Engman, Harald Rudyard (1903-1968)

Engman, Harald Rudyard (1903-1968)

Danish artist Harald Rudyard Engman was a trailblazer. He used his figurative, narrative works to critique society and to rally an artistic opposition to the Nazi occupation of Denmark during the Second World War.

Engman’s life began as a seaman working for the Danish navy. His father had undertaken such a profession, so he was most likely following in his footsteps. Engman travelled to places such as England and France, however by 1918 he had abandoned his duties, for he set sail for a new life in New York City.

He would live in this burgeoning metropolis for some time, finding rooms within the streets of Chinatown. He was, according to his contemporary Josef Petersen, fascinated by Chinese culture. Upon his return to Copenhagen in the late 1920s, Engman became part owner of a store resembling those found in Chinatown. This store would become a meeting place for Engman’s friends and aid in the cultivation of a spirited and thoughtful atmosphere.

Back in Copenhagen, Engman also began to exhibit his artworks. Whether he received any training is unclear, however what remains evident is he possessed a singular style, the effect of which was to create striking and thought-provoking works.

Scenes of Copenhagen at night possess an eerie yet oddly appealing energy. Engman makes stark contrasts between the turbid moonlight, swamped by sooty clouds, and the crisp, golden illuminations of streetlamps. The Nyboder district is a favourite subject of his, most likely being where he had grown up, as it was the reserve of the navy seamen. Figures who dwell within this moonlight city seem strange, curious beings.

Indeed, figures were a key aspect of Engman’s art. He earnt himself a reputation for his narrative works which featured satirical figures who became the embodiments of social critique and commentary. No aspect of Copenhagen remained uncovered, from the poorest to the richest, Engman turned his discerning and rather cutting gaze to cast judgement in paint and ink. Distinctive expressions and clever line work combine with a luminous use of colour to present pictures heightened in their intensity and commentary.

Engman’s works were singular and made him quite the oddball of the Danish art scene. He cared neither for the traditions of Danish folk art nor for the modern styles such as abstract art or surrealism. They also garnered quite a large amount of reprobation. Engman exhibited with a group called the ‘Underground Painters,’ which he apparently named himself. It is interesting to note that Engman seemingly knew of the potentially volatile nature of his works. It is commendable of his bravery and determination that he continued to produce them anyway.

This becomes even more astounding during the 1930s and 1940s. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany incited within Engman a creative spark which saw him condemn their actions and beliefs with as sharp a brush as ever. He was daring, depicting Hitler not as ‘a genius of satanic majesty,’ as Petersen wrote, but a ‘frightened and conceited fool, sort of a ludicrous master clown of the world’s arena.’ He was scorning the power of the Nazi’s and their agenda and creating a powerful statement of defiance in the face of their threats to occupy Denmark.

The risks Engman took culminated in a 1940 exhibition in which he displayed a number of these anti-Nazi artworks to the public. This was only days before the Nazis would invade Denmark and take control. When they did, the exhibition was immediately shut down, and Engman had to flee to North Zealand before eventually hiding overseas in Sweden.

Even though he was banished from his homeland, however, Engman remained defiant. He continued to produce works castigating the Nazis which would feature in Danish publication ‘The Dane,’ as well as pieces for Swedish publications. A number of these also criticised the acquiescence of Engman’s fellow Danes to Nazi rule.

‘Menneske Pyramide (Human Pyramid)’ (1941) best summarises Engman’s anger, a towering reckoning of the passage of human history and all the death and bloodshed along the way. With a Hieronymus Bosch-like strangeness, coupled with Engman’s own deft hand, it communicates the message that Denmark owes it to its ancestors to defy Nazi rule, to not topple from the top of the pyramid to the death and defeat which lies below.

With the end of the Second World War, Engman could return to a Denmark free from Nazi occupation. His contemporaries celebrated his return and recognised his bravery. ‘We welcome Harald Engman back from the bottom of our hearts,’ declared Petersen.

Indeed, it is incredible to contemplate Engman’s tenacity and bravery. He used art to defy fascism, sharpening his pen, his brush, his paints, into slick and savage instruments. He is an incredible example of an artist who understood the power of art to defy oppression.


Born in Copenhagen, Denmark.


Travelled to New York, USA.


Married Ingeborg Jensine Petra Christensen.


Exhibited at the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition, Copenhagen, Denmark. Married Elsa Peterson.


Exhibited with the Underground Painters, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Married Trine Johanne Marie Kampmann.


Exhibited at the ‘Black Banners’ exhibition. Copenhagen, Denmark.


Fled to Sweden.


Returned to Copenhagen, Denmark.


Died in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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