Friday, May 15, 2009
All in the Timing
It’s very ironic that it took a comedian—the manic Michael Palin of Monty Python fame—to resurrect the reputation of an artist known for the deathly quiet and stillness of his art—Vilhelm Hammershoi. Of course, Palin’s mind is much more versatile than that of a simple madcap, as his thoughts on Hammershoi prove, just as Hammershoi is much more than a kind of grand claustrophobic of art. Born May 15, 1864, Hammershøi studied painting as a young man and exhibited a portrait of his young sister Anna, titled Portrait of a Young Girl (above, from 1885), as his first public attempt at success. Although many, including reportedly Renoir admired Portrait of a Young Girl, Hammershoi failed to win the prize, just the first of many slights that would drive Hammershoi further and further into himself. Today, Hammershoi has become a “name” in the lexicon of Danish art thanks to several touring exhibitions of his work in the United States and Europe. Although portraits such as that of Anna and even nude studies by Hammershoi exist, the “branding” of Hammershoi as a reclusive, obsessive painter of interiors, almost exclusively the famous apartments he shared with his wife, has taken hold, possibly forever. Like Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh, Hammershoi suffers from an overabundance of psychobiography when critics try to grasp his work and understand the artist himself.
Part of the reason why Hammershoi seems to perpetually recline on the art historian’s psychobabble “couch” is the lack of source materials. Hammershoi’s silent works seem even more silent thanks to the lack of words left behind by the artist. Whereas someone such as the recently departed Thomas Chimes surrounded his works with volumes of verbage, Hammershoi deafens us with his quietness. Hammershoi himself seems to have been extremely shy, once famously traveling to England to meet his hero Whistler and then never mustering the courage to knock him up. Regardless, Hammershoi’s paintings, such as Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 (above, from 1901), stand for more than agoraphobia. Painting his wife Ida in their home, Hammershoi captures the coziness of his domestic setting while also creating a fascinating composition of shapes. The frames on the wall echo the larger frame of the wall itself. The plates lined up on the table draw us into the picture, as if inviting us to sit down and eat as we listen to the music. The colors are somber, but the mood is not funereal. Hammershoi feels at home here, and wants us to, too.
I have no idea if artists such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper were ever aware of the work of Hammershoi. The plates in Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 remind me of the plates in Wyeth’s Groundhog Day. Hammershoi’s Sunbeams, or Sunshine: Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (above, from 1900) reminds me of Hopper’s quote that all he wanted to do was paint the play of light on a wall. Just like Wyeth made an entire universe out of his Chadds Ford surroundings, Hammershoi created whole galaxies out of a simple set of connecting rooms. Light coming through the window of his parlor served as the doorway to infinite. If William Blake could see infinity in a single grain of sand, Hammershoi could find it in a dust mote dancing in sunlight. If artists’ reputations can be likened to stocks, Hammershoi stock is rising slowly and, characteristically, quietly.