RA Magazine Summer 2008
Issue Number: 99
Ian McKeever RA has long found inspiration in the Nordic wilderness, seeking to grasp the spirit, rather than the image, of places and sharing with Hammershøi an artistic sensibility in which light and colour evoke a profound stillness. Here he discusses the elements that connect their work
"Some works of art get right under the skin. I first came across the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi while visiting Scandinavia in the early 1980s and, over the ensuing years, his work, as if by stealth, has crept inside me. It is that kind of painting, neither overly demonstrative nor assertive, yet in its own quiet way slowly insistent on commanding attention. Perhaps it was this quality which first drew me to the paintings, the simple intimation to stand still, focus and be attentive. It takes a certain stillness, actually in the painting itself, to engender such a response from the viewer, yet it is this quality, a longing for stillness, one senses strongly in Hammershøi’s paintings. It is as if they take the heat out of the intensity of the moment of our lives and ask us to enter another feeling of time which goes beyond our own immediacy.
Painters either paint towards the light or towards the night. Hammershøi seems to paint towards the night. There will be less light, for the light can but fade. Yet unlike the enveloping dusk in the late bedroom interiors of Walter Sickert, where the intimacy of night will ensue, with Hammershøi the fading light is held, idealised and transformed into a state of being. For he must at all costs suppress the closing of the day, the light must be made to linger on and he must see anew what has already been seen before, see it again and then yet again. As a painter, one gets this same sensation looking at a painting on the studio wall as dusk approaches and the light fades. First, colour is bled out of the painting, then forms become reduced to silhouettes and with each passing phase one wishes to hold the moment longer in order to see what one could not even imagine in the painting before.
For we see the painting anew each time we look. For example, in Interior with Young Woman seen from the Back of 1903-04, a painting I am particularly drawn to, a young woman stands with her back to us, holding a large plate in her left hand, the top edge balanced against the curve of her hip, her head tilted slightly down and towards the right as if to indicate that she has just turned away.
Distracted, her attention has left us and that absence now becomes more weighted than what was present before. Hammershøi often invited his subject to turn away from us and we, the viewers looking into the painting, are left isolated with no gaze to return our own, pondering our response to this moment of intimacy.
The phrase ‘stilled-life’ seems appropriate in speaking about this painting, as indeed it does for many of Hammershøi’s paintings. They have the same stillness and detachment one finds in the works of Vermeer. Both artists treated the human form as a still-life, composing the figure within a wider interior space of hard lines and angles. This imbues the figure with a fragility and a strange sensuousness that invites an intimacy with the subject about whom we are told little and know even less. It is as if, in looking, we recognise that we should not be there.
However, since we are there, we look in silence, waiting – perhaps now not even thinking – looking and waiting, not knowing when to leave."
Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence
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