Magazine article The Spectator

Master of Interior Space

Magazine article The Spectator

Master of Interior Space

Article excerpt

Vilhelm Hammershoi: the Poetry of SilenceRoyal Academy, until 7 September Supported by OAK Foundation Denmark and Novo Nordisk 2008 Season supporters Sotheby's

The poet Rilke cautioned that 'Hammershoi is not one of those about whom one must speak quickly. His work is long and slow . . . ' It is certainly muted, being composed mostly in shades of oatmeal and grey. Interiors and the fall of light were favourite subjects, together with buildings and the occasional landscape. He also had a taste for painting portraits of the back of the head, a theme developed by the surrealists (think of Magritte's portrait of Edward James) and still popular with some artists today. Hammershoi frequently used his wife as model (rather like Hopper, whose work his superficially resembles), but although he is a resolutely figurative and realistic painter, no one demonstrates the principles of abstract pictorial construction better than Hammershoi. At heart his paintings are intensely formal.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) has not had a good press in England, in fact up till now he hasn't had much of a press at all. In the past 25 years he's been rediscovered, with major shows in Paris, Hamburg and New York, but this is the first retrospective to be held in this country. Generally unknown here, he isn't even included in Erika Langmuir and Norbert Lynton's very useful Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists (2000), though painters talk about him with admiration. So it's very good now to see this show, though for me its impact is a qualified success.

Although I'm an admirer of Hammershoi's quiet poetry, a little of it goes a long way. An exhibition of more than 60 paintings by him is too large, it overexposes the subtlety of his approach and makes it seem mechanical.

I would have much preferred to see a smaller monographic show or a group exhibition of Hammershoi seen within the context of his contemporaries (such fellow-painters as Peter Ilsted, whose sister Hammershoi married, and the Skagen artists). This might have demonstrated how Hammershoi was not an isolated and peculiar phenomenon, but part of a tradition.

In his lifetime he was compared with Whistler, but his pictures have none of the American's assertiveness and little of his panache. Their quietness can easily be mistaken for gloom, but it would be wrong to overemphasise their psychological content.

In the first room, look at the first three exhibits: three low horizontal landscapes painted on near-square canvases. These long barns and farmhouses are so understated that any descriptive qualities are almost lost in the formal arrangement of shapes, yet this can be surprisingly beautiful. ('The Farm', 1883, is particularly beguiling. ) By the second room Hammershoi has located his real interest in interiors, and developed his understanding of what he wanted to do with it. Compare 'Interior' (1893) with 'Interior, Frederiksberg Alle' (1900). In the later painting everything is in its place, locked in a fastidious design of horizontals and verticals, the handling assured. By contrast, the woman's long skirt in the earlier painting comes to an intriguing pointed tail between the open door and the chairleg. This is visually distracting, sidetracking the eye from the all-over meander that Hammershoi's mature vision promotes. It's an inflection that must be eliminated.

And indeed it was. The actual paint-handling was looser in later years, but it is no less rigorously controlled. …

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