06 February 2011

Vilhelm Hammershoi: Where The Light Comes From

I like to think that the slant of light in this photograph is more than a happy accident.   Ida and Vilhlem Hammershoi are seated at a table, light falling on them from a source beyond the picture frame.  The year was 1906 and the Danish painter and his wife were visiting the Sussex home of their British friend and patron,  concert pianist Leonard Borwick (1868-1925). 
If Borwick was the photographer, he may have made this image deliberately, as an homage to his friend the painer.  Although Hammershoi painted many domestic scenes, he did not use them to reveal the details of his domestic life and this has left a void that speculation has rushed to fill.
There are similarities to Hammershoi's style and, at the same time, echoes Hammershoi's 1898 painting of himself and Ida seated at a table. 
Hammershoi  (1864-1916) painted interior scenes throughout his career and with his marriage to Ida Ilsted in 1891  established a home that provided him with subject matter ready to hand.   Already, in 1893, we see the characteristic devices, light coming from an unseen source (often from the left) an open door, and Ida presnted in a recognizable Nordic pose.   Similarly, David Alan Brown in his book Virtue And Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci  and Renaissance Portraits of Women (Princeton University Press: 2001) explores the variations to be found in the left-turned profile in portraiture.
If Hammershoi does not lay his life bare in his paintings, he  gives us what art critics call a 'projection surface', for us to fill by imagination.  What he said about these images in an interview in 1907 was this:
"What  makes me choose a motif are...the lines, what I like to call the architectural content of the image.  And then there's the light, of course.  Obviously, that's very important, but I think it's the lines that have the greatest significance for me.  Color is naturally not without importance.   I'm really not indifferent to how the motif's colors look.  I work hard to make it look harmonious.  But when I choose a motif, I'm thinking first and foremost of the lines."

During their marriage, the Hammershois lived in a series of apartments in the Christianhavn section of Copenhagen, built in the 17th century on the eastern side of the city.  Built to King Christian's urban plan, the building were made from stone, to better keep out the cold, and with long windows to let in the maximum amount of sunlight.   From 1898 to 1908 the Hammershois lived at Strandgade 30, they moved to Bredgade 25 in 1910, and in 1913 to the Asiatic Company Building at Strandgade 25. 
It can be difficult to orient ourselves in these rooms, at least partly because the source of light most often comes from the left, even though the couple lived on both the northwest and southeast sides of Strandgade.  There are reasons to think that Hammershoi admired the work of the Dutch master Vermeer and  not only in the common slant of light they preferred .  As with Vermeer's  woman reading a letter (below), Hammershoi's image of Ida reading a book reveals less than we want to know, leading us to interrogate the placement of each object  for clues.

For Hammershoi, the suggestion of a window is often enough; its importance as a source of light is what matters, just as a door may be open or closed.   In  A Dictionary of Symbols (1962) , J. E. Cirlot  wrote that it is the relationship between the circumference and the center of a room that matters, "even though in each case the two component elements are the farthest apart, they are nonetheless, in a way, the closest since the one determines and reflects the other."  Often we look across an empty foreground at layers of a scene, invisible to the ordinary eye, but made explicit by the artist.

In the face of such subtlety, critics have been tempted to imagine matrimonial dramas  but the dramatic impetus may come from the artist himself.  Both Vilhelm and Ida were considered sensitive characters by their friends.  One critic even described Hammershoi as the first neurasthenic artist.
An early enthusiast, Hermann Bahr wrote in 1894: "One must...have receptive and sensitive nerves that immediately respond to the slightest hint, otherwise this art will be without effect.  And then there is something rarer and more difficult one must be accustomed to self-analysis... in order to transmit each nervous impulse to the mind."

For me, a Hammerhoi interior makes visible the tenuous balance between possibility and distance in human life, highly finished images that portray the hauntingly unfinished nature of human emotions.   On a practical level Copenhagen, situated on the same latitude as Moscow, has very short days in winter (8:30 A.M.-3:30 P.M.) and very long ones in summer (3:30 A.M.-10 P.M.).  Regardless of length and, even on sunny days, the city has been described as wearing a "grey overcoat."   Mysterious, transparent, and mobile, light is like a Zen koan.
1. unknown photographer - Ida & Vilhelm Hammerhoi at Borwick's-Sussex, 1906, Royal Academy of Art, London.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Artist and His Wife, 1898, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, Denmark.
3. Vilhelm Hammesrhoi - Interior, Ny Bakkehus, Fredericksberg, 1893, Gotsborg Konsthall, Gothenborg, Sweden.
4. Vilhlem Hammershoi - The Music Room at Strandgade 30, 1907.
5. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Sunshine in The Drawing Room, 1903, National Museum, Stockholm.
6. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Ida Reading. Strandgade 30, 1909, Sonderjylland Museum, Kunstmuseet Brundlandslot, Aabenraa.
7. Johannes Vermeer - Woman  Reading A Letter, c.1657-1664, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
8. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida Playing the Paino, 1910, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
9. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior. Bredgade 25, 1911, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, Denmakr.
10. Vilhelm hammershoi - Interior with Plant. Bredgade 25, 1911, Malmo Art Museum, Malmo, Sweden.


