Hammershøi cubed

Yesterday’s sale at Bruun Rasmussen here in Copenhagen featured (for the second time) an extraordinary painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi. Reproduced above, it is a small, rather atypical painting, but one that adds to the picture of just how original and modern painter he was. I was happy to learn that it was acquired for a public collection.

Two candles on a table. It could be banal, but Hammershøi suffuses the subject with a kind of emptiness, a cold regard, that is strong even for him. The profane illumination of these candles provides only a limited view, one that raises more questions than it answers. It is hard to make sense of the room: the stark shadows cast off the sides of the couch seem to dictate our understanding of the space, distorting it. The line running off on the right appears to suggest a corner, but upon further scrutiny it clearly does not — the wall continues toward the right. However, what appears to be a window at far right shows that there must be a corner there somewhere in the shadow. But where? At the subtly drawn vertical line? If so, the space would be too narrow to fit the table clearly placed against this wall (or against the window? If that indeed is a window).

This subversion of logical space appears to me a natural consequence of Hammershøi’s seemingly rational, ever uncanny explorations of interior spaces. My guess is that this is a late painting, from around the same time that he executed his two self-portraits at the estate of Spurveskjul in 1911, one of which is similarly framed in an oval, perhaps a mirror (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and private collection). The colour is worked up in the same patchy, thinly applied way as his paintings of this period and the conception of space so radical that it seems to me to have come late.

The table wedged into the composition at right heightens the intensity of the composition. Surely learned from Degas — an artist with whom Hammershøi had more in common than just about anybody else in his time — it challenges the bourgeois order of most naturalist painting of the period, cramming the space around the table uncomfortably. A space already hard to fathom: how exactly does the chair on the right fit under the table?

The oval framing further accentuates the unreality of the picture. Is it seen through a mirror, its mystery rooted in optical distortion? As a metaphoric reflection of mental space this would make sense — Hammershøi, like Kafka, tends to evoke psychological states of brooding unrest. In any case, all of the elements that combine in this suggestion — even the patchy brushwork! — seem to me to tie into the radical innovation proposed by Braque and Picasso around this time to depict space as mentally conceived.

Although presumably coincidental — we do not know whether Hammershøi knew of cubism, and in any case the date of the present picture is uncertain — this confluence makes a lot of sense when one considers Hammershøi’s career-spanning exploration of inner space. While more introspective and symbolically charged, his work seems to grasp at similar truths as that of the cubists, and this small painting to me is an eye-opening exponent of this aspect of his art.

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