernism were based on the assumption that the formal experimentalism of early 20th century avant-garde art (cubism, expressionism, surrealism etc.) constituted a kind of resistance to, or liberation from, the inane and inauthentic 'kitsch' products emanating from contemporary capitalist mass culture. For decades, this view dominated the discussion. Yet, within the last decades a series of studies have pointed to a revaluation of the complex interrelationship between the two – in Adorno’s words – "twin halves" of the culture of industrial modernity. An important contribution in this direction was Andreas Huyssen’s study After the Great Divide. Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986), which, by stressing a series of overlooked connections and affinities between the revolutionary aesthetic and political claims of the inter-war avant-gardes and the development of contemporary media technology and popular culture, offered a new and more dialectical approach to the issue.

According to Huyssen, the artistic and political endeavours of the avant-gardes were not so much to be seen, as in Adorno and Greenberg, as a counter response to the uprising commercial mass culture. Rather on the contrary, many of the aesthetic experiments and innovations of the avant-gardes drew positively on popular culture in order to distance themselves from traditional bourgeois high art. One of Huyssen’s key points was that Greenberg and Adorno, by insisting on the autonomy of modernist art with regard to the social and political contexts of the surrounding society, ended up by restoring and consolidating exactly that opposition between high and low, between traditional bourgeois high culture and modern popular culture, which the avant-gardes sought to destabilize and overcome. In order to pay heed to this critical endeavour of the avant-garde project, it was necessary go beyond or work across "the Great Divide" – the categorical dichotomy between modern art and popular culture. As a consequence, Huyssen plead for a new paradigm of research that should relocate the study of the early avant-garde in its social, media and technological contexts of early 20th century society.

One very important media context of the early avant-gardes was the little magazine. The interwar period saw the emergence of a flourishing culture of small, independent and inter-artistic magazines, which played a pivotal role in the formation of the European avant-gardes as a collective, international movement. The avant-garde magazines served not only as discursive arenas or platforms for radical artists in their struggle against traditional canons and institutions within the artistic field. They also became laboratories for artistic creation and experimentation with materials and genres from outside the field of the fine arts and traditional bourgeois high culture. In the 1920s this exchange of materials became especially prominent in new ‘constructivist’ magazines such as Amédée Ozenfant’s and Le Corbusier’s Esprit Nouveau (1920–1926) or El Lissitzky’s and Ilja Ehrenburg’s trilingual Berlin magazine Gegenstand: Vrešc: objet (1922–23), in which 'high art' genres (art and literature) were mixed with articles on modern industrial products and advertising as principally equal "objects" for contemporary artistic creation. In this way, the little magazine may be regarded as a manifestation of the avant-garde project aiming at a "fusion" or "sublation of art in the praxis of life", as described by Peter Bürger in his Theorie der Avantgarde (Bürger 1974: 29).

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In the following, we shall see how this avant-garde or constructivist discourse across the great divide unfolded in the Copenhagen magazine Kritisk Revy

Kritisk Revy. Historical Context and Critical Agenda

Kritisk Revy was edited by a group of left wing architects and intellectuals. Besides the responsible editor Poul Henningsen, the most prominent voices of the magazine were the Norwegian born architect and later professor at the Bauhaus School Edvard Heiberg and the two Danish communist authors Otto Gelsted and Hans Kirk. The editorial staff also included some Swedish members, such as the architects Otto Linton and Uno Åhren and the national economist Bertil Ohlin, and from Finland the architect Alva Aalto contributed with theoretical essays on architectural matters to the magazine.

In its point of departure, Kritisk Revy was an architectural magazine – or more precisely, as the subtitle of the first volume suggested, a magazine concerned with "Modern city building, social engineering, economic technique, and real industrial art". The cover of the first issue featured an aerial view of the Copenhagen Town Hall Square (Rådhuspladsen), the traffic and popular center of modern Copenhagen. The cover illustration was a powerful signal of the primary interest of the magazine which was dedicated to the housing problem related to the rapid modernization and urbanization of Danish society in the first decades of the 20th century. The aim was, as the leading article pointed out, to promote "an architecture in concord with all the best in the social, economic, and technical efforts of modern culture" (Kritisk Revy, 1926, no. 1, p. 1). What Kritisk Revy wanted to promote was a new functionalist approach to city planning and housing policy which could meet the social tasks of modern industrial society – first of all, the creation of good and healthy housing for the rapidly increasing working class population in the cities.

