Title Unknown

The Poetry of Silence

Vilhelm Hammershøi Canvas

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Unknown Title

During those rare quieter moments of the day when I find myself trawling through on-line images of paintings and fresh photography posted to Flickr, I stumble across a particular artist that leaves me with a strange sense of Deja vu. I know I have experienced these scenes before, but it’s not work that I know well. When this phenomenon occurs (In this I’m assuming other artists have had these experiences… or it might just be me) the only conclusion I can draw is that I simply didn’t like the work or that it didn’t hold my interest long enough to appreciate it’s qualities. Like a child’s palette, who finds the taste of vegetables simply too boring  compared to the high impact sugars and fats made so easily available to them, I find myself looking again at these works and tasting something new and rather subtle. I have an appreciation for texture, depth and the changes in atmosphere that simply failed to grab me on first exposure.

It is with all this preamble that I present today’s images to you. From the brush of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi who had a brief but acclaimed period in the critical spotlight between the late 1890’s and the years leading up to the first World War. According to Souren Melikian his emerging work captured a delicacy that unfortunately stagnated with too much detail later on in his career. The paintings certainly capture something between the works of Whistler and the more well known Dutch painters or as another has described it “Monet meets the Camden School”. In a documentary for the BBC  in 2005 Michael Palin sees it as the connection between Edward Hopper and Vermeer (Something  I’d be very keen to see). He goes on to discuss the atmospheric aesthetic and spiritual tone in this article for the telegraph: Vilhelm Hammershoi- When Michael Palin saw the light and here writing on his own website: www.palinstravels.co.uk

This resurgent interest in Hammershøi has since been led by exhibitions at the Musée d’Orsay and the Guggenheim Museum. In 2008, the Royal Academy of London hosted the first major exhibition in Britain of Hammershøi’s work, Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Unknown Title

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Unknown Title

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunbeams or Sunshine

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, 1900 (oil on canvas, 70 x 59 cm)

It is the atmosphere within the work that I find most intriguing, more often in the empty landscape or interior studies than those that include the figure. It’s the same feeling I get looking at paintings by Hopper, who’s work can be downright sinister when the human drama is stripped away. His wiki entry describes his technique as thus:

“Hammershøi’s paintings are best described as muted in tone. He refrained from employing bright colors (except in his very early academic works), opting always for a limited palette consisting of greys, as well as desaturated yellows, greens, and other dark hues. His tableaux of figures turned away from the viewer project an air of slight tension and mystery, while his exteriors of grand buildings in Copenhagen and in London (he painted two exteriors of the British Museum between 1905 and 1906) are devoid of people, a quality they share with his landscapes.”

The colours are certainly not bright in the happy sense, but the strength of the earthy contrast broken by spots and streams of dazzling light are wonderfully dramatic. Compared to the slate grey of the interior walls the window frame above stands out in electrifying fashion.


Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with easel

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Easel and Punch Bowl, oil on canvas, 1907

Vilhelm Hammershøi Street in London

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Street in London 1906

In this case I have only picked images from Hammershoi’s selection of buildings and landscapes as well as interiors without the usual model of his wife Ida. I feel these pictures in particular have a connection to my own work, where the focus is on personal experience between the viewer and physical world that surrounds them. This focused relationship seems to generate a greater reaction to the work, both positive and negative. Indeed where a model has been used in his painting the subject is always facing away from us, preventing any opportunity to read the emotion of the scene. This leaves us alone with the canvas to engage in a raw experience that is unique and individual to all of us, and like taste, our perceptions and subtle reactions can shift without us realising it.

Vilhelm Hammershøi The Asiatic Company
Vilhelm Hammershøi, The Asiatic Company Buildings 1902
Vilhelm Hammershøi Winter

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Winter 1906

Vilhelm Hammershøi 2

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Unknown Title

Jonathan works as a professional artist and illustrator. He also curates exhibitions, enjoys travelling for inspiration and likes making cocktails. www.illustrationbyjonathan.co.uk

1 Comment

  1. James

    Very interesting stuff thanks John.

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