No one could accuse Hammershøi of being upbeat. And yet the light seen coming through the windows in certain interiors is the equivalent of a smile. And the doors are usually open. The artist, or the picture, is never going to laugh, but if you are a gloomy Dane, a hard won smile is something. On a good day, you might agree to design the sets for Hedda Gabler.
For Hammershøi, work keeps the soul’s night at bay, obviating angst. His melancholy, however, has no truck with the Nordic symbolism of his time. Never pushed to total abstraction, the understated Whistler-influenced tonalities work their obsessional magic and draw us in, between the lines–those traces of architectonic primacy.
The peculiar intimacy and restraint of his work has affinities to that of Mondrian and, even more so, of Morandi. The artist’s compositional template has the great Dutch masters whom he revered written all over it—thus the use of a second room beyond the first—save that, lacking “human” interest, there is an uncanny feel to the intensely imagined interiors, as if Atget had photographed them.
The nearest we get to a self-portrait is in one of the interiors: an easel—and no painting standing on the easel. Metonymy suits this self-effacing master. I prefer the total interiors without the (exclusively female) figures. These figures either distract the viewer or invite unintended meanings. They are no more (but no less) important than the humanoid stove in “The White Door.”
The life of the pictures does not depend on these figures. The viewer does not speculate about what is going on in their minds. There is no story independent of the artist’s compelling vision. The unpeopled interiors allow one to colonize the space with psychic projections as you do in the empty rooms of the inspired Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Philadelphia.
One projects a structure of one’s mind onto the pictures, a structure cognate with the painter’s north European darkness of the soul, a darkness almost unredeemed by Mediterranean lightness of being. I say “almost” because I remember the light smiling in a handful of the pictures. This too is life.
How strange it is, how uncanny, that a picture called “Street in London” should be of the street by the side of the British Museum where I always park my car during an evening visit there. Perhaps this phenomenon should be called a back projection. Hammershøi stayed in that street when he visited London. The British Museum symbolises nothing.
What or why does it matter that he painted these pictures? It matters because he paid attention. He paid attention to his interior landscapes because had he not done so, he would have had no way to go on living. A painting is art’s way of preparing for the next painting. It is life’s way of preparing for the next phase of life: to go on, to survive, until this becomes impossible, for whatever reason.
Anthony Rudolf, writer and translator, has been the companion and male model of Paula Rego since 1996.