This part of the critical agenda was conceived in opposition to what the editors saw as the ‘false’ New Classicism and ‘snobbish’ conservatism prevailing in official Danish architecture and housing policy. A preferred point of attack in the first issues was the newly built Copenhagen Police Headquarters (Politigaarden), whose monumental and pompous style was a thorn in the eye of the young architects at Kritisk Revy.

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Fig. 1: Kritisk Revy, 1927, no. 2, front cover. The left half of the photomontage is a detail of the Copenhagen Police Headquarters (Politigaarden), built 1918-1924.
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In their view, the style of the building was not only out of touch with the social, economical and technical efforts of modern society; also on a more symbolic level it represented an anachronistic, anti-democratic monument – being a symbol of the political system of absolutism, which was finally abandoned with the introduction of parliamentary democracy in Denmark in 1901. A crucial element in Kritisk Revy’s critical method consisted in this cultural semiotic approach to architecture and interior design in which any object, from the most monumental architectural façade to the tiniest piece of furniture, was regarded as a sign encoded with a more or less subtle layer of meaning.

It was in order to fight against such anachronistic buildings and symbols of power in the contemporary urban landscape that Kritisk Revy launched its campaign to support a modern, rational and functional city planning that could meet the ‘social’ challenges of modern industrialized society. The overriding challenge for contemporary city planning was how to provide housing for the rapidly growing working class population in Copenhagen. Kritisk Revy’s solution to his problem and a key issue in its agitation was the promotion of modern terrace houses in functionalist style – an architectural program which resulted in a continuous debate with the Danish Social Democratic Party on the question what architectural style that was to be championed by the worker’s party (cf. Dahl 2002). Kritisk Revy argued the case for the new simple and unpretentious style of functionalism, where as the social democrats supported New Classicism. In the 19th century, New Classicism had been the style of the bourgeoisie and those in power, and the Social Democratic Party wished to emulate it, precisely in order to signal its own attainment of power. Kritisk Revy, on its side, argued that the Social Democrats should advocate the use of functionalism as a component in the development of an independent working class culture.

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Yet, this discussion was not only about architectural styles and housing policy, but concerned a much more comprehensive political project of modernization of contemporary Danish culture. The aim was to develop a modern, 'democratic' and 'classless' style in housing, interior design and everyday life, which could replace the inherited forms of 19th century bourgeois culture. In formulating this project, the magazine evoked the Soviet Bolshevik leader and Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotzky’s proclamations (from Literature and Revolution, 1924) about the making of a future proletarian culture: "The historical meaning and moral greatness of the proletarian revolution lies in the fact that it lays the basis for non-class and the first genuinely human culture" (1927, no. 3, cover).

In this connection, however, the cultural reformers and social engineers at Kritisk Revy were faced with another problem, consisting in the fact that the upcoming Danish working class, when it came to housing and interior design, tended to prefer to decorate their homes with styles and objects inherited from 19th century bourgeois culture. To the chagrin of the Kritisk Revy staff, this made the average working class home look like an overfilled museum or second hand shop for 19th century Victorian culture, filled with heavy plush covered furniture and decorative objects such as fan palms, embellished chemises and old porcelain. As a consequence, Kritisk Revy saw it as its mission to promote and to inspire to the development of a modern and independent working class culture in housing and interior design as a means to avoid the upcoming working class turning into a culturally narrow minded petite bourgeoisie.

