Denmark’s greatest wit: not so much through the eye of a storm, but a vagabond – The Post

Denmark’s greatest wit: not so much through the eye of a storm, but a vagabond

‘When told once by an acquaintance that the fellow wished to do something fresh and significant with his life, storm P suggested that he could perhaps try washing an elephant at the zoo.’

‘Back to nature’ – Storm P never was one to follow the crowd (photo: Storm P Museum)
December 9th, 2016 7:33 pm| by Ivar Soe

Just the mention of Robert Storm Petersen’s name is enough to get many Danes chuckling merrily away. Most people know at least one or two of his jokes off by heart. Storm P, affectionately known as the father of Danish humour, is often compared by his countrymen to Mark Twain or Jerome K Jerome, whose works he illustrated when they were published over here.

Storm P once told the story of two men who sat up the whole night discussing Goethe. They fell into an argument and deep disagreement, until they eventually realised that one of them thought they were discussing cooked rhubarb.

Storm P has become a national treasure. In almost every home – at least in those of the pre-techno generation – a wide compendium of his drawings can usually be found. He produced around 70,000 sketches and cartoons during his working life from the turn of the century until about mid-1950, so there are loads to choose from.

A love for animals
When told once by an acquaintance that the fellow wished to do something fresh and significant with his life, Storm P suggested that he could perhaps try washing an elephant down at the zoo.

Storm P was an accomplished artist, writer and performer. His father worked in a slaughterhouse, and in his early youth Storm P did an apprenticeship to learn the same trade. He told how he was unable to complete it because the eyes of the condemned animals always seemed to be catching his own.

Storm P had a great deal of affection for animals and, as he once explained, he had met some of the best people in dogs.

Visualising the vagabond
He sketched and painted all his childhood, and sometime after quitting the butcher’s trade he entered the Academy of Fine Arts. Prodigiously active, he developed quickly as an all-round entertainer performing in films and in the theatre – a forerunner to modern day stand-up comedians, reading aloud from his stories to audiences across the land.

Storm P once said that flies were able to live for three weeks without food. But they don’t want to.

One of Storm P’s favourite themes in his cartoons and drawings was the lifestyle of tramps. A look at his work through the years reveals a subtle development in his perception and presentation of them. In his earliest drawings these vagabonds are rough and hungry figures, escaping the hardships of homelessness and unemployment by drinking too much.

As the years pass, Storm P’s hardy vagabonds become more content with their status, living on the fringes of society by choice rather than need, taking to the road to avoid a day’s work rather than in search of one – still drunk most of the time but in a leisurely rather than a desperate manner.

Freedom above all else
Gradually the revolutionary gave way to non-conformist. Storm P’s captions change from sharp and satirical to whimsical and tolerant. The tramp becomes a romantic king of the road, savouring freedom, sunsets and birdsong as a curious observer of the staunch citizens around him who live to work and work to live.

Typical scenario: our tramp arrives on the doorstep of a bourgeois housewife, politely doffing his cap.

“Has Madame perhaps a small slice of cake for a hungry man who hasn’t eaten in two days?”

“Cake!” exclaims the lady of the house. “Isn’t bread good enough for you?”

“Well, maam normally it would be,” replies our hero. “But today’s my birthday.”

Joking up a storm
Storm P was a multifaceted talent, and in his other work, particularly his paintings, he remained more consistent to the social criticism of his youth.

One evening a student showed up at his house to ask if he would rather consider holding a speech about humour for the students’ union. Storm P answered without hesitation that he would rather jump from the top of Copenhagen’s Round Tower. But as the student was walking away down the street, he was hailed back by an agitated Storm P.

“Young man,” cried the writer. “Wait, I’ve changed my mind!” The student waited until Storm P quite out of breath caught up with him. “Yes, indeed, I have changed my mind. The fact is that I would rather jump from the Eiffel Tower instead.”

To date no English version of Robert Storm Petersen’s work exists. His work exists in print in Danish only, not least because many of his witticisms would be untranslatable. But at least in the Storm P Museum, where in addition to his paintings and drawings his huge pipe collection and replica of his study can be visited, a few of the mounted cartoons have had their captions translated into both English and German.

The museum, located on Frederiksberg Runddel in Copenhagen, is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00-16:00.