RA Magazine Summer 2008
Issue Number: 99
Vilhelm Hammershøi’s apparently backwardlooking paintings of enigmatic interiors were, in fact, modernist in spirit, argues Martin Gayford
Vilhelm Hammershøi always was a puzzle. Around the turn of the century, when the artist was still a young man, the critic Karl Madsen observed: ‘Behind Hammershøi’s colours we sense an infinitely cautious person, a quiet, sad dreamer, the weirdest soul ever to grace Danish painting.’
Strange he might have been, but there was nothing unusual about the life of Hammershøi (1864-1916) at all. He was born into a comfortable Copenhagen family, the son of a merchant. From an early age, he showed great talent as an artist. He attended art school, where he was regarded as a prodigy. In due course, he married Ida Ilsted, sister of a fellow painter, and lived without drama until his untimely death from cancer.
Hammershøi travelled extensively and largely uneventfully to London, Paris, the Netherlands and Italy. The most dramatic event in his apparently placid existence came on a visit to Italy in 1907, when he and Ida were mistakenly arrested for forgery. Perhaps these two mild and undemonstrative Danes struck the Italian authorities as suspicious.
It was Hammershøi’s work, not his life, that seemed so peculiar, even to his intimate circle. Madsen was not an outsider but a close friend; he is one of the sitters in a group portrait of five of the artist’s friends. Even so, he doesn’t seem to have understood Hammershøi, whom he described as ‘the oddest, most peculiar and private painter’ among his contemporaries in Denmark.
It’s easy to see what he meant. There’s an enigmatic, almost haunted quality about a typical Hammershøi picture such as Interior: With Piano and Woman in Black. Strandgade 30 of 1901. The image seems deliberately to thwart the viewer’s curiosity. The only figure in view is turned away from us. One cannot tell what she is doing, although at a guess she is reading a letter. The space around her is meticulously ordered, so much so that – like interiors by other painters such as Edward Hopper – it acquires a strange feeling, as if slightly disassociated from reality. You feel you’ve been put in an unusual state of mind, paying more attention than you normally would to stillness, silence, the fall of light on a wall, a woman’s back.
This mildly mysterious feeling is intensified in Hammershøi’s paintings of uninhabited spaces, such as the echoing rococo Interior of the Great Hall in Lindegaaden of 1909 or the near mystical rays of sunlight pouring through the window of an empty room, a subject later treated by Hopper. This tendency of Hammershøi to focus on nothingness – either with spectral effect or quiet elation – struck the writer of the catalogue to an exhibition of Danish pictures held in London in 1907 as especially rum.
‘Who would have ever thought of putting forward an empty room as the subject for a picture? Yet the sensitive gradations of light and their value in empty places have aroused in him a curious kind of perception.’ Hammershøi’s landscapes, such as Tirsdagsskoven (Tuesday’s Wood) from 1893 are also uninhabited and possess a similarly eerie mood. Sometimes there is a euphoric fall of light on an undramatic stretch of Danish countryside. These have a specifically Baltic mood reminiscent of early nineteenth-century painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and the Danish painter Christen Købke. Hammershøi’s cityscapes, such as View of the Old Asiatic Company of 1902, depict a crepuscular gloom. The streets are deserted, giving them an air of spectral stage sets.
There is a further mystery about Hammershøi, an art historical one. Was he a backward-looking painter or a radical – or perhaps an amalgam of both? Initially, one might think he was a reactionary. Many of the ingredients in Interior: With Piano and Woman in Black. Strandgade 30 obviously come from Vermeer: the figure standing by the window, reading, the composition of interlocking rectangles.
Looking at this, and bearing in mind that he was a near contemporary of Kandinsky (b. 1866) and Matisse (b. 1869) it would be reasonable to conclude that Hammershøi was a reactionary imitator of old masters. That was not, however, how it seemed at the time. As a young artist, his work was often rejected by official exhibitions, in the way that happened to Impressionist works in Paris. These rebuffs were one of the motives for the foundation of the breakaway Free Exhibition in Copenhagen – an equivalent to the Parisian Salon des Independents.
The reason his work wasn’t acceptable – apart from that unconventional oddity of atmosphere – was precisely the misty, muted look of his paintings. An early review, from 1885, picked on this point. The critic complained that the young painter’s ‘washed out colour leaves us with the impression that the entire scene has been shrouded in this foggy veil intentionally… such a calculation towards the “modern” is not a fortunate trait in a debutante.’
