“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Hammershøi’s enigmatically sad art seem strangely outdated.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
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.