Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) is still quite unknown outside Denmark, swept away by the European avant-gardes that have brought modern painting in completely different directions. His rediscovery has to be attributed to the last exhibition dedicated to him in Paris in 1997 at the Musée d’Orsay. A couple of years earlier, the museum had acquired the first work of art of the Danish painter to enter the collections of a French museum. Named “Hvile” (“Rest”), and dated 1905, it portrays a seated woman, a genre whose paternity is attributed to Hammershøi.
That exhibition allowed both critics and international public to revive the work of an artist somewhat forgotten. It remains uncertain whether to consider his style a distant descendant of Johannes Vermeer or a forerunner of Edward Hopper. Though, in his works the echo of the bourgeois linearity of the Flemish painter of the seventeenth century seems weakened. Furthermore, the silence and solitude of Hammershøi’s characters have an enchantment far from the chilling light and the alienated glances of the American painter’s paintings.
Vilhelm Hammershøi returns to Paris.
The painter of “The Poetry of Silence” returns to Paris twenty years later at the Musée Jacquemart-André for the exhibition “Hammershøi, the master of Danish painting”, from March 14th to July 22nd. A display that offers a completely new approach on the painter’s work. The curators, Jean-Louis Champion and Pierre Curie, have chosen to compare the works of Hammershøi to those of contemporary artists close to him, in particular his brother Svend, his brother-in-law Peter Ilsted and his friend Carl Holsøe.
The works on display, around forty in total, come from Danish and Swedish museums such as the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen and the Malmö Konstmuseum, but also from the Tate Gallery in London. The Musée d’Orsay painting is also shown and, for the first time in France, artworks from the Loeb Danish Art Collection are exhibited.
Born in Copenhagen from a middle-class family, Vilhelm Hammershøi completes regular academic studies, leads a monotonous existence and makes various trips to other Europeans countries. While being well informed about the latest trends in contemporary art, Hammershøi always remains true to his way of painting, out of any fashion and any attempt at classification.
Places and people from his daily life.
Hammershøi mainly painted places and people from his daily life. What the artist wants to express are forms that inhabit his own apprehension. His works are permeated by a mysterious anxiety, an impalpable melancholy, and enclosed in a static space where time appears to stand still. His wife Ida Ilsted was his main model, portrayed as a solitary, enigmatic figure. She was often depicted from behind by a door or window in the abode on the Strandgade, in Copenhagen, busy with daily activities, reading or sewing. But the very central element of his works is silence, which inexplicably pervades every space of the house. In his composition, the interiors appear austere, painted with a geometric style. The furnishings of the rooms are essential, while the walls are bare, giving a sensation of emptiness. The composition has cold tones with prevailing shades of gray and brown.
There is nothing more disturbing and mysterious than a figure seen from the back, a face that does not show itself. The artist’s gaze observes an unexposed femininity hidden in domestic intimacy, which is completely indifferent from that look. Therefore, the viewer remains undecided about whether to ask himself if it is the portrait of a solitude and a discomfort or, on the contrary, the fullness of a woman perfectly at ease in her orderly and balanced world. A world made of domestic routine, where the woman is a jealous guardian of her own inner universe which she is reticent to reveal. The woman therefore represents a living enigma for her own husband, the painter. He lingers a little shamelessly on that white neck in a desperate attempt to grasp the inaccessible mystery of that woman who lives just next to him.
Minimum color scheme and intimacy.
The color scheme in Hammershøi’s works is reduced to a minimum. The shades are always the same: light areas alternating with shaded area. The composition has common characteristics that presents very few objects, clear lines, rigorous geometric arrangements, an indecipherable pictorial silence. In some canvases only the empty room appears, lacking any human figures with the only vital element being the light that filters through the glass of a closed window. The windows are always closed and, although they have no shudders, the glasses rarely allow the external landscape to be seen. The interior doors, which connect the various rooms of the house, are instead almost always open, allowing the rooms that follow one another to be seen, creating a disorienting effect.
The intimacy of a house is symbolically assimilated to the intimacy of a woman, so that doors and windows, as places of passage, refer to the desire to find accesses to that inner world. The genius of Hammershøi is to show, of the same environments, the subtle contradictions between a latent passion and an unbridgeable distance. His ability is, thus, to project on his subjects, the restless morbidity and the frustration of his gaze, transformed into a voyeuristic impulse. In the painting scene at the turn of the new century, Hammershøi remains quite a unique figure. His peculiarities charmed the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The melancholic atmosphere that makes Hammershøi’s works so special is missing in the works of Carl Holsøe and Peter Ilsted, a selection of which is staged by the museum. Although the two artists paint interiors as well, sharing the same popular theme which was very popular between Danish painters of the time, the result is different. The light of the composition appears warmer; thus, the atmosphere of the whole scene is more relaxed.
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