Why did fog look modern in 1885? Well, it was Whistlerian – and at that date Whistler was still a controversial figure. Hammershøi revered Whistler, whom he tried – uncharacteristically in vain – to visit in London in 1898 (Whistler was in Paris at the time). Many a Hammershøi could have been entitled, in Whistler style, Harmony in Grey and Black. But there is another point here: Hammershøi’s treatment of colour was a strategy of reduction – reducing its range to increase its intensity and controllability. And reduction, in all sorts of ways, is a distinctively modernist strategy – pithily encapsulated by the architect Mies van der Rohe’s slogan ‘less is more’.
The Danish art historian Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark has noted this aspect of Hammershøi. She points out that he had, ‘a distinctively modern sensibility, which may be seen in his monochromatic surfaces, the tendency toward abstraction and the sometimes unreal light’. And, if you look at his work a second time, you can see how that is true. His Vermeerish interiors are built on a geometric grid which could provide the scaffolding for a Piet Mondrian.
His limited palette is foggy in a manner that suggests the Edwardian cityscapes described by Joseph Conrad and GK Chesterton. But it is also characteristic of modernism – consider Cubism, or the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi. The numerous variations on the same elements – Ida and the rooms in their apartments, especially the one at Strandgade 30 that they inhabited from 1898 to 1909 – also begin to look like a recognisable artistic strategy.
Compare Morandi (b. 1890) and his endless rearrangements of familiar bottles and vases. Hammershøi came close to fulfilling Matisse’s suggestion that a painter should cut out his tongue, and those remarks about his work that do survive are – like his pictures – muted, hedged about by a fog of diffident qualifications. However, his comments are surprising and revealing. ‘What makes me choose a motif,’ he remarked in a rare interview in 1907, ‘is as much the lines in it, what I would call the architectural stance of the picture. And then the light, of course. It is naturally also very important, but the lines are almost what I am most taken by. Colour is of secondary importance, I suppose; I am not indifferent to how it looks in colour. I work very hard to make it harmonious. But when I choose a motif I mainly look at lines.’
So, according to this typically muffled utterance, Hammershøi’s priority is the ‘architectural stance’, the formal grid of the picture. What he was seeking in those interiors, it seems, was first and foremost not atmosphere or ‘mystery’ but geometry.
He also seems to have been doing something more than simply painting what he saw in front of him. Rather, he was first creating a controlled environment, then using it as a basis for pictures. Comparison of Hammershøi’s interiors led Patricia Berman – in her book on nineteenth-century Danish painting – to stress ‘the extent to which the artist selectively orchestrated the setting, moving furniture, emphasising or masking the corner stove, and even transforming the colour of the walls’.
The various Hammershøi apartments, particularly the one at Strandgade 30, were examples of the maison d’artiste – or artist’s house: the dwelling as work of art and manifesto. This was evidently what the Hammershøis were about at Strandgade 30 and their other dwellings. The flats looked like Hammershøi interiors, says Berman, ‘painted in a uniform pale grey and cream to highlight the baroque and neoclassical detailing’, with a few choice objects added.
Hammershøi spoke about his attitude to interior design in an interview with a magazine Hjemmet in 1909: ‘If only people would open their eyes to the fact that a few good things in a room give it a far more beautiful and finer quality than many mediocre things… that every genuine object, even if it is of cheap materials, is better and handsomer than imitation expensive objects.’ In other words, again, less is more.
Careful selection is evident in the interiors where a few choice items – the Biedermeier sofa, the blue and white porcelain tureen – are featured again and again. His taste for misty cities – his views of Copenhagen show the same preference – was scarcely idiosyncratic. It was shared with Whistler, Monet and many contemporaries.
In this, Hammershøi wasn’t odd at all. But he was distinctively a northerner, and one, on visual evidence, who liked the north. A good deal of early modern art was created by artists from the cold, grey high latitudes of Europe who craved the light and heat of the south: Matisse, Van Gogh, Derain. Hammershøi was the opposite.
Mediterranean light had no impact even on his Italian subjects, such as Interior of the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome of 1902. On visits to London, often in the winter months, Hammershøi sought out the mist and fog for which the city was renowned.
‘In London,’ his patron, the dentist Alfred Bramsen, recalled, ‘he even went down the river to Greenwich to find a good place from which to paint the ships on the Thames. But at that time of the year – he had a weakness for England in the dark autumn! – there was too much fog and it was too dark to paint.’
Are his pictures melancholy? They sometimes appear so – looking at the grey dingy world of The Jewish School in Guilford Street, London of 1912-13, for example. And yet Hammershøi’s only recorded remark about his feelings when at work suggests the opposite.
‘The best joy is what one experiences oneself when painting… and one is absorbed by it.’ He remains an enigma, but one who is slowly, almost a century after his death, becoming an art-historical star.
Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615