Fig. 2: Kritisk Revy, 1927, no. 1, p. 33.
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With this ambition of promoting a deliberately modern style in housing and interior design, Kritisk Revy was closely related to contemporary currents in European avant-garde architecture and design such as Russian constructivism, the German Bauhaus School and the influential Swiss architect and theorist of architectural modernism Le Corbusier – all of which were thoroughly addressed in the magazine. Yet, it is also characteristic that Henningsen and his fellow colleagues made great efforts to distance and differentiate themselves from the aesthetics of international modernism which was continuously criticized for its aesthetic purism and supposed lack of ‘human’ content and ‘social’ inclination. Hence, in a long essay dedicated to Le Corbusier’s architectural manifesto Vers une architecture, Poul Henningsen praised the Swiss architect’s efforts of developing a rational modern architecture freed from classical ornamentation, while at the same time he criticized Le Corbusier for adhering to an abstract and 'elitist' scientific formalism that tended to forget the social tasks of contemporary architecture and city planning (Cf. Kritisk Revy 1926, no. 1, pp. 50–55). Henningsen’s critique of Le Corbusier’s aesthetics led to a clarification of Kritisk Revy’s own ideal of a "democratic art" as an endeavour to develop artistic forms that should no longer be connected to economic value or social prestige, but should be present and available for the masses in contemporary everyday life: "With perfect justice we can assert that only a democratic art is of value today, and only that kind of art which appeals to and is understood by the masses is modern in the proper sense of the word." (op.cit. p. 54).

The European Avant-Garde and the American Spirit

An important point in Kritisk Revy’s critique of international modernism was developed by Poul Henningsen and Thorkild Henningsen in the essay "The Americanization of Europe" (1926, no. 1, pp. 10–15) in which the discussion was directly linked to the subject of modern mass culture. In this essay the two authors once again criticized what they saw at the tendency to formalist aestheticism and an uncritical cult of technology prevailing in contemporary German, French and Russian avant-garde architecture and design. To support this argument the article contained a series of illustrations featuring examples from contemporary avant-garde design, provided with short and concise captions signaling the author’s evaluations of the featured examples. Among the works exhibited, El Lisitzky’s Lenin Tribune from 1920/24 was held as an example of modernist "artistry", while a Bauhaus interior ("Zimmer der Dame") was blamed for its "insane gorging in the technical" (op.cit. p. 12). Yet, the essay now took a somewhat surprising step by judging the apparent formalism of European modernism as a symptom of an increasing "Americanization" of European Culture. To emphasize this point of view the authors gave the following diagnosis of modern American mass culture:

He who has not lived many years in America does not have the right to speak about the situation over there, and what follows is no critique of America, but we are allowed to criticize America’s influence on Europe. Surely, many good impulses, especially of technical kind, are drawn from America, but the spirit which for Europeans constitutes America does not seem to contain anything of value for us. We can let us impress by the speed, the technique, the fortune, the idleness of women and lots of other things, yet none of this can be qualified as spiritual values. What we get of film (with the exception of Chaplin) is culturally beneath contempt, dancing and sports are legitimate phenomena as long as there is an intellectual life, but not as independent activities. The music may provide rest for Negroes and exhausted people, but it cannot in any case be qualified as an improvement of popular art.

We know the American capitalism that has attained the enormous dimensions of the skyscraper – the Taylor System at the Ford Factories which has succeeded to turn the man, the worker into not a machine but a machine component. Maybe this is the way we shall enter, but it does not speak for spiritual life and improvement of human rights (op.cit., p. 11).

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Henningsen and Henningsen’s harsh critique of the "Spirit" of modern America articulated a series of ideas which were frequently encountered in European political and cultural debates at the time. On the one hand, the essay contained what sociologists would call a "social critique" of capitalism as a political and economical system – a kind of critique traditionally rooted in socialism and the labour movement (cf. Boltanski, Chiapello 1999 , pp. 83–86). On the other hand the essay expressed a more culturally motivated Anti-Americanism having its roots in European bourgeois high culture and its elitist contempt for the supposed "inanity" and lack of "taste, grace and civility" in American culture (Cf. O’Connor 2004). What is most surprising here is that the authors managed to combine these two kinds of arguments in their critique of European modernist avant-garde by stressing the affinity between the formal principles of architectural standardization in Le Corbusier, Bauhaus and Russian constructivism and the American system of industrial mass production as developed by Fred W. Taylor and Henry Ford. For Henningsen and Henningsen, the abstract formalism of European modernism was a token of the same kind of "dehumanization" as the Taylor system of scientific management and Henry Ford’s principles for mass production and consumption. Confronted with this shady alliance, Henningsen and Henningsen warned against a future "Corbusier Fashion" in Danish architecture and design, while instead advocating their vision of a modern architecture and interior design endowed with "human" content and social inclination. Or as the essay conluded: "We believe in an art of human content, art for society’s sake" (1926, no. 3, p. 15).

