Monday, August 18, 2008

Hammershoi at the Royal Academy

The Hammershoi exhibition was every bit as good as I had hoped. These emotive little paintings not only evoke a time that has long gone, but they seem to come from the artist himself, to show us a little bit of what it was to be Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Technically, he was a very fine draughtsman and an excellent painter. He was clearly an individualist and free-thinker, beholden to no group or fashion. He took from other painters and movements what he thought was useful, ignored the rest. For example, he ignored the Danish Golden Age, and he eschewed impressionism, which was then at its zenith, calling it ‘silly’, and yet there are clear traces of impressionist thinking in his work, in the striking placement of the props – with furniture, even people being cropped and central images not taking a literally central place in the paintings. Such things would have been inconceivable before the impressionism movement because they would have suggested poor technique.

And in an early series of paintings of a small white house his style is so impressionistic it verges on expressionistic. There is something of Cezanne in the first of the series, The Farm, which appears at first glance to be only a series of horizontal coloured stripes but is actually the white house in its landscape, bounded by sky. This, of course, was an early work, and the true Hammershoi style was yet to emerge.

That developed quickly, however. He was a great admirer of the Dutch interiors of Vermeer, and there is certainly a feeling of calmness and stillness which can be found in Vermeer and de Hooch and the type. His work is also as striking as de Hooch for its multiple scenes and for the opening of doors and windows into other realities, leaving the viewer to wonder what is happening beyond the painting. He captures women in enigmatic moments, and it is for the viewer to decide what has happened or is about to happen. This, too, is something he shares with the Dutch masters, and it can also be found much later in Edward Hopper – this feeling that there are important moments, either having just happened or about to begin.

And this is a striking thing about Hammershoi: there are resonances of other painters in his work. Some of this is deliberate, as in Woman reading a letter, for example, which, is an inversion of Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter; and with Woman Reading in Sunlight, 1900, which could be Whistler’s Mother from a different angle. And sometimes his influence comes to bear on later artists. The most striking of these is probably Hopper, for whom emptiness is almost a physical presence. Apart from the old-fashioned furniture, Hammershoi’s Sunshine in the drawing room III, with its square of sunlight, could easily be mistaken for a Hopper.

But there is nothing safe about these paintings. It would be easy to dismiss them as small, safe. They are anything but. And they could be thought of as reactionary. Perhaps they are, but Hammershoi exposes the facile nature of the dialectic that reactionary equals unadventurous. Yes, he is a reactionary painter, but he is still exploring, questioning, making the reader think. For example, Hammershoi is constantly playing with the viewer’s perception. Things are seldom as they seem. One of the most striking paintings is [], which at first glance appears a typical Hammershoi piece. But the more you study it the more unsettling it becomes. The table is completely wrong. The piano has no back legs. None of these are mistakes because, as I’ve said, he was a fine draughtsman. They are clearly deliberate. Hammershoi is making us think. What is going on? An uneasiness presents itself.

This, it seems to me, may be a mirror of the artist himself. It is always dangerous, at this remove, to play psychologist and try to understand the mind of a man nearly one hundred years dead, but viewing his art as a life’s work it is impossible not to be struck by the way he returns, time and again, to the same material but in subtlely changing ways. From painting to painting the change is barely discernible, but compare a late work with an early one and the tone and mode is different. The colours – always muted and grey – have grown darker, more sullen. The emptiness seems more lonely. The people feel more isolated.

And there is a paradox in his work here. There is an almost photographic quality to the paintings: the precision with which he reproduces the interior scenes is remarkable, most notably in Interior, Frederiksberg Alle, 1900, which is beautifully detailed. But, nonetheless, Hammershoi makes us aware that it is NOT a photograph. He deliberately gives his work an opacity which marks it as a painting; and, of course, there are the deliberate mistakes which abound in his work. It seems to me that he was a very cerebral artist, very serious about his profession.

I do have a thing about an artist’s final works, because I feel that so often they act as a summary of his aims and a statement of how he feels he has achieved them. Hopper’s Two Comedians, for example, made me cry because I thought it was the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, a simple, direct statement that ‘my work is done, I am taking my bow and taking my leave’. When I read that Hammershoi’s final work was the only one he did in 1915 I was expecting the same sense of completeness. Yes, indeed, it is a striking work, and there is definitely a poignancy there, but it did feel slightly staged to me. The empty chair felt a touch contrived.

No, the real painting that captures his final mood is one he painted in 1911. This was breathtakingly moving, and it made me feel unutterably sad. It is another interior, like so many, with his wife standing in the background staring at the viewer. As I say, a typical Hammershoi scene, and yet this one has a different feel to it. His wife, the beautiful, hopeful young woman we saw in a portrait from 18[], is now old and tired and worn. She stares at us blankly.( Strangely, the exhibition catalogue suggests that in this painting she looks more happy than normal, and suggests this is a ‘hopeful’ picture: I can only disagree.) The scene is dark and sombre (and yet, paradoxically, more coloured than many of his works.). There is an air of finality about this painting, and also, more importantly, a feeling of pathos. I view this painting and I cannot help but feel that it is symbolic of the artist’s mood, that he felt, at the end, defeated. This may be fancy on my part, but I feel it very strongly. It is a beautiful, mournful painting.

And it sums up a quiet, thoughtful, thoroughly moving exhibition.

[I haven't been able to find online copies of most of the paintings I refer to, so I'll scan them when I get a chance and add them here later.]

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