Royal Academy of Arts, London
28 June-7 September 2008
The exhibition of the work of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), entitled 'The Poetry of Silence', is part of a sequence of exhibition events held since 1986. These exhibitions have brought a wider audience closer to the mysteries of Scandinavian and Finnish art from the earliest years of this century. In 1986, for instance, the exhibition 'Dreams of a Summer Night' lit up English sensibilities at the Hayward Gallery, and was more than merely a survey of works from that period drawn from Scandinavian countries. The idea that these countries offered a broadly similar range of work and were mostly subject to similar influences had persisted for a long time and there was a kind of critical fog. This was perhaps partly dispelled in l986, but not entirely. Individual nations also took their own initiatives from the l990s onwards. Finland is a classic example: the exhibition from Helsinki entitled 'Nordic Dawn: Modernism's awakening in Finland' (2005) opened up a number of questions not fully dealt with at the Hayward show.
In that exhibition, the interaction of symbolist and national romantic paintings revealed the inner tensions at work under the rule of the Czarist Empire, which covered the full span of the exhibition focus. Inevitably there was also an influence from St Petersburg, which was largely beneficial, bringing new vitality to this relatively isolated land. The exhibition was actually the fruit of a collaboration between Finland and Austria. The Austrian Belvedere Gallery noted the links with the artists of the 'Secession', when the exhibition opened in Vienna. In some respects it contradicted the harmonious message concocted at the Hayward Gallery. 'Dreams of a Summer Night' also travelled to both Düsseldorf and Paris.
Denmark, where Vilhelm Hammershøi lived and worked, seems to have been less affected by contemporary stresses in civil society than Norway and Sweden, although a deeper look into the l9th century shows how Denmark was still affected by being on the losing side of the Napoleonic wars and by the loss of its maritime influence. For Norway, the breach with Copenhagen created major tensions. None of this, however, was on the scale of the Civil War in Finland, which wrenched this small country from Russian domination.
Hammershøi, in this exhibition, is revealed as being a contemplative but skilled artist, who although influenced by Vermeer, developed his own style. Critics have previously claimed that he was 'neurasthenic', which seems to be a quality afflicting many of his colleagues in Denmark. The comedian and travelogue composer Michael Palin has promoted the exhibition with a special enthusiasm, but perhaps it requires an efflorescent humour such as his to outweigh the contemplative blankness of much of Hammershøi's work here. Perhaps Palin's crowded, peripatetic life needed just this spatial therapy, calmness and emptiness; this doesn't help us to an explanation about the paintings. Hammershøi's habit of painting his wife Ida from behind fascinated Palin, who is quoted as wondering whether Ida had had psychological experiences herself, on account of her mother's psychological experiences. 'Was there a broken emotional situation? I don't know,' mused Palin.
In his work Hammershøi exhibited a severely restricted palette, where nothing could diminish the pervasive focus of the light, expressed through a quiet tonality from white to grey, to sienna, to umber much of the time. The quality of a suspension in time does seem to be ever-present in his work, regardless of the subject matter. When Ida is there, she also remains forever detached. The artist seems to suffocate deliberately the more cheerful aspects of his under-painting with even tones of a predominant grey hue. But the light still just breaks through.
It is useful to compare his 'Open Doors' (1915) with his earlier work such as 'Figure of a Woman' (1888) and 'Interior with Woman at Strandgate 30' (1901). In the two earlier works, Ida is present, as viewed from behind. All this somnolence is relieved by the beautifully poetic essay in light, 'Sunshine: Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams' (1900). It is cruel to add, that if Ida had been included here, with or without her piano, she would have crashed the work. The removal of the figure seems for the artist to provide a relief, whatever Hammershøi may have felt. This sunshine painting asks not for her to be included, but urges one instead to throw open the windows. The 'Open Doors' painting four years later offers an escape route, a real sequence of passage. Such moments of pregnant silence are self-revealing: Ida is no longer needed. The movement outside is a welcome refuge too for Hammershøi. The beautiful and mysterious, acutely minimalist painting, 'A Farm at Refsnaes', stands out in his work, and shows how the artist could have taken such a route with fortitude, as early as 1900. The materiality of this group of buildings is fully expressed, without undue emphasis. The reflections of light in the window glass reveal a poetic luminosity. Any hint of rhythmic tension here is virtually neutralised to allow the light to fall evenly across the picture plane. In this late midday aura, there is no enigma, as some critics have claimed, but only the clarity of truth.