Another example of Kritisk Revy’s conscious strategy of differentiation and exclusion vis a vis international modernism appeared in the third issue of the third volume from October 1928 which contained an anonymous editorial commentary under the heading "Die neue Sachlichkeit" (1928, 3, p. 5). Being a part of an ongoing debate between Kritisk Revy and the Bauhaus School, the commentary was published in both Danish and German. It consisted in a photo of a Bauhaus interior followed by a polemical caption, which proves very illustrative for the values subscribed to architecture and design in Kritisk Revy:

Akustisch wirkt der Raum wie eine Blechdose, wo jedes Wort auf Deckel, Seiten und Boden lospaukt (…) Die Möbel geben der modern angezogenen Dame blaue Froststreifen auf die Schenkel. Der Armsessel ist weder Lehnstuhl noch Arbeitsstuhl, auf dem Taburet sitzt man noch am besten! Das Verhältnis der Hygiene zur Gemütlichkeit ist irrigerweise vom Spital ins Wohnzimmer übertragen worden. Durch diesen konsequenten durchgeführten Schreck vor dem Staub ist jegliches Gefühl von Raum und Heim zu Tode sterilisiert. (1928, no. 3, p. 5)

This short commentary sums up some of the most important points in the magazine’s critique of international modernism while at the same time testifying to the positive cultural values coming from the magazine’s peculiar Danish or Scandinavian vision of a modern design. It was in order to avoid the cool, impersonal and machine-like aesthetics of international modernism that Kritisk Revy conceived its 'functionalist' aesthetics as a kind of 'soft' modernism endowed with peculiar architectural design values such as humanity and ‘cosiness’ (in German: Gemütlichkeit – a word which normally does not appear in the artistic manifestoes of early 20th century European modernism). It was the same values that were highlighted in the magazine’s promotion of modern design products. Thus, the modern terrace house in functionalist style was qualified as a ‘human’ kind of housing providing modern man with light, fresh air and opportunities for physical activity. Likewise, Poul Henningsen’s PH-lamp, launched in 1925 and today considered an icon of early Scandinavian design, was marketed as a method of lighting which, by means of its "soft" and "warm" light, could bring a feeling of cosiness and warmth into the modern home.

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Fig. 3: Kritisk Revy, 1926, no. 3, back cover.
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Today, some of the same values are still championed as important semantic components of the concepts of Danish and Scandinavian Design. In this way Kritisk Revy’s discourse on modern architecture and design can be seen as the very beginning of 'Scandinavian Design' in the modern meaning of the word – with all its peculiar connotations of cultural freedom and social equality. What is interesting here is that such concepts did not emerge spontaneously out of the soul of Scandinavian peoples, but were developed as part of a nationalistic response or act of resistance to the aesthetics of European modernism.

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Commodity Culture and Showroom Aesthetics

Kritisk Revy served not only as bulletin of architectural and cultural critique but also as commercial advertising pamphlet for modern design products, architectural firms, and building materials. The founding of the elegant and richly illustrated magazine was due to Poul Henningsen's own success as industrial designer. It was the instant commercial success with the PH-lamp which made it possible to start the magazine, and Henningsen did not hesitate to use the magazine as advertisement platform for this and other products by his fellow editors and collaborators. The first issue of the magazine contained no less than 21 advertisements for the PH-lamp. The magazine’s advertisement policy was clearly addressed in an editorial remark in the first issue stating that "All advertisements concerning modern materials and constructions are selected by the editors" (1926, no. 1, p. 25). The way in which advertisements were used actively as part of both Kritisk Revy’s agitation and layout offers an interesting example of the magazine's relation to capitalist commodity culture.

