Monday, June 30, 2014

A cartoon revival in Denmark

Bruce MacKinnon in The Halifax Herald.

Cartoon Contest organizers Poul Nielsen and Zoran Petrovic as seen by Bruce MacKinnon

Halifax Chronicle Herald’s Bruce MacKinnon travelled to Viborg, Denmark to pick up his second prize in the 2014 Niels Bugge Cartoon Award.

Here is the article he wrote about the the Cartoon Contest:

In the lush green and wooded countryside on the outskirts of the small Danish city of Viborg, there is a magnificent old inn called the Niels Bugges hotel. It was recently the setting for the second annual Niels Bugges Cartoon Award ceremony, the culmination of a theme-based competition that received more than 1,000 entries from cartoonists all over the world.
This year’s theme: “The oceans are in our hands,” an environmental directive that inspired cartoons ranging from hard-hitting satire to thoughtful observation to brilliant comic commentary. The ceremony drew Danish celebrities and big-name dignitaries from both the cartoon and political world, including key ministers from the Danish government as well as Viborg Mayor Soren Pape Poulsen, an ardent supporter of the competition since its inception.
At the centre of it all is Poul Nielsen, a humble restaurateur, chef and the owner of the Niels Bugges hotel. He and his wife Gitte, the logistical mastermind behind the event, have invested immeasurable time and energy in an effort to create and sustain one of the world’s largest international cartoon events. Why?
“We wanted to reclaim cartooning for Denmark,” Poul says.
To understand the subtext of this lofty undertaking, it is necessary to look back barely a decade in Denmark’s long history. In 2005, a Danish newspaper called the Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad (considered an act of blasphemy in the Islamic world) in a stated attempt to contribute to the debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship.
The angry reaction of the Danish Muslim community eventually led to protests in Islamic countries around the world, some escalating into violence resulting in more than 200 reported deaths, attacks on Danish embassies and countless threats aimed mainly at the offending cartoonists. Denmark was shaken to its core. Suddenly this peaceful Nordic nation was at the centre of an international firestorm that would dominate headlines around the world and reverberate for years.
It’s now the late spring of 2014 and my wife and I are on the road to Viborg, an ancient city with a history that includes Viking settlements dating back to the eighth century. We are in the land of Hamlet, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlsberg beer and Lego. It is the Kingdom of Denmark, a constitutional monarchy that is home to the happiest people on the planet, according to repeated international rankings. It also consistently ranks among the top, globally, in many other important categories including education, health care, civil liberties, prosperity and income equality, to name a noble few. The Danish have an ancient history, a rich culture and their own language, though many Danes are fluent in several.
Our chauffeur on the trip is a young chef named Benjamin who works in the kitchen of the Niels Bugges inn. Like almost everyone we meet in Denmark, he is soft-spoken, good-humoured, intelligent and self-possessed in a way that reflects no arrogance
As we cross the bridges that link the islands of the Danish Archipelago, we are dazzled by the stunning beauty of the landscape. Towns rich with classical architecture, cities completely devoid of modern skyscrapers, seascapes spanned by arching bridges, rolling hills and deep forests, an environment virtually unblemished, though generously speckled with wind turbines on both land and water.
“We are close to 100 per cent sustainable energy,” Benjamin explains. There is a pervasive sense of responsibility to nature and history here. Most of the culinary delights Benjamin creates are garnished with liberal helpings of herbs gathered from the woods surrounding the hotel.
And make no mistake, they are delicious. 
We arrive at the Niels Bugges Kro the evening before the ceremony for introductions and a traditional Danish meal. The Niels Bugges Kro is a historic Viborg building that Poul purchased after helping his father run it for years as a restaurant under a government lease. It is nestled in the forest, overlooking an expansive lake, just outside Viborg. I ask Poul if the lake is swimmable. He explains yes, but with caution. Underground springs that feed the lake keep the temperature very cold below the top half-metre or so. He tells of an incident a few years previous where a boater hopped into the water for a swim and began to drown when overtaken by cramps and hypothermia. Poul was involved in the rescue but in the end the swimmer died in hospital. 
“His parents told me they’d lost another son to drowning exactly 10 years before to the day,” he recalls. “It still gives me chills.” 
Poul eventually purchased an old inn a short distance up the road from the restaurant and rebuilt it to run as part of the business. He and Gitte frequently travelled Europe in search of antiques and art with which to furnish the inn. Then a few years ago while on a family vacation, he came across a cartoon illustration of the Last Supper, painted on a wooden wine box, on display in a hotel in Cologne, Germany. He fell in love with the painting, asked to purchase it and brought it home to Viborg. 
The piece was so enthusiastically received by guests at the inn that Poul decided to contact the artist to see more of his work. 

