Welcome to Herning, Denmark's secret art haven

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If you're a fan of modern art, chances are you've heard of Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni (1933-63). What you may not know is that the biggest public collection of his work is not in Milan or New York but in a small Danish city best known for trade fairs and textiles. Welcome to Herning. Population: 45,870. Manzoni artworks: 37.

You'll find Manzoni's work, and that of visionaries like Mario Merz and Man Ray, at HEART (Birk Centerpark 8, Herning; www.heartmus.dk), Herning's striking museum of contemporary art. Designed by US architect Steven Holl, its crumpled concrete walls and sleeve-like roof evoke a shirt for good reason - the building pays tribute to the collection's founder, Danish shirt manufacturer and passionate art collector Aage Damgaard (1917-91).

Herning Museum of Contemporary Art. Image courtesy of Iwan Baan/HEART

How it all got started

In the 1950s, Damgaard commissioned Danish conceptual artist Paul Gadegaard (1920-96) to deck the walls, floors and ceiling of his factory (located opposite HEART) with bright colours and abstract shapes (needless to say, a radical concept at the time). In the summers of 1960 and 1961, he invited Gadegaard's friend Manzoni to indulge his creative spirit in Herning, even supplying Manzoni with his own personal driver. The result was a string of masterpieces, including Socle du Monde (1961), and the forging of Herning's Manzoni legacy.

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But HEART doesn't stop at 20th-century conceptual creativity, with several world-class exhibitions of contemporary art staged annually. The recent show, Indian Highway, showcased some of India's most innovative and provocative contemporary artists, with works from names like Sakshi Gupta, Amar Kanwar and Nalini Malani.

And it doesn't end there. Across the street is the Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt Museum (www.chpeamuseum.dk; Birk Centerpark 1) - a riotously coloured museum focussed on the paintings, prints, watercolours, mosaics, ceramics and sculptures of artists Carl-Henning (1913-2007) and Else Alfelt (1910-74). Next door to HEART stands Danish architect Jørn Utzon's 1970-designed Prototype House (closed to the public) (Utzon also designed the iconic Sydney Opera House) while further down the road you'll stumble across artist Ingvar Cronhammar's deliciously ominous Elia. Attracting lightning, shooting random flames of gas, and seemingly straight off a Dr Who set, it's also Northern Europe's largest sculpture.

A few practical tips

HEART and its neighbours aside, there's little else to keep you in Herning, so consider it a day trip from more interesting regional bases like Silkeborg or Viborg, easily reached by train and bus respectively. If you are heading to Herning by train, alight at Birk Centerpark station (not Herning's main station), as it's a much quicker walk to the sights.

Cristian Bonetto is currently researching the Copenhagen Encounter and Scandinavian Europe guides.