28 July 2018

Hammershoi's Many Shades of White

They've started a discussion:
What is it to be Danish?
I must admit the question
Has almost turned me Spanish.
How could I ever answer this,
What is it to be Danish?

  - excerpt from "Being Danish" by Kaj Munck (1898-1944) from A Second Book of Danish Verse, translated by Charles Wharton Stork, Freeport, NY, Books for Libraries Press: 1968.

The cliche of the melancholy Danish temperament hovers over the enigma that is the art of Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916);  his work has been compared to Shakespeare's Hamlet or a setting for an Ingmar Bergman movie.  And yet it stands out in company with other art of  Danish Golden Age (approximately 1830-1870), work that can be as bright and boundless as the preternaturally blue summer nights of the north.  Hammershoi stood apart from other artists of his day;  he chose to paint portraits only of people he knew and his palette was one of tones rather than colors.

Was his art cold and repressed or tranquil and intimate?  I incline to the latter interpretation but understand the impulse to try to wrest from these paintings stories, whether made-up or drawn from the artist's own life,  that justify our strong responses.  Surely, there must be much ado about something.

In Dust Motes Dancing In Sunbeams), painted in 1900, the artist offered a bravura demonstration of visual sensation by subtracting all the furnishings from a wood-paneled room with a door leading to an interior courtyard.  Even the round knob on the door is unnece In Dust Motes Dancing In Sunbeams), painted in 1900, t ssary to his aims.  But oh, those shades of white, mixed with bits of color, described by a friend who saw the artist's palette as resembling "oyster shells." 

Photographs, on the other hand, provide evidence of the accouterments of everyday life in the Hammershoi home:  paintings hang on the walls, curtains flutter at the windows, and china is laid out on the table.  The Hammershois possessed some aesthetically pleasing furniture, a white Hepplewhite chair gracing several paintings.

Ida Ilsted wrote to a friends that Hammershoi "had always wanted to live" in the apartment at 30 Strandgade after the couple moved there in 1898.  A large apartment dating to the 17th century that connected two buildings in the old Christianhavn section of Copenhagen, 30 Strandgade comprised a series od connecting rooms that had the air of a gallery intended for art or as art itself in Hammershoi's pairings.  Hammershoi himself wrote in a letter "Personally I am fond of the old, of old houses, old furniture, of that quite special mood that these things possess."  No surprise then that Hammershoi was attracted to archaic Greek sculpture that he painted in the museums of Paris and Rome that the couple saw on their honeymoon tour.

Hammershoi was fortunate in being supported by wealthy patrons who eagerly snatched up his domestic interiors and his scenes of old Christianhavn.  Carl Jacobsen was a brewer whose family business underwrote the establishment of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek to house the family collections, and tobacco manufacturer Heinrich Hirschsprung donated his collection to the state which built it a museum in Copenhagen finished in 1911.  Ironically perhaps, Hammershoi, a smoker, died of throat cancer five years later.

I wish I could remember
whether I've done anything
the letter you received
was full of hidden meanings
the burning bush
did not burn me
this morning I got up too late

I wrote the letter
and never did send it
I lay at the stake
but never was burned
you sit in your chair
and nothing has happened

I wish I could remember
whether I've done anything

 - "Father - Son" from Light by Inger Christensen from Light (1962), translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied, New York, New Directions: 2011

1. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Interior, Strandgade 25, 1914,  85 x 70.5 cm, Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen.
2. Vilhlelm Hammershoi - Dust Moats Dancing in The Sunbeams, 1900, 23.2. Ordruppgaard, Copenhagen.
3. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Interior, Strandgade 30, March 1904, 55.5x 460.4 cm, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


Tania said...

Very beautiful! I know this artist only by reproductions, but his intimist universe pleases me a lot, and the special light.

Jane said...

Tania, I've often wondered who moved the furniture. Furniture in the 18th century was usually quite heavy and the Hammershois' furniture looks even bigger in photographs than it does in the paintings. A puzzle - but a lovely one.