Danish Black-and-White Colorist

IT was in his ordered, powerful paintings that Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) said what he had to say. In words he seems to have had very little to communicate. Clearly he was a man of practice rather than theory, not seeing much reason for explanation, not given to self-analysis.

Meeting Hammershoi in Copenhagen in 1904, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who had been determined, he wrote, "to see him and to see him again, in order to hear him speak and be silent") afterwards observed: "One feels that he only paints and cannot and will not do anything else...." Significantly, perhaps, Rilke's initial plan to write an article about Hammershoi was never carried out. There was one straightforward reason for this: Hammershoi and he couldn't exchange many words because they didn't speak each other's language.

But Poul Vad, author of "Vilhelm Hammershoi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century," the most thorough book yet on Hammershoi, goes deeper. He writes that Rilke did not have sufficient time for "immersion in Hammershoi's oeuvre nor in the milieu in which the works are rooted."

Vad, who in this book greatly expands a small study he made of Hammershoi in 1957, is far from laconic (wordy, in fact!), and makes great efforts at immersion in both the artist's works and the period of their making. With extraordinarily little biographical material - hardly a letter - left by the artist, Vad has in the main to tell his story by referring at length to the paintings themselves (no bad thing). Even though Hammershoi's subjects were often the rooms in his own house, familiar architectural monuments in Copenhagen, and perfectly identifiable people he knew, he was not a biographical painter, not a storyteller. Most of his paintings, even those which are actual portraits of friends or family members, reveal little about his relationship to them, though plenty about their separate individual characters.

He must have painted his wife more than anyone else. He did so in two basic ways. She appears - frequently a figure seen from the back - in his interiors, as virtually part of the furniture. But when he portrays her directly, it is quite another matter. Then - as in his self-portraits - there surfaces an honesty of perception, awareness of mentality and hard realism that amount to something far more than a formal placing of planes and tones. Hammershoi was, in fact, a memorable, pungent, at times startli ngly merciless, portrayer of those he knew well, investigating them without false sentiment but with concentrated sensitivity.

The timing of Poul Vad's thick volume (published in 1988 in Danish, and recently issued in not-always-conventional English) is apt: There was, in the 1980s, an enormously increased recognition of Hammershoi as a unique artist whose remarkable vision achieved a measured, cool balance between evocative atmosphere and a beautiful formality, between affection for the past and a sense of modernity. He refused, however, both the sentimental nostalgia of historical pastiche and the promotional avant-gardism cha racteristic of much modern art - and this during the turn-of-the-century period when confrontations in art between new and old were peculiarly intense. He was an idealist - entirely on his own terms.

Hammershoi's undemonstrative, classical art, unmistakably the work of an artist who knew exactly what he was doing, speaks with relevance to a "post-modernist" audience of today because it does not hide its respect for history. Still, it has a spareness and even an abstraction which belong to the 20th century. We find ourselves wondering why such an obviously profound and essential artist has been so overlooked for most of this century. Vad offers a number of explanations, among them criticism of his fel low Danes for never having realized the remarkable originality of this extremely Danish artist.

There has also been over the years a hard-to-justify tendency to explain away Hammershoi as some kind of oddball. He certainly was different from most of his Danish contemporaries, but his difference is positive and refreshing. It was noticed in his lifetime outside Denmark; he was better known and appreciated in the rest of Europe than virtually any other Danish artist of his time.

There is, however, something uncompromising about his art which has always attracted either strong distaste or an almost fanatical devotion: It is an art of rigorous control, scrupulous restraint. Those who prefer a more romantic, expressive art have tended to mistake this taut exclusion of whatever might detract from the lucidity and rightness of his images for a kind of morbid isolationism. Quite frequently people are absent from his pictures: This is acceptable in his landscapes, but when he is painti ng buildings along a city street, or rooms in his house, this lack of human presence is immediately felt as strange. Even when figures are included, they are still, unobtrusive, never allowed to disturb the quiescence of the pictured space or unbalance the careful composition.

