Last year I went to see the work of a 19th century Danish painter whose name I had certainly never heard of prior to this visit to the Musée Jacquemart-André, and I was not alone in that respect. Apart from an initial exhibition at Le Petit Palais, Paris, in 1987, followed by another at the Musée d’Orsay in 1997, Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) was little known here in France, until recently that is. In the UK, the public were finally able to discover this visual ‘poetry of silence’ in 2008, at the Royal Academy of London and since then his art has incited a great deal of chattering speculation and interpretation as to what it all means.
His subdued scenes, muted tones and limited colour range, play of light and shade on the geometric forms of interior living spaces and outdoor landscapes, and mysterious sparse figures all intrigue viewers. So much so, indeed, that there seems to be a compulsion to find THE significant message, meaning or mindset in all that is Hammershøi, even when that is not strictly possible. Feted as the artist of the calm and contemplative, it seems somewhat ironic that he should drive so many to an almost frantic search for a reassuring label with which to qualify/quantify his art.
Our attempts to classify Hammershøi, probably reveals more about our psyche than that of the artist. Try as we might to compare and contrast with the art of his contemporaries (Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, or playwright Ibsen), or with his aesthetic successors (Edward Hopper) or supposed predecessors from the Dutch Golden Age two hundred years before him, Hammershøi eludes the confines of a fixed definition. Likewise, his work veers from the path of his fellow ‘Danish Vermeer’ painters; brother-in-law Peter Ilsted (1861 – 1933), and friend/colleague Carl Vilhelm Holsøe (1863 – 1935).
Hammershøi appears to have worked as he lived, on his own terms, and spent almost his entire life in the city of his birth, having studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art. His was a somewhat restricted private sphere, whatever the space or environment he found himself in, centred on an almost abstract vision and/or depiction. Despite travelling widely around Europe, his extensive trips had little impact on his art ; the sites he visited were rarely represented in his work and did not influence him stylistically. He attended the Universal Exhibitions of Paris in 1889 and 1900 but remained to true to his own aesthetics - just as he largely did throughout his life. Indeed, Hammershøi seems to have let the waves of art movements past and present wash over him, from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism and early Abstraction.
There is not a vast amount of information available concerning his person and beliefs –both as artist and individual – as he left no journal, no critical article or public expression. Yet there is surely enough for us to get an idea, at least, of his aesthetics and artistic approach. Somehow, however, this simply does not suffice and the incertitude drives us on, to dig further with relentless determination to arrive at some final encapsulation of all that is Hammershøi ; the man and his art. However, the only concrete reality that we possess is literally the paintings before us. How much more do we actually need to know to appreciate these fully? Why is it even deemed significant in our enjoyment ?
Firstly Hammershøi’s art, whatever the subject or setting, is noted for its marked lack of action. Whether, indoors or out, there are few figures, or virtually none, in his works. Those who are actually present do not engage with us, the viewer, or even with each other and we have little idea as to what is going on, or not, as the case may be. The artist himself considered his painting Five Portraits (1901) to be his masterpiece and while it is a fine work, you wonder what made it stand out in Hammershøi’s eyes and what, quite simply, it stands for.
Although friends and family are assembled together, there is no interaction between them, we are not interrupting anything as viewer/voyeur. While one individual stares out at us, the expression conveys little and we draw a blank in terms of understanding the narrative. But maybe that was precisely the aim – a desire for proximity and ‘plot’ is denied so that we have to reset our focus. Who knows ? The title seems quite appropriate since it is indeed a collection of likenesses of those close to Hammershøi, as he saw them, rather than a depiction of some social event, in which we may sit in – invited or otherwise. The same can be said about Three Young Women (1895).
When there is finally some form of action, focused on just one protagonist, the actor becomes like a stage prop for some invisible play. As they carry out some passive activity or other, with their back turned to us, we do not even know what they are engaged in - and when they look out at us, expressionless, they do not engage with us either. Accustomed as we are to reading into images, the notion that any such interpretation will lead us nowhere is incomprehensible. What was he trying to convey through this very lack of storyline - this apparent void? Did he seek to (re)create a meditative or even spirtual experience, questioning the origins of the world and Man’s destiny, as has been suggested ?
Much has been made of his retiring manner and reluctance to talk, but does that make of him an alienated – and alientating – being ? Were his works really a psychologically- fraught rejection of the outside world ? Or the melancholic expression of his search for solitude and silence ? Difficult to say. Not only did he seek to represent the banality of everyday life, its decors, actors and activities, he sought to render the atmospheric play of light on spatial construction to create an abstract mood. He himself remarked that « I have always thought there was such beauty about a room even though there weren’t any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren’t any. »
His wife, Ida, does appear in many of his interiors and had indeed been his model before becoming Mrs H, but she is often seen with her back turned to us, or features in a domestic setting that will later be replicated – without her. The studies of the female body that he realised have no sensual beauty ; they are simply anatomical observation, without emotion or narrative. So how far is all this an expression of his world view and to what degree is it simply a purified focus on what Hammershøi called « the architectural content of an image », rather in the manner of Mondrian ? It should come as no surprise that Whistler’s work – Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871) – influenced Hammershøi’s 1886 painting of his own mother. Both artists seemed to share a similar vision in their respective portraits and it is perhaps telling that Hammershøi had once attempted to meet Whistler in person.
