Sunday, 20 September 2009
Hammershoi is in a certain sense the Danish Vermeer, an artist whom he occasionally paraphrased. That is to say, a quietist painter obsessed by subtle effects of light, forgotten very soon after his death, but rediscovered and turned into a demi-god by a later generation.
The exhibition devoted to his work at the Royal Academy in London shows that his reputation is again becoming international. In his own lifetime he exhibited quite often outside his own country, and traveled frequently abroad. The inclination, now, is to see him as part of the International Symbolist Movement that preceded the birth of Modernism. Few artists, however, could be more unlike the painters we now think of as typical Symbolists – for example, Gustave Moreau. The insistent emphasis on sexual themes to be found in the work of many leading Symbolist artists is absent from his work.
Hammershoi’s sources were in fact quite various. He studied the work of other Dutch genre painters of the 17th century, including artists, such as Elinga, who are now better known to collectors and specialist art historians than they are to the general public. He was interested in the painters of the so-called Danish Golden Age of the early 19th century, and had one or two fine examples in his personal collection. And he was fascinated by the work of Whistler. Another painting that he paraphrased was Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother. Quite apart from this, it is clear that Whistler’s close-toned, low-key color schemes were a major influence on all of his work.
Though he achieved a considerable international success, and his fan-club was distinguished, including both Diaghilev, who longed to own one of his paintings, and Renoir, it is clear that many of Hammershoi’s contemporaries found both his work and his personality rather baffling. The great poet Rainer-Maria Rilke, secretary to Rodin and an admirer and supporter of the young Picasso traveled to Copenhagen to meet him, but found the encounter slightly frustrating: “I met Hammershoi yesterday for the first time… I am certain the more one gets to know him the better one will understand him and learn to appreciate his natural simplicity. I am going to meet him again, but there will be no conversation as he only speaks Danish and understands very little German. The impression I had is that he only paints and either can’t, or doesn’t want to do anything else.” Later, Rilke concluded: “Hammershoi is not one of those one need talk about in a rush. His work is long and slow and at whatever moment one turns to it, it will always offer ample reason to talk about the most crucial and fundamental things in art.”
With these general descriptions in mind, what does Hammershoi’s work actually consist of? His best known paintings are his interiors, the vast majority painted in the apartment he occupied for just over ten years in the centre of Copenhagen. It was part of a 17th century house, with large, gaunt paneled rooms, all painted white. It was sparsely furnished, but, as a few contemporary photographs of the apartment show, not quite as empty as it seems in Hammershoi’s paintings. These interiors are often completely unoccupied, but sometimes there is a single female figure, usually with her back turned to the spectator. The model for these figures was usually his wife. They alone occupied the household – the couple had no children.
The spaces in Hammershoi’s paintings are skillfully manipulated, and often much less logical than they seem to be at first glance. A good example in the exhibition is an empty interior called White Doors or Open Doors, where the doors in question, swinging wide, nevertheless block off spaces as much as they reveal them. They suggest that the apartment is a kind of labyrinth, impossible to escape from and impossible to know fully.
In fact,, one of the major themes of Hammershoi’s work is unknowability. The unknowability of life and the unknowability of other people, even those one is closest to, such as a spouse. This is in a way confirmed by some the paintings of the exteriors of buildings. These are always depopulated. In one case at least we know that Hammershoi used as his reference a photograph that showed a street thronged with figures, all of which he removed. These exteriors seem to show a world depopulated by a mysterious plague.
There are of course painters – other than those already named – who have things in common with Hammershoi. He reminds we of Morandi, for instance, in his subtle manipulation of space and in his fierce concentration on a very limited range of subject-matter. Also of Edward Hopper, who made one or two effective paintings of empty rooms. None of these, however, says ‘no’ to life in quite such a memorable way. Memorable because the force of the paintings, their sheer integrity as works of art, make them paradoxically positive – reluctant endorsements of human possibility,.
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