The classified advertisement column situated at the bottom of the page was an integral part of the textual content and editorial agenda. The editors took charge not only of the selection of products, but also of the verbal form of the advertisements which were all formulated in the magazine’s distinct style with the use of the adjectives "modern", "functional", "rational", "economic" as most recurrent buzzwords. In this way, it became clear to the reader that the adverts were also part of the magazine’s political agenda. In some cases, the two components, text and advertisement, even entered into a kind of discursive interplay with each other. A humoristic example on this was Henningsen’s enthusiastic essay on the French-American singer and dancer Josephine Baker in the third volume (1928, no. 1, p. 49) which was accompanied by an advertisement for the central heating engineering firm Siim Marcussen under the slogan: "Josephine Baker warms us with her charm. Siim Marcussen with his warmth." ("Josephine Baker varmer os ved sin Charme. Siim Marcussen ved sin Varme" – in Danish the two lines forms a couplet united by the rhyme on "Charm: Warmth").

Fig. 4 Kritisk Revy, 1928, no. 2, p. 49.
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A recurrent topic in recent research on the early 20th century avant-gardes has been the question to what extent the aesthetic innovations and practices of the avant-gardes were determined by contemporary consumer culture – Kritisk Revy offers an interesting material to the discussion of this problem and its inherent complexities. As shown in the previous section, Hennnigsen and his fellow colleagues were eager critics of the "Americanization" of contemporary European culture on a political level, yet, on the other side, Kritisk Revy was characterized by a deep fascination with modern capitalist commodity culture as it was displayed in advertising or in the illuminated shop windows, neon signs and commercial billboards of the modern city.

Fig. 5: Kritisk Revy, 1927, no. 1, p. 50.
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Hence, the writer and former cubist painter Mogens Lorentzen wrote several enthusiastic essays about the aesthetic potentialities of modern advertising in which he argued for a closer collaboration between art and advertising. "The realm of art is greater than a plate with three apples" (1926, no. 2, p. 21), he declared with allusion to his own background as a painter, and he continued: "Advertising is an art; it takes both imagination and psychological insight to create the right advert, both the visual symbol and the verbal text, which must be like a proverb" (op.cit., p. 22). On the basis of this artistic approach to advertising, Lorentzen argued in favor of the unrestricted freedom and dissemination of advertising in the public space through the means of posters and major size billboards etc. "The commercial poster should not only be put up in large size (…) its command should be spread out to all hoardings." (op.cit., p. 27), he ended his capitalistic hymn to the new art genre.

Fig. 6: Kritisk Revy, 1927, no. 1, p. 43.
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Also the communist architect Edvard Heiberg saw interesting potentials in modern commodity culture. In an essay on "Shop Fittings" (1927, no. 1, pp. 42–45), he even argued that the solution to the problem of how to design the classless and functional housing of the future was to be found in the interior design of modern shops and department stores. For Heiberg, the arrangement of the modern showroom with transparent plate-glass showcases, closets and modular shelves constituted the ideal of the 'neutral' piece of furniture which did not represent anything but itself and its function: to display to commodities for the consumer. Heiberg’s vision of the private home of the future perfectly expresses the affinity between modern capitalist commodity fetishism and the functionalist ideals of interior design:

Today it is still too expensive to make plate-glass showcases to the family silver of the petit bourgeois – but you can be sure as when times get better, he will no longer use his money for cornices and gilded misery but instead demand that his home is made up to date. He will roll down the window with a gesture like he does it now in the car or in the train compartment. He will benefit from central heating, but also air condition, his bookshelves will be equipped with sliding doors in plate-glass and he will have all the mechanics of the shop in his cupboard. His milk bills will be organized in a card index and his clothes will be in cabinets like modern travel bags. The home is still trapped in the age of the philistine Künstler-architects. The shop is the furniture-architecture of our time. The shop is 1926, symbolized by the gracious French showroom dummies without bosoms and tails.

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In the fascinating picture of capitalist commodity culture, the communist Heiberg saw the model of the "democratic" and "classless" interior design that could furnish the future working class home. It may be disputable if this solution was in harmony with Kritisk Revy’s claim for a "social" art of "human" content, but in any case the examples show how seriously the young architects of the group took the task of developing a modern aesthetics of design. What is especially striking here is that the architects at Kritisk Revy should find this solution in contemporary capitalist shop aesthetics and not in the innovative interior designs of international modernism which – be recalling the Bauhaus example quoted above – were rejected as sterile and inhuman.