In terms of color, particularly in his interiors, Hammershoi is a lover of grays, and enormously sensitive to the range of light and shadow, the tonal contrast and color possible with his muted palette. Gray does not necessarily mean a lack of vitality, or indefiniteness; in Hammershoi's hands, just the opposite. Within gray the full spectrum can come into play, but always in harmony. At its strongest contrast, gray becomes black and white. Art historian Thorkild Hansen called him "the black and white co lorist." It is true that he did not often use, even in small touches, vivid hues.

How Hammershoi arranged his palette is particularly interesting because it shows how consciously and deliberately he had chosen the potent limits that suited him. Joakim Skovgaard, also a painter, left a record of an occasion when he saw Hammershoi's palette.

"I shall never forget it," he wrote. "On it there lay four gray and white blobs of color which were scrupulously delimited from each other. The strange thing about them was that there was layer upon layer of color and that there had been smoothed down into these layers so that there appeared to be four oyster shells lying on the palette. With these colors he created the beautiful paintings which I admire."

The one thing Hammershoi was not - unlike a number of other notable Danish painters before and contemporary with him - was influenced by French color. When he lived for a while in Paris, his interest in contemporary French art seems to have been negligible. Neither Impressionism nor Post-Impressionism apparently interested him. He spent much of his time painting - in grays - an ancient Greek relief of three figures in the Louvre. His friend J. F. Willumsen, also in Paris, and very engaged with French art , described this painstaking painting: "It turned out well and got the right mood. But the effect, I thought, could just as well have been achieved by a velvet photograph on matte paper."

Willumsen was not the only person to perceive a connection between Hammershoi's painting and photography. Once or twice Hammershoi is even known to have used photographs as a basis for paintings - as something more than a mere reference or aide memoire. The realism of a photograph can be strangely dreamlike, and that is exactly the effect of Hammershoi's apparently realistic paintings.

If Hammershoi comes close to any French artists of the time, it must be those with the most classical sensibilities, Cezanne and Seurat. But his classicism is as distinct from both of theirs as they are from each other. It really has more in common with certain classicizing artists of the Renaissance, like Mantegna. And in subject matter, it is 17th-century Dutch artists like De Hooch and Vermeer he comes closest to.

But whomever you try to link Hammershoi with, you end up seeing how uninfluenced and how much his own man this artist was. Among contemporaries, Whistler may have been closest; it is known that Hammershoi admired him. But even their techniques and gray tones are quite different in atmosphere and feel; Whistler was something of a showman which Hammershoi emphatically was not. Never self-consciously poetic or aesthetic, Hammershoi's art was concerned with the timeless, and timelessness is the quality which

his images contain above all else. That and silence.

This very quietness, and lack of movement, may have been one of the causes of his being neglected. His work does have an inner dynamic to do with light, edge, and placement, which, once perceived, proves invigorating and fascinating. But it is not a surface matter.

His achievement is tonal truth, infused with an equilibrium of warm and cool color, and an inventive play of closed and open spaces within the picture which shows a bold feeling for pictorial structure.

In one of the only two interviews Hammershoi appears to have given (in which he was by no means expansive), he admitted, "I don't paint quickly. I am rather long about it." And Rilke concluded: "Hammershoi is not one of those artists that one needs to talk about quickly. His work is long and slow and at whatever moment one comes to grips with it, one will have ample occasion to speak of what is significant and essential in art." Vad, quoting this, adds: "It was more correct than he imagined at the time."

But now, thanks to an exhibition near Copenhagen in 1981, to a couple of recent books about Scandinavian art which give him considerable attention, and to Poul Vad's expansive volume, Hammershoi's work is regaining an appreciation he definitely deserves.

* The paintings reproduced here are from "Vilhelm Hammershoi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century," by Poul Vad, translated by Kenneth Tindall, published by Yale University Press in 1992.

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