More Than Meets the I said...

This is a beautiful post. There must be something purely metaphysical in his compulsion to paint interiors with such precise attention to light and shade.

cduxa said...

Um blog muito enriquecedor. Gosto muito da pintura (intimista)de Vilhelm Hammershoi.

rosaria said...

I've entered sacred places through your post, the work itself, and the analysis of it, a perspective not easily absorbed through a walk in a museum.
So glad!

Neil said...

Illuminating post, Jane, about an artist I know is close to your heart. I think perhaps the world is divided between people who want artists to show everything, and those who want artists to suggest and intrigue, and we are both in the second group.

Andy McEwan said...

I was fortunate enough to see the major Hammershoi retrospective at the Royal Academy, London, 2008, which comprised 72 paintings, including most of those featured in your post.It was the first time I had seen his actual works rather than reproductions and I was completely enthralled. His interiors are fascinating, compelling and deeply enigmatic. I thought, however, that his exteriors, his landscapes, were equally so. I felt that all the pictures exhibited shared an aura of stillness and an almost elegiac quality. As you use one of Hammershoi's pictures of a street in London for the masthead of The Blue Lantern, do I take it that Hammershoi is a particular favourite of yours?

alestedemadrid said...

Really beautiful.

Jane said...

More Than Meets The Eye, the idea of metaphysics here is an intriguing one. Thanks for the suggestion for further thought,

Jane said...

Obrigado, cduxa. As pinturas de Hammershoi e belas.

Jane said...

Rosaria, it's not often that most of us have a chance to see Hammershoi's work in person, as much of it is in Danish museums. The last exhibition in the U.S. was at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC in 1997. The internet works wonders sometimes.

Jane said...

Neil, this is why the quote from Montaigne is at the top of the page! Although photographers admire Hammershoi's work and he collected photographs, his work is much more that straight realism. Just as photographs of the Hammershoi homes suggest that the artist rearranged the furniture, so photographs of Vilhelm and Ida suggest something similar.

Jane said...

Andy, right on at least two counts! You were so fortunate to see "The Poetry of Light" and Hammershoi's work grabbed me and won't let go. The first picture I saw was one (sometimes) called 'White Doors, Open Doors' from 1905. It's the one that shows a series of doors at Strandgade 30 and, if you look closely, there is a distortion of the lines at the top of the picture. According to the David Collection in Denmark, which owns the painting, this happened while the canvas was on the stretcher.

Jane said...

Alestedemadrid, you are so right. For comparison, look at the works of Peter Ilsted, Hammershoi's brother-in-law - not to be invidious, but what a difference.

Andy Mcewan said...

I looked again at "White Doors, Open Doors" in the RA catalogue, which mentions the distortion caused by the stretcher. The RA titled the exhibition, "Vilhelm Hammershoi: The Poetry of Silence." However much paintings may "speak to us",they are, of course, by their very nature silent. I much prefer your title, "The Poetry of Light." I find this particular painting especially intriguing. Although clearly depicting a relatively limited domestic space, the pictorial device of the three open doors (and the fourth doorway seen obliquely in the passage) suggests an infinity of rooms opening off each other.Very symbolic, of course. Hammershoi's work, though seemingly so simple, is to my mind endlessly thought-provoking, haunting almost, and one never tires of his paintings. Yes, I was indeed fortunate to see so many together.

Jane said...

There's a quote I can't attribute anymore, but I liked it when I first read it and I think it applies to many artists: "Some people look outward and see only reflections of themselves; others look inward and find the world."

Judith said...

This really is an extraordinary post most suitable to the extraordinary painter. He is totally new to me, and I suppose I will only ever encounter his actual work via the Internet, but even through that veil it awakens the imagination.
Thank you for all the work you do on this blog to bring us beauty and stimulation.

Jane said...

Judith, I first encountered Hammershoi on the internet even after several art courses in college. I felt cheated that his work had not been included in the many books I'd read. As museums digitize their collections, people are questioning why so many works seem to be always in storage. We may yet see Hammershoi in person. Courage, mon ami!

Ana said...

I am mesmerized by Hammershøi interiors.

Even through a computer screen there's something about them that moves me.

Jane said...

Ana, even on a computer screen, if you look closely you can begin to see how many colors went into those many shades of white.