Jazz Music as Cultural Emancipation

Another phenomenon of contemporary cultural modernity which received the utmost attention by the magazine was jazz music. Before entering this subject, it may be worth noticing that in the cultural discourse of the 1920s the notion "Jazz" did not have the same meaning as it has today. Jazz music had not yet become a musical genre in its own right. Instead the word "Jazz" was used as a non-discriminative umbrella term for any kind of modern dance or entertainment music. Furthermore, the term also contained chauvinist and racist connotations as to the Afro-American origin of the phenomena. In the overtly racist discourse surrounding the subject in contemporary Danish public, Jazz was often described as a barbarian kind of "negro art" whose popularity was a sign of the imminent end of occidental culture (cf. Wiedemann 1982, p. 111). Even critics who took a positive stance to the phenomena were driven by quasi racist ideas, in which jazz music was linked with ideas of the genuine musicality and sensibility of "primitive", i.e. black people. Kritisk Revy was not totally free from such ideas when it praised the emancipating qualities of jazz music with regard to classical European art music, yet the jazz discourse of the magazine was at the same time guided by an attempt to approach the phenomena in a more formal or objective manner. Hence, in an essay on "Jazz Music and Art Music", the Danish composer Jørgen Bentzon started off by refusing the racist theories about jazz music’s allegedly black roots, while instead stressing the influence of European musical traditions on the emergence on the genre. In the following essay Bentzon tried to develop a formal approach to jazz music by describing its aesthetic attraction as consisting in its "free" and "syncopated" rhythms in which he saw a parallel to Kritisk Revy’s functionalist and utilitarian aesthetic:

(as all "common" dance music) Jazz music may be paralleled with the applied arts: its task consisting in the rhythmical movement, the basis of the dance. The other factors are subordinated to this main factor. A banal piece of song melody, often colored with an erotic-sentimental feeling and harmonic, offers continuity and form to the movement. Rhythm is supported by a striking instrumentation, yet in better jazz these components are perfectly balanced, neutral, and without importunity, as if the music has no "facial expression".

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Bentzon’s attempt to translate the musical language of jazz into Kritisk Revy’s critical and cultural discourse ("the task", "the rhythmical movement" etc.), as manifestations of a modern kind of applied art freed from pushing outburst of feeling, forms an interesting parallel to Heiberg’s salutatory description of the modern show room’s gracious universe of comfort and perfection quoted in the previous section. On the basis of this interpretation of the aesthetic attraction of jazz music Bentzon saw no reason to fear the influence of jazz on modern European art music. On the contrary, he foresaw interesting aesthetic potentialities in a mutual interaction between the two genres. As a powerful example of the appropriation of jazz features in contemporary art music he stated Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s song play Mahagonny (performed for the first time in Baden-Baden 1927) which he saw as the most genius work in contemporary German music.

Fig. 7: Kritisk Revy, 1928, no. 2, front cover.
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Another interesting example of Kritisk Revy’s cultural reception of jazz music was Poul Henningsens enthusiastic embrace of the African American-born, French dancer and singer Josephine Baker. In the summer of 1928, Baker made a series of shows in a popular Copenhagen theater, performing her peculiar "Dance sauvage" dressed in a primitive banana skirt. Baker’s performance consciously evoked both sexual fantasies and racist stereotypes that were common in the period and the show was disdained as "dirty Negro dance" and "pornography" by conservative critics. Henningsen on his side took another stance defending enthusiastically the artistic value of Baker’s performance in an essay entitled "The Educational Value of Pornography" (1928, no. 2, pp. 48–53). Henningsen’s defence of Josephine Baker against the moral condemnation of conservative critics consisted in saying that her naked dance performance was not to be regarded as pornography but as an art form. When older critics were so offended by Baker, he argued, this was due to the fact that they could only perceive nakedness as sexual excitation, whereas the younger generation were able to look more soberly at things and appreciate Baker’s dance as an object for "disinterested pleasure" (op.cit., p. 50), as Henningsen put it with allusions to a key concept in 19th century art theory. For Henningsen this difference between his and older generation’s way of perceiving Baker constituted no less than a step forward in the development of western civilization since it pointed towards a refinement of taste in a more pure, more aesthetic or sensorial direction. In such a way Henningsen conceived Josephine Baker as an icon of cultural emancipation in perfect congruence with Kritisk Revy's critical agenda:

