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Scandinavian Summer

Family is a word often cited by summer residents too, if in a somewhat more nostalgic vein, to explain their deep attachment to Skagen. Toward the end of our trip I paid a visit to a handsome, middle-aged woman named Birtna Jerlang (a friend of friends) at her home in the exclusive Klampenborg section of Copenhagen. The Jerlangs and their two children have been going to Skagen for a quarter-century. Birtna is a strong, clear-eyed psychologist. But as we sat in her sun-filled living room drinking tea and talking about Skagen, she grew emotional, and an elegiac tone deepened her voice. "In Skagen, there's a feeling of something very old-fashioned, mixed with something very fashionable," she said. "People know each other. There's still a community. You go to the museum to see the fishermen as they were; then the next morning you buy fish from the fishermen in the port." Listening to her, I couldn't help but think that the sense of fashion in Skagen is perhaps more Yankee than cosmopolitan.

The Jerlangs own a time-share in Gammel Skagen for two weeks in summer. (The word time-share, with its implications of down-market Florida, was hard to square with my vision of the pure, scrubby tip of Denmark, but she was referring to those same simple houses I'd seen along the headland.) For most of the summer families, Birtna said, the routine is the same as it's always been—bicycling, swimming, buying fish. Teenagers usually eat dinner with their parents before heading out to a club whose name, in English, means "shrimp trap" (no one but my wife and I seemed to find this funny), but which the parents commonly refer to as the Baby-sitter.

There are actually three lighthouses in Skagen: a gray one, a white one, and the original one, which resembles a giant, primitive wooden lever. Past this odd structure, off the road to Grenen that runs north of town, lies Celeste Arnold's favorite beach, which was P. S. Krøyer's favorite, too.

I was still on the footpath leading to the beach when the sound of high-pitched laughter reached me. Coming out onto the wide stretch of fine sand littered with small dark stones, I saw them: several dozen children in T-shirts and bathing suits gathered at the edge of the water, some playing soccer, others splashing in the shallows.

Here was the strand I'd seen depicted in the best of Kr¿yer's paintings: wide, flat, framed by the grass-covered dunes on one side and the light-giving Kattegat on the other; the tall gray lighthouse to the north; the town to the south—though in Krøyer's day there had been neither harbor nor warehouses there, just the gulls whirling overhead as they were doing now.

Krøyer painted a series of pictures of two beautiful, elegantly dressed women strolling this section of beach, seen from behind, the gray lighthouse in the distance. And standing on the beach now I could see, in a way I hadn't before, what a delicate thing composition is: how Kr¿yer kept changing the size of the canvas, its shape, the placement of the women and their relative centrality to the picture as a whole—until finally, just left of middle, with a broad sweeping view that seems to encompass all that is Skagen, he got it right.


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