Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark, Scandinavia House, New York, October 17, 2015 – March 26, 2016
Widely recognized in Europe during his lifetime and engulfed by obscurity for decades thereafter, today the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) is primarily considered to be a “painter of tranquil rooms.” “Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor,” one of twenty-four paintings displayed in an intimate recent exhibit at New York’s Scandinavia House, is an archetypal Hammershøi work. A solitary woman hunches over a table with her back to the viewer, her identity and activity unclear. Daylight pours through a large central window, leaving a slanted, luminous grid ghosted on the floor. While the subject matter is characteristic of the period—paintings of bourgeois women and interiors were both immensely popular in 19th century Denmark—the approach is defiantly atypical. Unlike his contemporaries, who imbued their works with intriguing narratives, here Hammershøi actively defies interpretation and thwarts the onlooker’s attempts to piece together clues that might form any sort of story. The portraits on the wall above the table are out of focus, and the window seems misted over, granting us only a smeared suggestion of the city outside. A paneled door to the right, our best remaining lead, remains shut, preventing any further snooping and solidifying the mounting sensation of stasis.
Hammershøi’s avoidance of narrative often frustrated audiences in his time (his public debut, the disarming masterpiece “Portrait of a Young Girl,” was swiftly rejected by The Danish Royal Academy’s prize committee), and his pairing of this enigmatic approach with an often chilly color palette may help us understand why his work fell out of favor in the decades following his death. But this same cryptic style, which made him “the oddest, most peculiar, and private painter among his Danish contemporaries,” in the words of his friend, the art historian Karl Madsen, also seems to be the source of Hammershøi’s recent resurgence. Like countless other fin-de-siècle artists, Hammershøi modified realist tradition in order to reflect the shifting atmosphere of the emerging modern era. But rather than adopting the flurried brushstrokes of the Impressionists or the evocative yet claustrophobic riot employed by fellow Scandinavian Edvard Munch, he favored a gently blurred verisimilitude more akin to Johannes Vermeer. In some sense, Hammershøi appears as a modernist Vermeer, as though he had taken the Dutch painter’s interiors and stripped them of their oriental rugs and other sumptuous trappings, bled out most of the color, and pared down the hints of narrative to almost nothing. What the two artists share is a mood of tranquility that feels almost outside of time, and a strong sense of the interior lives of their subjects, though Hammershøi seems to enjoy obscuring these too. Thus, his particular brand of modernism glances toward the past while also reaching for fresh, if starker, ground.
The work by Vermeer that perhaps most strongly foreshadows Hammershøi is “Woman with a Pearl Necklace.” In it, a young, upper-class woman in a yellow fur-trimmed coat looks in profile towards a nearby window, or maybe an adjacent mirror—her pensive stare as she grasps a ribbon attached to her pearl necklace suggests the latter. A huge swath of the painting is devoted to the subdued tones of the white, partially illuminated wall behind her. Additionally, a prominent shadow engulfs the side table and most of the woman’s assorted belongings, reinforcing our desire to know who she is and what she is thinking. In Hammershøi’s “Evening in the Drawing Room,” also featured in the Scandinavia House exhibit, the color palette is even more somber and the sense of inwardness is increased. The painting depicts two figures but reads as a study of individual insularity. Two women sit next to each other in haloed darkness, the younger one knitting, the older one engrossed in a book. Despite their proximity, both women seem completely lost in thought, locked in separate universes. Lawrence Weschler has referred to Vermeer as a “poet of absorption,” noting that his “women are in themselves; we are in them.” Hammershøi, on the other hand, heightens this concept by emphasizing the individual absorption of the women he depicts, while forcing us to doubt our nearness to them.
It is no surprise that critics have most readily latched onto the isolation in Hammershøi’s work. His pursuit of loneliness feels remarkably pertinent today, prescient even. But these paintings also seem to be begging us to look further, to more actively engage with their psychological mysteries. While “Evening” has a certain uneasy austerity, the painting takes on a slightly different tone when we realize that its subjects are Hammershøi’s mother and his wife Ida. (In fact, over a quarter of the paintings in the exhibit feature Ida in some way.) With this in mind, the painting seems to be cloaked in drowsy tranquility as much as shadowy gloom. Amidst the encroaching darkness of nightfall we are all bound to recede into ourselves. Sometimes this seclusion is serene and sometimes it is terrifying. Hammershøi is clever enough to let us puzzle over what exactly we are seeing before us.
