Hammershøi’s House of Secrets

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Been away from the screen for a couple of days, so no Picks this week. There’s stuff coming soon, but in the meantime, I thought I’d just take the opportunity to recommend the major retrospective of Danish painter Wilhelm (Hammershøi’s 1864-1916) work at the Royal Academy in London (till September 7, after that Tokyo), the first such showing of his work in the UK. It’s a great show, even for someone quite familiar with the artist’s work such as myself; it contains a lot of paintings from private and international collections, providing a great, little-seen supplement to the masterpieces on loan from the major Danish collections.

Despite a certain amount of international success when he was still alive, Hammershøi has for a long time been one of the best kept secrets of Scandinavian painting. The last decade and a half has, however, seen a renewed interest in his work outside the North, with several high-profile shows, this being but the latest.

And he is definitely worth the attention — a master with a unique vision in the most literal sense. He regards the entire world around him as if it were an alien phenomenon, a strange, compelling creation of nebulous configuration. Depopulated, his landscapes and architectural views are strangely synthetic. He paints as if he were ignoring the function of what he sees, rendering the forms and their illumination as essential truths in themselves.

At the same time, he’s a uniquely introspective artist to the extent where every painting seems to chart an interior landscape of muted but intense feeling. Especially the interiors from his home, often showing his wife Ida turned away from us, seem to be a kind of self-portrayal, an exploration of the artist’s inner life. Treating his entire flat as if it were a still life, he would endlessly reorder his and Ida’s furniture and trappings to create a constantly shifting interior landscape, distinctly consistent but invariably elusive, in ways different in sensibility, but fundamentally similar to Vermeer.

He is also an acutely sensual painter, suggesting rich nuance of colour within a relatively restricted palette and evoking distance between us with a pang in the depiction of the exposed back of a neck, almost tactile. Touching in spirit.

Above, still life from the painter’s flat at Strandgade 30, Copenhagen, 1905, Oil on canvas, Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.

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