Why can’t the pared-down essence that he sought to convey in his art be purely aesthetic and/or atmospheric, as opposed to existential ? Is the monochromatic and mysterious systematically synonymous with the melancholic or even morbid? He avoided using bright colours but perhaps that was simply since these did not convey what he wanted to capture. Not for him, it would seem, the vibrant tones that even Vermeer employed. But perhaps these would have disrupted his vision of harmony, rather than emphasizing it. Apparently the Danish film Babette’s Feast (1987) was partly inspired by the mood of Hammershøi’s work. The sets indeed look like animated (and inhabited) scenes from his paintings, with similar understated colour brought alive by candlelight, weak sunlight… and food ! The tranquil beauty of the colour range does not appear in any way ugly in the film, once our eyes grow accustomed to see the range of tones within, to the point that when the General, dressed in full regalia, toasts the guests, the bright colours of his uniform almost shock us.
Hammershøi remarked that « Personally I am fond of the old; of old houses, of old furniture, of that quite special mood that these things possess », so should we equate that with decrepitude and death ? His work Sunbeams or Sunshine (1900) studies dust motes suspended in shafts of light – all lines and luminosity - and a similar atmosphere is observed in Sunshine in the Drawing Room III (1903), or again in the shrouded light along the rails of the British Museum in Montague Street in London (1906). His streets are devoid of people or ‘human interest’, but perhaps that is to avoid distraction through narrative, just as familiar buildings are portrayed from unfamiliar angles which deny us any identification with or projection into the scene. Likewise, his succession of rooms, buildings and courtyards, all but emptied of the clutter of furniture and objects, are hinted at through half-opened doors or windows, but the view is never clear and so our gaze and curiosity is left suspended, like the dust motes themselves, in a linear play of light. One journalist remarked in 1911 that visiting the artist at home was like entering one of his paintings. He lived and worked in the same part of Copenhagen for most of his life. His first appartment in Strandgade closely resembled the second in the same district and both were depicted in many of his paintings, as setting and subject matter.
Hammershøi had a certain succès de scandale during his early career – his Portrait of a Young Woman (1885) was rejected by the Academy due to its unconvention approach, and other works met with similar academic disapproval. This led to his displaying his paintings at the recently established Den frie Udstilling (The Free Exhibition), which was based on the Parisian Salon des Refusés. His work gained considerable public acclaim during his life, especially attracting literary and artistic figures. Since his ‘rediscovery’ over the last few decades, this appreciation has grown considerably and has predictably been reflected in the art sale price. Interior, Strandgade 30 was sold for €5.5 million in 2019, thus becoming the most expensive painting in Danish history.
Despite the dramatic drop in temperature, the plants on my balcony are braving the thermic shock, with the beautiful passionflowers dutifully opening out for the last sunshine before autumn truly sets in.
The Love-in-a-mist has been buffeted in the winds, but the delicate flowers have remained intact, surrounded by their mysterious fennel-like foliage and those intriguing, oriental-looking seed capsules that make its other names - Nigella Damascena and Devil-in-a-bush seem far more appropriate. These were grown from seed some months ago. The magic of watching plants develop never fails to fascinate, especially since these are all destined to be dried and used later for ornamental purposes, along with other flowers.
From my window, peering across the urban sprawl of the city, I can see the vineyards along the flanks of hilly landscape on the horizon, bordered by trees. I often wonder which area of countryside I am looking at, and if I can actually identity my part of town from that vantage point, helped by the scattering of cranes that rise up and over the building sites.
A few weeks ago, I went to wander amongst the vines to see the last of the vendages in the lasting summer heat and to study the sweeping views over Reims, far in the distance, and the little villages set amongst the patchwork of vineyards.
The various churches that were once central to village life are now locked to visitors (and against theft), outside the regular church service hours, but stand proud and peaceful, even when closer inspection reveals traces of the shameful, destructive episodes of the First and Second World Wars.
A gentle statue of Mary looks down from the little church set on the highest point on the landscape - with the City of Kings stretched out beyond. An image of tranquility, she watches over the gravestones that share the sacred soil with the remains of two WW2 pillbox bunkers. The once-deadly, carbuncle forms of hostility are now cloaked in green moss and feathery vegetation, yet their cruel, slit loophole 'eyes' still stare out from hard concrete, as a reminder of Man's capacity for evil.
Nevertheless, seeing this strange coupling of beauty and the bestial, I did find a sense of hope in our ability to adapt and survive even the most devastating passages of history. This seemed quite relevant today as we are literally being cornered in by the virus and the restraints set in place to limit its effects. I am currently sharing classroom space and school facilities with students who are testing C-positive as I write this.
Now, weeks on from my forays in the fields and vines, the weather has changed from sunbeams and rays to torrential rains and high winds and the view onto the horizon is blurred to grey. But just look at those autumn colours on the ornamental vines that grow in front of my workplace. Radiant!