Without the reassurance of narrative cohesion, the viewer is forced to ask probing questions rather than passively receiving answers, opening avenues for contemplation instead of closing them off. This intensive reflection mimics the spatial and psychological inwardness of the art itself, as we ourselves become absorbed in contemplation. In “Interior,” light and air take on a visceral physicality, and the compositional quality of the room detaches it from its usual function as a place subordinated to the habits of people. Even more importantly, the interplay between figure, light, and space operates as a material counterpart to the mental interiority the artist’s subjects seem to inhabit. Hammershøi did a number of paintings entitled “Interior,” and in many of them a solitary female figure stands or sits with her back to the viewer, a posture that suggests that the interior of the room is a metaphor for the interior of the woman. And as we look on, trying to navigate the insular terrain Hammershøi has laid before us, we too assume the inward nature of his subjects. Thus the title “Interior” works on several levels at once, referring to the room, the figures, the viewer, and, of course, the painter himself. Several of these interiors feature no figures at all, focusing solely on the suggestive yet mystifying rearrangements Hammershøi made to whatever apartment he and Ida were occupying at the time. These works often evoke the frosty darkness of Copenhagen’s lengthy winters; amidst this insulating context Hammershøi found a way to render existence as a still life.
The show at Scandinavia House also includes examples of a less commonly noted genre within Hammershøi’s oeuvre: his cityscapes. While his interiors and portraits reveal their oddities after a few moments of observation, these urban scenes make their incongruity known almost immediately. In 1907, Hammershøi painted Christiansborg Palace, a sprawling castle on an islet in central Copenhagen that was home to the Danish royalty as well as the seat of Parliament and the Supreme Court after a constitutional monarchy was instated in 1849. The political uncertainty in the decades after this transition led many Danish painters to instill their works with nationalist themes, and to champion the imperial past.
Given this context, “A Wing of the Christiansborg Palace”—also on display in New York—is framed in a manner that could be considered downright mutinous. As the title indicates, our view of the castle isn’t conventional or whole. Instead of gazing head-on at its grand bulk, we are only permitted observation of a curving two-story wing, its roof draped in snow. Perhaps this is merely the guest quarters or perhaps it is something more, but regardless, the choice Hammershøi has made in this small painting gives us a better impression of the artist himself than of the palace he depicts. We can almost picture him, a goateed, formerly waifish man thickened with age (if self-portraits are to be trusted), clambering about the edge of the castle, looking for the ideal angle from which to convey his solitary aesthetic. Just as he favored back-turned, mysterious figures in his interiors, here Hammershøi has shirked the palace’s majestic entryway for its stouter backside. The signature austere color palette carries over as well; a pale, filtered light seeps through a thick bed of darkening clouds. To the right, beyond an embankment, we can make out what may be a sliver of grey-blue ocean, a notion reinforced by a cluster of ship masts poking out of the palace’s snowy roof. Considering Copenhagen’s status as an active port city at the time, this inclusion seems appropriate. And yet, by showing only the tops of the masts, Hammershøi imparts a feeling of intentional remove, as if the artist wasn’t willing to get any closer to the action.
Each of the four urban tableaux on display at the Scandinavia House are colored by this distance and reserve, and three of them favor an angled cropping that diminishes the importance of the monumental structures they depict. The fourth, “The Buildings of the Asiatic Company, Seen from St. Annæ Street, Copenhagen” is a rare straight-on portrait of a façade, but the foregrounded street, a central thoroughfare that would have typically been swollen with pedestrians, remains completely empty. The entire background is engulfed in mottled fog, which, in conjunction with the painting’s considerable dimensions (63”x 60”) gives it a sense of eerie incompletion. In our disquietude we are left to scan desperately for signs of life, finding only those same distant ship’s masts and the suggestion of a form in a window. As in his interiors, Hammershøi captures both a sense of tranquility and a feeling of unease.
“The Buildings of the Asiatic Company, Seen from St. Annæ Street, Copenhagen,” 1902
But while Hammershøi’s interior scenes ensnare viewers in their claustrophobic vision of isolation, his cityscapes present loneliness as a more navigable territory. Because of their active erasure of pedestrians, these paintings allow onlookers to vicariously follow the peculiar path Hammershøi has set. And while his perspective certainly elicits discomfort, it also presents a fascinating vision of city life. Hammershøi’s depopulated, static cities suggest that he saw solitude as egalitarian, an intrinsic aspect of human existence, even as he pushed it to the point of anonymity. If his barely peopled interiors are considerations of our meager opportunities to make contact with one another, then these street scenes truly illustrate how difficult that process can be. But one senses that Hammershøi was also attracted by that sense of urban emptiness. In his thirties, he journeyed to London three times, drawn to the chthonic fog and soot that so many were repulsed by. On one of these visits, he dropped by the home of James Abbot McNeill Whistler, the American painter whose melancholic tones and vaporous textures had greatly inspired his work (earning them subsequent comparison over the years). Upon being told that the master was not in, Hammershøi promptly left, and was too shy to ever return—thus, in a sense, erasing himself from the scene.
Instead, he took to the streets, shrouding his reticence in the city’s heaving crowds and murky shadows. The cityscapes at the Scandinavia House replicate the constantly shifting emotions of the lone urban stroller, with Hammershøi’s isolation acting as a mirror to our own, reflecting the fleeting wonder or crippling alienation we may feel in such moments ourselves. As a whole, the exhibit presents an artist who saw seclusion as our natural human state, a man who could turn gnawing loneliness into a form of discovery. While admiring these paintings in a hushed, near empty gallery, we too can almost disappear, achieving the self-forgetfulness that seems to be their goal.