Cartoon by Zoran Petrovic
 The artist was Zoran Petrovic, a celebrated Serbian cartoonist, artist and sculptor who would soon become Poul’s collaborator. Zoran is a ball of raw energy, a man whose curly dark and dishevelled hair is as wild and out of control as his personality. At once joyous, manic, cool and flustered, he seems driven to make people laugh and have fun. 
In 2010 Poul invited Zoran to do an exhibition of his wine box cartoon series at the inn. The show was an enormous success, with almost every piece sold at several thousand euros each. His wine box paintings and brilliant oak sculptures now decorate the grounds of the Niels Bugges inn and give it a life and energy that is unique and infectious.
The popularity of these pieces of cartoon art got Poul thinking bigger. 
He proposed to Zoran an international cartoon competition as a way to revitalize and re-legitimize the art of cartooning in Denmark. Zoran could bring his expertise and professional contacts to the table, and Poul would use his contacts in the business community to seek out sponsorship. With the inn as the central venue for the event, a partnership was born. 
“We didn’t want another Muhammad crisis,” Poul emphasizes. “For that reason, I went to (Danish newspaper) Politiken instead of the Jyllands-Posten to get the word out.”
If the Muhammad crisis was Denmark’s 911, the Jyllands-Posten was its ground zero. Poul didn’t want to resurrect the anger and fear associated with the Danish cartoon crisis.
“My greatest wish was for an Iranian cartoonist and a Pakistani cartoonist to come first and second in the competition. 
That hasn’t happened yet, but their participation is there and Poul remains hopeful. Denmark has a strong and proud tradition of cartooning dating back to the 1800s but the fallout from the controversy was painfully caustic and resulted in a chill so extreme that cartoonists didn’t feel safe even coming out in public. Poul badly wanted to give cartooning a chance to grow again. 
The effort has, by any measure, been a huge success. The day is May 30, 2014. After an outdoor presentation ceremony under the beaming afternoon sun, the party moves inside to an eight-course meal that goes into the evening. At one point, a pair of young girls ride up on horseback to the front entrance of the inn, paying a friendly visit to their neighbours while cheerfully brandishing a pig’s head on a long stake, the only remains of a family pig roast from earlier in the day. 
It’s a bizarre, contradictory scene any Canadian could only describe as Lord of the Rings meets DeGrassi High. Their gleaming faces, young and innocent, betray no shame in their carnivorous celebration or squeamishness toward the blood of beasts. Things are different here. We are in Viborg. These are the descendants of Vikings. 
Back inside, the dinner hall is decorated with over a hundred original cartoons from around the world. Dishes clink, talk runs high and libations flow freely as drunken cartoonists scribble scandalous caricatures of unsuspecting guests. Amid the broad smiles and chatter, a look of relief is etched upon Poul’s face. The Niels Bugges Cartoon Award has enjoyed its second successful event thanks to support from the municipality of Viborg, various levels of government and corporate sponsors. 
But mostly, it is thanks to the passion and commitment of a quiet Danish family man and his Serbian accomplice. Poul Nielsen loves art and cares about the survival of cartooning in Denmark. 
At the end of the day, he’s still trying to save a swimmer.

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