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Vilhelm Hammershøi - Interior Poetry

Words:

Edd Norval
October 29, 2020

Most painters, quite reasonably, paint what we can see. People’s faces, landscapes, objects. Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi captures what we don’t, or at least, what most people don’t. His intimate, yet articulate, paintings of the interiors of houses seem to be used as both an object of fascination for him and a manifestation of the people he paints occupying them.

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The interiors aren’t messy either, not like the bedrooms or livingrooms we come to expect when looking into people's houses. There’s little sense of real homeliness, rather a feeling that these houses are stuck in time, without having much to do with the people living there - if indeed, anybody actually does live there.


The muted palette invokes a meditative feeling, so enshrined in mystery that the BBC aired a programme trying to better understand the Dane’s story and why it was his interiors that are held to such acclaim and regard to this day. 


Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershoi aired in 2005, a rare insight into the painter’s approach. What fascinated Palin was that nothing was given to the audience. There were no clues, no context. We know that his wife, Ida, was a regularly used model, but that’s about it.

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Otherwise, the few outdoor scenes and landscapes he painted - always devoid of people - offered little to better understand his more iconic interiors. There was always an existential quality to the works, a serenity allowing his audience to pause for thought. Melancholic depictions of scenes in art often have a heaviness and foreboding, the feeling being portrayed through the style of the painting, as much as its content. With Hammershøi it was different.


His paintings never felt claustrophobic, yet the feeling that emanates is one of isolation and loneliness - certainly not anything that most would consider ‘happy’. Even the distance to protagonists, their lack of any interaction with the artist, doesn’t feel unsettling. They too are at peace with being observed. 


Unsurprisingly, the artist is similarly enigmatic, giving us little in the way of a synopsis of his works. “What makes me choose a motif are the lines, what I like to call the architectural content of an image”, the artist once said. The comment itself feels very much removed from his subjects, analying a potential painting for geometry and scale.

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Although the works feel removed from the subject, the subjects are always treated delicately and observed graciously. The paintings are strangely intimate, however far away from the person they seem. Throughout his life, Hammershøi built a devoted following amongst other artists and writers who found subtle solace in his works, identifying themselves with the innate drama of them.


In death, he has gained posthumous acclaim, becoming one of the most sought-after and valuable Scandinavian artists of all time. 

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