Friday, December 12, 2008

Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence

I can think of no other apartment more eulogized by its artist–occupant than the quiet rooms in Strandgade 30, near the waterfront in Copenhagen, where the painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) lived with his wife from 1898 to 1909. Hammershøi’s generally small, always introspective, but glorious paintings were the subject of a major survey at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last summer. It was the show of the season.

The catalogue tends almost to apologize for Hammershøi’s repertoire of what the authors rather dismissively describe as “greys,” but when you spend enough time looking at these haunting interiors, in fact you gradually become aware of a gorgeous palette, deployed with great subtlety.

True, it is restricted almost to the point of neurosis, but the resulting quietness is palpable—and evokes a domestic environment in which old floorboards creak, and doors with polished keyplates stand ajar. Dust motes are suspended in slanting light. The palest of plums and blues, violets, greens, and yellows play across bare walls.

Into a modest pat of butter Hammershøi concentrates the kind of luxuriousness that frequently eludes many painters more freely given to pyrotechnics.

You get to know single pieces of furniture. Indeed, they move cheerfully from place to place. A few small pictures rearrange themselves on the walls. Windows open, then close again. And a shapely piece of domestic porcelain—a tureen, Royal Copenhagen naturally—gradually acquires the meditative intensity of a poem.

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