Something rotten in the state of Denmark — Thomas Kluge’s ‘Kongehuset’

One of the perks of being a crowned head of state is exercising the privilege of commissioning imposing oil portraits of one’s anointed self and one’s blue-blooded kin.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has exercised just that privilege– the first of her noble line to do so in one hundred twenty-five years–and this nightmarish composition depicting her gaggle of titled and nefarious-looking hatchlings is what was unveiled to her.

Official Portrait of the Danish Royal Family

Thomas Kluge, Kongehuset (Royal Family), 2013

Pause for a moment.  Although perhaps it isn’t safe to make eye contact, really try to soak in the melodramatic visuals which froth up from artist Thomas Kluge’s surreal mashing together of centuries-worth of art history’s most magnificent state portraiture and print advertisements for tacky soap operas.

It’s all right to feel nostalgic for all the flowing ermine robes,  violet-scented powdered wigs,  jewel-tone velvet draperies,  gilt sceptres, blinding tiaras, and cross-eyed, inbred gazes common to European royal portraiture of yore.

In truth, Kluge’s painting, which took the better part of four years to complete, was inspired by the pomp of such antique portrayals. Some might reckon this is true only if you squint determinedly at the Greco-Roman ruins in the very back of the background.  Yet according to the Danish Royalty’s official website, Her Majesty desired  for Kluge– a primarily self-taught painter and known admirer of Caravaggio and Rembrandt– to create a royal family portrait similar to Fredensborgbillege, a canvas by Lauren Tuxen that showed King Christian IX and Queen Louise with their extended highborn tribe in the 1880s [1].

Kluge has shredded away the trailing silk, airy drawing room, and immaculate-looking military garb of Tuxen’s painting; the Great Danes are instead thrust into an inky, soul-sucking void, are attired in a grab bag of charity shop vestments, and peer outwardly with murderously simpering, spot-lit expressions.

Seated on a minty silk sofa in the midst of everyone, wearing an air of I-own-you-all-you-peasants, is Queen Margrethe II. Kluge has rendered Her Majesty’s  royal calves, which protrude rather-saucily-for-an-elderly-lady out of her pleated crimson skirt, with all the slenderness of an Easter ham. Her scalp-exposing hairline has receded even further than that of her butterball husband, Henrik, who wheezes humidly next to her with a puckering face; apparently straining to conceal attempts to keep his meaty gut from bursting through his bottle green velvet waistcoat. Note the burly mole, or pudding residue, or infected boil which eats away at Henrik’s upper lip; it complements his rusty liver spots and proves Kluge’s mastery of putridly photo-realistic, dermatological detail.

The rest of the royal retinue hang about macabre style. In the foreground, kitted out in matching denim button downs and chinos, the fledgling princes Felix and Nikolai tinker attentively with a tower of Lego blocks that seems to run thickly with plebeian blood. Nearby, the toddler Princess Isabelle is plopped down motionlessly upon the unhallowed black abyss. Puffy-faced, gaunt-eyed, and scowling diabolically with onyx-hued lips, Isabella rubs her hands eagerly together as she prepares to throttle her baby doll’s throat with the strength of ten thousand demons. Hovering malignantly as the painting’s true focal point is– no, not a miniature undertaker, not the indestructible son of Satan, not a malevolent, prey-seeking incubus in a tidy little disguise–  but the vacant-faced and unnerving future heir to the throne, Prince Christian.

It seems the Royal Family is not only fully-aware, but fully-pleased, that Kluge’s masterpiece is somewhat…hellish. The Danish Royal Collection’s website defends Kluge’s work as a kind of “magic realism”, which marries critical art historical references with compelling post-modern innovations. Kongehuset, which is fated to hang privately on palace walls, is praised for concocting an unexplored universe in which truly lifelike renderings of human beings are pitted against the darkly absurd [2].



[1] Kongehusetthe official website of the Danish Monarchy 

[2] The Danish Royal Collections Online, The Amalienborg Museum






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