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We praise terrace houses, Josephine Baker, Hoffmann Girls, as long as it is good art which has its epochal mission. It is the moral and social context of art, the truth of art, which have our interest. We perceive in Europe’s admiration for Josephine Baker a civilization which we could not do well without. (op.cit., p. 53)

The United States of Barbary

Henningsen’s enthusiastic defense of Baker sums up some of the most important elements and paradoxes inherent to Kritisk Revy’s view on modern popular culture. The magazine’s embrace of popular phenomena, advertising, jazz music, variety shows and other kinds of popular entertainment, could be seen as a logic continuation of the magazine’s political mission of developing a modern democratic and classless culture, freed from the burdens of traditional bourgeois high culture. However, when arguing for the artistic value of such phenomena, the magazine often drew on concepts borrowed from traditional bourgeois high culture and aesthetics, such as in the case with the allusion to the Kantian concept of "disinterested pleasure" quoted above. In the same way, Kritisk Revy's view on modern American popular culture was characterized by a fundamental schism between a liberal and utilitarian enthusiasm for the democratic and emancipating potentials of capitalist culture and a classical highbrow disdain for the inane cult of technique and material wealth which was associated with modern capitalist America. This conflict received an iconic expression in Henningen’s photo-montage on the cover of the third issue of the second volume from October 1927, featuring two music making monkeys in front of New York skyscrapers armed with gun barrels.

Fig. 8: Kritisk Revy, 1927, no. 3, front cover.
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The message would seem clear, yet the montage was coupled with the explaining caption: "It is not America we despite but the United States of Barbary."

Bearing a resemblance to the didactic rhetoric of John Heartfield's contemporary photo-montages, Henningsen's use of the proto avant-garde genre of montage was the more striking in that it expressed a view on Modernity and American culture which was in fact in conformity with the most conservative and chauvinistic voices in the cultural debate of interwar Europe. In a Danish context Henningsen's legendary photomontage has tricked generations of interpreters. How could the otherwise progressive and liberal Poul Henningsen, whom, after the Second World War, was to receive a status as icon for the progressive, anti-totalitarian left-wing in Denmark, come up with something as politically incorrect as this photomontage which was difficult not to read as a racist attack on America and modern Afro-American popular music? – Yet, as we have seen in the previous examples the photomontage was in no way unique or non-representative for the cultural discourse in Kritisk Revy. On the contrary, the montage constitutes a striking proof of the fundamental ambivalence characterizing Kritisk Revy's view not only on modern (American) popular culture but on cultural modernity as a whole.


Bibliographical Note: A digital facsimile edition of Kritisk Revy is available as online resource from the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen through the library's web catalogue "REX". This edition however contains only 7 out of the 10 originally published issues of the magazine.

Adorno, Theodor W./ Horkheimer, Max (1947): Dialektik der Aufklärung, Amsterdam: Querido.

Ashby, LeRoy (2010): "The Rising of Popular Culture: A Historiographical Sketch", in: OAH Magazine of History, 24 (April 2010), 11–14.

Boltanski, Luc/ Chiapello, Éve (1999): Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Paris: Gallimard.

Bürger, Peter (1974): Theorie der Avantgarde, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Dahl, Jan (2002): "Kritisk Revy over arbejdernes boliger", in: Arbejderhistorie, no. 4, 2002, 18–35.

Greenberg, Clement (1939): "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", in: Partisan Review, 1939, no. 5, 34-49.

Huyssen, Andreas (1986): After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Blomington: Indiana University Press.

O'Connor, Brendan (2004): "A Brief History of Anti-Americanism from Cultural Criticism to Terrorism", in: Australasian Journal of American Studies, July 2004, 77–92.

Suárez, Juan Antonio (2007): Pop modernism. Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Wiedemann, Erik (1982): Jazz i Danmark i tyverne, trediverne og fyrrerne. En musikkulturel undersøgelse, vol. 1, Copenhagen: Gyldendal.


1 The most influential contributions to this discussion and the categorical dichotomy between avant-garde and popular culture are Clement Greenberg’s essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", published in Partisan Review, 1939, no. 5, pp. 34-49, and Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung, Amsterdam, 1947 – the chapter "Kulturindustrie. Aufklärung als Massenbetrug".