A friend recently pointed out to me a great 2005 BBC documentary titled Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershoi, the story of Palin’s pursuit of the elusive Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi. Although it’s not available on DVD anywhere that I could find, thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to download it and watch it for free. (Just Google the title and you’ll find several sites offering downloads. I’m not sure if this is entirely legal, so watch your back.) I’ve always been a fan of Palin going back to his Monty Python days and have sat amazed at his documentaries Himalaya and Sahara, but this was the first time I’ve seen him speak about art. Now I wonder if there’s anything he can’t do.
Palin begins his quest eighteen years earlier, fascinated by Hammershoi’s Interior, Strandgade 30 (above, from 1899), shown as part of an exhibition of Scandinavian art at the National Gallery of Art in London. He marvels at the effect of light on the woman’s neck as much as at the disquieting silence of the painting, especially the mystery of what the woman is doing so intently with her hands that we cannot see. “Is this dark, Freudian psychodrama or an afternoon in turn of the century Copenhagen?” Palin asks, dying to know more.
After seeing the two Hammershoi works owned by British museums, one of which may never be exhibited publically, Palin travels to the apartment near the British Museum where Hammershoi stayed with his wife around 1905 during his visit to London to meet Whistler, his hero. Finally gathering the courage to knock on the door of Whistler’s studio, the shy Hammershoi finds nobody home. Never finding the courage again, he never meets his hero. Hammershoi can’t even come face to face with the British Museum itself, choosing instead to paint the side rather than the face of the building, concentrating mainly on the fencing around it. Faces trouble Hammershoi when painting, even that of his wife Ida, the model for so many of his interiors. Growing up, Hammershoi loved the works of Vermeer, studying intently the effects of light and mood in his interiors. But, whereas Vermeer’s interiors tell some story , however brief, Hammershoi refuses to give anything up, turning his back to the viewer, suggesting a story but never sharing it.
Palin travels to Delft to meet the "Friends of Vermeer" as the sole member of the "Friends of Hammershoi." Later, he makes the pilgrimage to Denmark and stands in the very apartments Hammershoi painted, experiencing a sense of déjà vu before the same doors and windows the artist depicted over 60 times. A trip to the Danish National Gallery both frustrates and illuminates, as they own many works by the artist but, sadly, gave many away when his status all but disappeared in the 1930s. The man once praised by Renoir nearly fell off the art map entirely.
During the investigation, Palin presents Hammershoi as a diverse character—the shy figure clearly found in the paintings, yes, but also the bold young artist who painted his future wife nude and frolicked nude himself with an all-male artist community. The landscapes Hammershoi paints on excursions made possible by the advent of train travel dismiss all feelings of agoraphobia in his works. Looking at Hammershoi’s work, it is easy to draw comparisons to Andrew Wyeth’s interiors and their enigmatic and sometimes even sinister undertones. To draw that comparison even further, you can place Hammershoi’s moody nudes next to the Helga paintings and see a common thread. There’s a similar depth to both of those artists lurking beneath the public façade. Whether Wyeth knows of Hammershoi’s work is unclear, although I doubt there was an influence, which makes the similarities even more fascinating.
Seeing Palin deal with art was a joy. Palin owns several works by Hammershoi himself, so his is more than just a passing investment in getting to the heart of this mystery. In the end, Palin sums it up best: “The key to Hammershoi is that he deliberately didn’t want us to know him. He was an artist. He painted pictures. The rest is silence.” With that reminder that sometimes the works must speak for themselves, Palin proves himself an able critic of art and analyst of the soul. Perhaps the BBC will grace Americans with his other works on the visual arts. We certainly could use them.