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Vilhelm Hammershøi
22 March - 29 Juni 2003
Hamburger Kunsthalle shows the first Vilhelm Hammershøi retrospective in Germany


“I met Hammershöj yesterday for the first time... I am certain the more one gets to know him the better one will understand him and learn to appreciate his natural simplicity. I am going to meet him again, but there will be no conversation as he only speaks Danish and understands very little German. The impression I had was that he only paints and either can’t, or doesn’t want to do anything else.” This is Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of his encounter with the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). He had made a special trip to Copenhagen to meet him. Rilke’s interest in Hammershøi coincided with the world-wide acclaim the artist was receiving and Germany in particular had witnessed a number of exhibitions. The art dealer Paul Cassirer devoted an exhibition to him in Hamburg at his gallery at the Jungfernstieg. Nevertheless, after his death in 1916 his work gradually sank into oblivion. Hammershøi’s dispassionately purist style was too much at odds with the disquieting experiments of the post-war avant-garde movement. Its stridency made Hammershøi’s enigmatically sad art seem strangely outdated.
The rediscovery and reassessment of Symbolism in recent years paved the way for Hammershøi’s melancholic pictorial view of the world to regain its place in the consciousness of the public. Hammershøi is now not only one of the most well-known artists in Scandinavia, but he has also regained popularity in Paris and New York thanks to comprehensive retrospectives afforded him by the Musée d’Orsay and the Guggenheim Museum 1997/98. The fascination associated with his work emanates mainly from his interiors and it is these interiors that also form the keystone to the Hamburg Kunsthalle exhibition.
In these pictures which account for almost half of Hammershøi’s total artistic output, he recurrently depicts, during a span of years, his own apartment. Resembling a non-stop inner monologue Hammershøi portrays in a few muted tones and with decisive geometrical stringency his sparsely-furnished flat. Within these limitations he varies not only the viewpoint of the picture but also the perspective, opens and closes doors, alludes to further rooms and positions the furniture strategically. In so doing, Hammershøi consistently dispenses with anecdotal detail transforming the apartment into a hermetically-sealed place of disturbing emptiness. Thanks to the large quantity of interiors a closely-woven net of visual references between the paintings evolves, nevertheless it is virtually impossible for the onlooker to accompany Hammershøi on his roamings through the apartment. The seemingly labyrinthine structure of the dwelling evokes a feeling of claustrophobia, loneliness and void. With refined discretion Hammershøi uses the apartment as a pictorial laboratory to make us sense the abyss behind the façade.
Hammershøi was apparently just as quiet and reserved as his art. According to his friends he was a shy eccentric who lived in seclusion. His biography is in no way spectacular: born in Copenhagen in 1864 as a son of a shopkeeper he had drawing lessons from the age of eight due to his artistic talent. He studied in his home town at the art academy and the Independent Study School and enjoyed early success- particularly on an international level. In 1891 he married a colleague’s sister, Ida Ilsted and they lived together in Copenhagen until his death in 1916. Ida is the figure to be seen in his interiors and portrait paintings- often depicted from behind.
The back view figure motif in the interiors induces a feeling of aloofness in the onlooker. The same quality is also a distinctive feature of Hammershøi’s landscapes. Unlike most works of his contemporaries, Hammershøi’s landscapes are not redolent of romantic yearning for unspoiled nature. Hammershøi interprets scenery as a clearly-defined graphic structure: a grey sky and a few trees on the horizon, that’s all. This is abandoned countryside, empty of movement and animation; it offers no distractions, no stories to tell.
Similarly, Hammershøi’s architectural paintings of Copenhagen, Rome and London portray towns as places alien to life, permeated by a burden of silence. The historical buildings, streets and squares stand bleak and deserted, hypnotically transfixed as though time has stood still with no clues as to why.
Hammershøi had a talent for steeping traditional themes such as interiors, portrait paintings or landscapes in an atmosphere of unreality. Almost all his paintings are in a grey tone colour spectrum which his contemporaries came to regard as his trademark. It also had the effect of making his pictures reminiscent of black-and-white photography. The ambivalence between painting and photography arouses irritation in the onlooker and simultaneously makes him aware of the structure of the pictures. By dint of the uneasy vibrant brushwork they still are able to maintain their unique artistic quality.
Although Hammershøi led a secluded existence he travelled regularly and was well-informed on contemporary art. He spent longer periods in London and Paris and visited northern Italy several times. While Hammershøi’s œuvre can be described as autonomous, at the same time subject-matter references to the turn-of-the-century Symbolism art movement that reached far beyond Scandinavia are present. During his lifetime Hammershøi was compared to such contrasting artists as Eugène Carrière, Fernand Khnopff and Edvard Munch. As a consequence, the Hammershøi exhibition has been extended to include these artists and further contemporaries of Hammershøi such as Edgar Degas, Ferdinand Hodler, Xavier Mellery and Félix Vallotton. Within this tension-packed context Hammershøi not only stands out as a significant protagonist of Symbolism but can also lay claim to being a unique contributor to European modern art. Accordingly, one has the impression that Hammershøi’s picture ideas anticipate even works by Edward Hopper or Gerhard Richter; and also the way in which Gregor Schneider tackles House Ur offers numerous references to Hammershøi’s uncanny home theme.
A comprehensive catalogue is to be published for the exhibition- the first publication in German on the artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.

Felix Krämer

 

 

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