Issue Number: 99
Intrigued by Hammershøi, Michael Palin set off to follow in the footsteps of this elusive artist. Here, he tells Martin Gayford what sparked off his quest and why the artist still remains a mystery
For Michael Palin, as for many British people, the first sight of the quietly absorbing world of Vilhelm Hammershøi came in a pioneering exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1986.
Dreams of a Summer Night was a survey of Scandinavian art around 1900, and most of the works – apart from Munch’s – had never be seen in London. What stayed in Palin’s mind, he recalls, was the northern light: ‘A clear bright sunlight, with very strong shadows, and – in lots of paintings – emptiness. Hammershøi made quite an impression then, which must have been tucked away in my subconscious’.
Years later, while filming in Paris, he found a catalogue from the Hammershøi exhibition held in 1998 at the Musée d’Orsay. This set him off on a quest which became an hour-long BBC television film: Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershøi (2005).
Why, I asked him, the obsession with this reticent, enigmatic and – in Britain – little-known artist? ‘Why do you like one painting more than another?’ he says. ‘Other painters at the time were doing very similar things, but they didn’t quite catch what he had.
It’s partly the way Hammershøi goes back to these interiors, time and time again. And, especially, his great skill in making a lot out of very little light. It was the light, above all, that really attracted me to Hammershøi.’
The television odyssey took Palin to Hammershøi’s native Copenhagen. ‘I think in some ways the key to Hammershøi lies in Denmark and how the Danes are. They eschewed extravagance and celebrated practicality, usefulness and the Lutheran work ethic.’
One could also connect Hammershøi’s numerous interiors with another Danish speciality: spare, elegant design that is both minimalist and a little puritanical. As Palin points out, ‘In Hammershøi’s paintings there aren’t many people – except his wife Ida – but the objects in the rooms are most exquisitely painted: table surfaces, paintings on the walls, the tureen that keeps appearing.
There’s just one object on the table, and it’s celebrated for the craftsmanship involved. The way the light catches the cup in Portrait of Ida Hammershøi, from 1907 seems to make it as important as the sitter.’
Hammershøi was part of a social circle that was a northern European equivalent to Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement.
‘We discovered that his brother Sven was a designer of glass, ceramics and that kind of thing. So Hammershøi must have mixed with very creative people; he just chose to do something quite spare.’ Ida appears time and time again in Hammershøi’s work, very often seen from behind – a fact that intrigues Palin. ‘I’m fascinated by people who are defiantly painted from behind. Why have artists done that? Do they want us not to see them? What are they doing? When Hammershøi paints Ida from behind – as in Interior with Young Woman seen from the Back, from 1903-04 for example – there’s that wonderful light on the neck.
There’s nothing else that brings her to life, because she’s dressed all in black, apart from that neck.’ Is there indeed a secret here?
On his travels, Palin found a letter which revealed Ida’s mother had mental health problems, which might have been inherited. ‘In some of the paintings in which she is facing us, such as that portrait from 1907, she looks a little bit like a troubled soul – the hair slightly disordered. Maybe it was just the way she was. Was Hammershøi dealing with that, accepting the fact that Ida didn’t like to go out much? Creating these very orderly paintings might give stability to a broken and uncomfortable emotional situation. That may be totally ridiculous, I just don’t know.’
In any case, might Hammershøi’s paintings be seen as gloomy and depressive? Palin isn’t so sure. ‘The way he captured light in those rooms is not necessarily a depressing statement; it’s just a way of saying, “This is what the light is like in Copenhagen”. He paints empty rooms, such as Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams from 1900, so meticulously that they become celebrations of the light. At the same time, you always feel with northern painters that it’s just a brief moment when the sun shines. Then the cold and darkness and gloom return. Hammershøi was drawn to foggy London, at the time of gaslight, when the murk and the fog crept inside. But maybe that’s a more accurate view of what London was like than many others – dark and grey.’
This Nordic gloom might seem a long way from Monty Python. Isn’t Hammershøi a strange artistic obsession for a man known as one of the funniest people alive? ‘I think that it’s a wrong assumption that if you are interested in comedy you aren’t interested in the other side of life,’ says Palin. ‘The two go together – good comedy comes from whatever reaction to the absurdities of existence. But it would require only a small adjustment to become quite serious and depressed about them. It’s on the edge.’