Poetic silence

Sheltering from the rain in one of the sculptures of Anthony Caro in the RA courtyard, I ponder, for a moment, whether to go and amuse myself at the Summer Exhibition, London’s seasonal posh bric-a-brac art sales, or go for a serious session at the small, quiet and subdued exhibition of Wilhelm Hammershoi upstairs in the Sackler Wing. My curiosity always aroused by the unknown, I decide to pay him a visit. The Poetry of Silence is the first retrospective in Britain of the 19th century Danish artist, who preferred the art of the Dutch Golden Age to the ‘trash’ (in his own words) being produced in the then fashionable Parisian artistic circles. Indeed, his sombre, meditative paintings of interiors and courtyards rather clash with the carefree and colourful tableaux produced by the fin-de-siècle Parisian avant-garde. They were described by art critic Karl Madsen as ‘neurasthenic’ for having the characteristics of the depressive condition of the time, neurasthenia, which was diagnosed left, right and center during the second half of the 19th century. Women, unsurprisingly, were thought to be the main target for the condition and representation of women in their domestic interiors, daydreaming at the window, were recognised by the audience of the day as signs for the nervous disease. Hammershoi’s numerous portrayals of women’s backs and necks polishing pots has the opposite effect on me, triggering my right brain cells and inducing a deep, active contemplation and imagination. Their bare surroundings only contribute further to the narratives that keep rolling in my head. The round maid in Figure of a Woman, shoulders and head down, is tensely absorbed in her reading, humbly standing next to an empty chair in the corner, on which she will soon fall and let her emotions pour out. This is one of Hammershoi’s early works and probably one of the best in this minimal, highly evocative genre. In Reading, the painter is weaving poetry with the lines of his compositions and the delicate geometry of the shadows created by the dim outside light. Everything is curves and folds, the creases of the girl’s blouse, her lose hairdo and floating locks, the sculpted white plate opened like a flower in the sunlight, the undulating shapes of the back of the wooden chair. The shadows of the room are echoed by the hollows of her skin, hair and neck and arouse a delicious sensual feeling as we contemplate the scene from behind.

If Hammershoi’s portraits of women project an air of melancholic domesticity, they also hint at the newly-awakened, independent feminine spirit of late 19th century Europe. Danish women gained the vote in 1915, ahead of many European states. This is reflected in Portrait of Ida Hammershoi, the painter’s wife: instead of being represented while carrying her domestic chores, she is sitting quietly at the table, drinking her own cup of tea and enjoying her own peace of mind. Portrait of a Young Woman, The Artist’s sister Anna Hammershoi, did not win the academic accolades. Her beautifully outlined features and sustained gaze, and the focus on her idle hands in the forefront of the painting, challenged the symbolic portraiture tradition of Northern Europe. Her black dress and charcoal eyes made her look serious and posée, empowered by a strong interior spirit as she is looking away in the distance.

Hammershoi naturally tried his hands to landscape paintings and his quiet, troubled waters and grey skies are moodily attractive in their silver lining, especially the View of Gentofte Lake, Sunshower. However, it is Hammershoi’s lyrical depiction of his own house, the way he plays with the light coming in and out of windows and half-opened doors, and the holy geometry it creates, that made his strongest and longest effect on me. The attractively named Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams shows a vaporous veil of sunlight pouring in from a small-square window. The roof structure directly opposite is partly visible but the sun has found a way in and the painter was obviously charmed by the dancing light dust caressing the window seal and the floor. From the soft and creamy white walls of the room, the mouldings and frames seem to appear through like sculpted butter. I can stand there for ages, following the harmonious lines, hopping from light glow to deep shadow, feeling the warmth of the sun, the silence of the interior. Strangely, I could almost feel at home, if the ladies, gentlemen and other visitors would stop pushing for their share in. You should definitely pay a visit.

Wilhelm Hammershoi, The Poetry of Silence, at the Royal Academy of Arts until 7 September

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~ by lavivette on August 11, 2008.

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