Friendships were often at the centre of Heerup’s activities, both at the Academy and in relation to projects and sales later on. In the 1940s, he continued to show and work with his friends. In 1941, he showed for the first time at the Høst Exhibition (then known as the Corner and Høst Exhibition) where he showed more than four hundred works until 1948 – a testimony to an already staggering production.

This year, he produced the front page to the first issue of the journal Helhesten, which was edited by his friend Robert Dahlmann Olsen. The war was raging in Europe and many Danish artists joined efforts to get through this turbulent time. The ghost horse ‘Helhesten’ symbolised their efforts: three-legged and, at times, headless, it foreshadows death according to popular belief. It was a powerful symbol of the chaos and horror of war and, during the period 1941–44, the circle of artists around Helhesten staged an important revolt against the occupying power and the restrictions imposed on art.

As far as Heerup was concerned, the war years proved fruitful. His graphic production gathered momentum and especially colour printing was explored and developed during the war. His print Skraldevognen (The Dustcart) from 1943 is a remarkably gloomy example. Death is personified by a coachman whose cart is filled with junk and compressed human bodies. It is Christmas time and there are stars at the top of the Christmas trees in the background, but the mood is apprehensive, accentuated by the dense blood-red sky and the horse’s unnatural yellow colour. This work should be seen in conjunction with the rest of Heerup’s production during this period, which also makes use of more optimistic motifs and notes.

Typically for Heerup, several of his works show a polarisation between good and evil via death symbols like the cross, the man with the scythe, and the mourning widow on the one hand and, on the other, symbols of life and fertility like the uterus, the embryo, the wheel of life, and especially, the heart. Despite the horror of war, Heerup still showed a great appetite for life. In his painting Fredsklokken (The Bell of Peace) from 1944, he painted himself and Mille naked as Adam and Eve. In the background, warlike paratroopers, bomber planes, and burning windows, but at the top centre, the church bell and the mauve dove are enthroned like hopeful messengers of peace.

Several of the artists involved with Helhesten continued to work together and during the Occupation, many of them took part in embellishing the day-care centre Børnehuset Hjortøgade. 

Many of the painters continued their work in the artists’ association CoBrA from 1948–51, including Heerup. The name of the group is derived from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, the home cities of the member artists. The primary concern of the CoBrA project was to connect a number of European countries and to move forward after the isolation and unendurable devastation of war.

CoBrA could not, in any way, be said to embody a distinct theory, ism, or doctrine. On the contrary, it was the essence of a spontaneous and unfettered artistic spirit and, under headings like free imagination, unpretentiousness, and spontaneity, CoBrA artists found great inspiration in children’s drawings and the unconscious as well as in Nordic folk art and mythology. Heerup’s universe was brimming with such motifs and themes and especially his stone sculptures were given an enthusiastic reception by the members.

At this time, there were major changes in Heerup’s private life. In 1945, he and Mille divorced quite amicably. She remained in Vinkelager and he would drop in from time to time for supper. The couple maintained contact until Heerup’s death. In 1949, his mother Sera died. A grave event for Heerup who, called to her deathbed, jumped on his bike to say his goodbyes, but was sadly too late. After that, there was no longer any need for urgent action as Heerup saw it.[4] Heerup honoured the memory of Sera by e.g. kissing the bust he had made of his mother every New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve. ‘It’s like Hans Christian Andersen kissing a tree in Frederiksberg Have out of sheer joy. It’s a way to invoke the gods,’[5] he said by way of explaining this little ritual.

A major event for Heerup during this decade was his purchase of a property at 96 Kamstrupvej in 1945 – a parcelling out of land formerly belonging to a nursery to make way for single-family housing. The following year, he moved there accompanied by no fewer than fourteen removal-van loads of stone sculptures to start his future life in the suburb of Rødovre. A few years later, in 1950, the Belgian poet Christian Dotremont described his impression of Heerup’s by now well-attended garden in the small book series Cobra Biblioteket (the Cobra Library):

“There was, in this place, a flora of stones – not placed on the ground, but sprouting from the ground that created them, an encyclopedia of shapes, a huge immovable ants’ nest, majestic but welcoming, a field of birds, creatures, and things that gave me the sense of visiting the Universe, as if I were dead. For none of these stones were dead, none of these stones were stones. They depicted nothing, not even stones, they were everything, including stones. Like Tom Thumb who dropped pebbles to help him find his way, Heerup has dropped these big rocks to become what they were and which never cease to exist, to help us rediscover our way, which we keep losing due to threats from no-one but ourselves, the way of reality. He loves his stones and he recreates them in his own image in his garden.”[1]

The garden, or the ’site’ as Heerup called it, remained, for the rest of his life, a workshop, gallery and, not least, a meeting place between Heerup and the many who wanted to experience the artist’s works and infectious good spirits. As such, the garden also became a vital part of Heerup’s self-image and an equally vital part of the story of the enthusiastic Rødovre artist who worked best beneath open skies in contact with his surroundings. 

[1] Virtus Schade: Heerup, p. 6