RA Magazine Summer 2008
Issue Number: 99
Setting the scene
Set designers for countless stage productions of Henrik Ibsen’s plays have looked to Hammershøi’s paintings for inspiration. Matt Wolf finds out why
It is not often that a painter offers up a direct theatrical connection, with the exception of Sunday In the Park With George – Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s celebrated musical about the Divisionist master Georges Seurat. But there’s hardly an artist more beloved in British theatrical circles than Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Danish painter who has been quietly influencing the visuals of one Ibsen theatre production after another for some time.
Now that his work is coming to the Royal Academy, it won’t just be London stage directors and designers who are in on the haunting dramatic effect created by his images; the theatre world’s best-kept secret is ready to break out.
The Ibsen-Hammershøi connection makes sense in many ways, not least because the two were near contemporaries and occupied a comparable Scandinavian landscape, even if Ibsen, the elder of the two by some three decades, was Norwegian, not Danish. One can certainly speak of a cultural zeitgeist common to both men: for a start, both had a fondness for enclosed spaces that were often populated by women. Consider Hammershøi’s 1901 Interior: With Piano and Woman in Black. Strandgade 30, in which a woman’s head is glimpsed from the back. The anonymity of the figure suggests a drama waiting to unfold – which would seem to be the decisive point at which the Britishtheatre’s fondness for Hammershøi begins.
Vicki Mortimer, an Olivier Award winning designer of sets and costumes, first discovered Hammershøi when working with the director Katie Mitchell on a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, in 1993. Ibsen’s play famously involves a mother and son locked in a claustrophobic relationship, riddled with secrets and marked out by disease, and Mortimer found in Hammershøi a way to help unlock the text visually. ‘It’s that sort of drained palette, Hammershøi’s grey-green hue, that is cast over everything,’ says Mortimer, honouring the painter’s capacity for creating a contained world. ‘There’s a sense of imminence about his art – of drama to come, or just gone.’
That quality, inevitably, is inspiring for a designer wanting to inject intensity into what the director Peter Brook has referred to as ‘the empty space’ of the theatre stage. And Mortimer has returned to Hammershøi since then, not least in her big wooden panels for a 2005 staging of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Donmar Warehouse. ‘He’s a shorthand, definitely,’ she maintains. ‘He’s quite a benchmark for my work.’
Hammershøi’s influence can also appear in concurrent productions, as the Ibsen translator and adaptor Mike Poulton found to his amusement recently. Recent productions of The Lady From the Sea, at the Birmingham Rep, and a rare staging of Rosmersholm at London’s Almeida Theatre this summer, make more than a nod to Hammershøi. ‘I’ve never known an Ibsen set designer who doesn’t come in with a briefcase full of his images,’ laughs Poulton.
Lucy Bailey, the director of The Lady From the Sea, points to the evocative and enduring power of Hammershøi’s ‘lonely figures in domestic, claustrophobic spaces,’ an observation on which Poulton expands. Hammershøi lived in a time of change, he points out, with the Lutheran church being challenged and the old verities anatomised, often cruelly, in Ibsen’s work. (Hammershøi, for his part, was busy rebelling against the Royal Danish Academy of Art.) How appropriate then, notes Poulton, to find both painter and playwright embarked upon ‘an inward-looking process where people are beginning to consider where they are – to look at the rooms they inhabit and why.’
It’s no accident either that both men’s output oscillates tantalisingly between light and dark. Both evoke a landscape which has times when the sun never shines or else won’t set: no wonder Ghosts, at its bleak, dark conclusion, finds the syphilitic Oswald asking for the sun.
The Tony Award winning designer Bob Crowley speaks of the ‘deep melancholy’ present in Hammershøi’s work, which he drew on for a National Theatre revival of Hedda Gabler, with Juliet Stevenson, in 1989. Crowley remembers responding to Hammershøi’s ‘very limited palette – all those beautiful creams and beiges and browns.’ It’s no surprise, he adds, that his Hedda was conceived in a colour he describes as ‘greige – grey and beige and brown: all very northern European.’
This latest production of Rosmersholm may offer those interested in cultural connections the most immediate gratification, not least because its heroine, Rebecca West, is, in Poulton’s view, a ‘complete loner’ – as though she walked out of a Hammershøi canvas. That is certainly the aesthetic route taken by the production’s designer, Hildegard Bechtler, who first discovered Hammershøi when designing a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Paris some twelve years ago. Bechtler admires the painter’s use of light and his ‘mixture of the architectural and the painterly’, qualities that have inspired her designs for this latest play. She speaks of Hammershøi’s stillness as a springboard for expression. Whereas Munch, she says, is too ‘hysterical’, Hammershøi works by insinuation and suggestion, just as a great play does. By this point, we are pretty well aware of who Ibsen is. Isn’t it time for Hammershøi to take a bow?
- Rosmersholm, by Henrik Ibsen, Almeida Theatre, London (020 7359 4404; www.almeida.co.uk) until 5 July
Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence
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