The Gentle Solitude of Peter Ilsted's Interiors

UNTIL very recently, I have to admit, I'd never heard of Peter Ilsted. A Danish painter and printmaker who lived from 1861 to 1933, he has not even come into prominence in the growing number of exhibitions held - and books published - about Scandinavian art outside Scandinavia in the last few years (with the exception of a showing at London's Bury Street Gallery in 1988). If he gets a mention at all, it tends to be because from 1893 onward a much better-known Danish artist, Vilhelm Hammershoi, was married to his sister, Ida. But this is not the only connection between the two that tends to relegate Ilsted to a place of relative unimportance. His art is very clearly under the influence of Hammershoi's - though in feeling and content it is rather more domestic and less severe.

Ilsted made no secret of his admiration for his brother-in-law's art. He owned three pictures by him. But the influence of the slightly younger artist's work on his own is far from total. It seems, above all, to have sharpened his feel for the geometry of the shadowy interiors he favored as subject matter, causing him to make them less crowded with objects and people. But the gentleness and homey atmosphere that must have been his natural inclination remain.

Hammershoi's paintings of rooms and doors and windows, by contrast, show lonely, strange places, in which the spectator is often the only person present. They are deserted as if in a dream. They are extraordinarily silent - a silence intensified by the reduction of color to muted tones, to softly modulated grays, browns, lights, and darks.

The liveliest thing in these paintings is light itself, and even it seems stilled: light shafting through a window to imprint itself on a bare floor, light narrowed to a thin strip where an opened door blocks out most of a window. When Hammershoi does include a figure, she (it's generally she) is darkly merged into the deep shadows and absorbed in some sedentary, quiet occupation - or perhaps only in thought - and is likely to have her back to us.

In Ilsted prints like ``The Red Room'' and ``The Old Apartment,'' many of the same preoccupations are evident. But the atmosphere is, in fact, quite different. The rooms are no less redolent of a past time. But usually (with striking exceptions) there are people in these rooms, often children. The sound of voices never seems far away.

Ilsted's inhabitants are less mysterious than Hammershoi's, even when they sit with their backs to the viewer. They are doing, rather than contemplating. They are less monumental and look as though they are more likely to move than Hammershoi's. Ilsted's rooms consequently have the air of being lived in and used. Hammershoi's are haunted by absence. ``Melancholy, solitude, and fragile asceticism'' have been perceived as the hallmarks of his work by one writer.

Differences of temperament go some way to explaining the different feel of the two artists' work. Both were consciously working with an eye on the past, but Hammershoi was far more radical in his attitudes. He was admired by contemporaries, but also sometimes cruelly misunderstood. He mixed with other avant-garde artists (in 1901 making an astonishing portrait of five of them together), and reacted against being rejected by the establishment art exhibition at the Charlottenborg in Copenhagen by starting, with these five artists, the ``Free Exhibition.''

Ilsted, on the other hand, was conservative, and continued to exhibit at Charlottenborg. His paintings - and particularly his prints - were popular and sold well. The family lives of the two were also unalike. The Hammershois had no children. The Ilsteds had three daughters and a son.

In 1906 Ilsted made his first mezzotint. The mezzotint was by that date no longer a fashionable print medium. But over the next 27 years Ilsted was to practice the craft with considerable originality, leaving an impressive body of work behind. The subjects were mainly taken from his paintings. Some are landscapes, but mainly they are interiors either of his own dwelling or of the small 18th-century ch^ateau of Liselund where the Ilsteds spent several summers around the years 1913 to 1917.

Mezzotint, invented in the 17th century, was at its peak as a means of reproducing oil paintings in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It is a form of engraving a copper plate which is first roughened all over with a serrating tool called a rocker: If printed in this state, the print would come out completely black. The artist then scrapes and polishes the plate to produce lighter and lighter tones. He is therefore working from darkness to light.

Ilsted was so fascinated by the possibilities of the method that he collected mezzotints, and even at one point went to England (where mezzotint had been a favorite technique) to learn more about it. His use of it exploits its remarkable capacity for subtle gradation between deep, intangible shadows and bright light. The results are as though he was depicting the quality and character of the light that percolates and reflects in the interior of a house: He captures the light rather than the surfaces on which it rests.

The artist's addition of color to what had usually been a monochrome medium was original. Instead of printing from separate plates of different colors, he hand-colored his prints - with an effect not unlike early tinted photographs, but produced with sensitivity - using a ``poup'ee,'' or dolly - a stump of rag. In this way the color remains subordinate to the dominant tonal arrangement of these printed images, but adds a quiet richness to them, reddish-pink and cream in ``The Red Room,'' blue-gray in ``The Old Apartment.''

Old-fashionedness in an artist is an odd thing. It can be a pose, or a conviction, a vigorous reaction or a weakness. It can be sentimental - or it can be passionate. But as the art itself begins to be old, its old-fashioned character grows less significant. ``The Old Apartment'' of 1920 really belongs in the 19th century - to the time, say, of Whistler, or even more, perhaps, to the Dutch 17th century, to the time of De Hooch or Vermeer. In fact both Ilsted and Hammershoi must have consciously owed something to Vermeer - whose recognition waited until the 19th century anyway.

To make us see just how retrograde Ilsted was in his image making, we need to remind ourselves that ``The Old Apartment'' was made quite a number of years after Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and all their variants had surfaced and shaken the art world. He has something of the die-hard atavism of an Andrew Wyeth working away in the same era as Jackson Pollock.

And yet there was a tendency with which he did have something in common, a tendency that had made its mark only two or three decades earlier - and what are two or three decades in the passage of time? Broadly speaking, this was the ``Symbolist'' art of the end of the 19th century.

A large number of artists were affected to a degree by the twilit mystique of Symbolism. The Belgian Xavier Mellery, for instance, invested house interiors (staircases most notably) in some of his drawings with a shadowy drama that is not a million miles from the world of Hammershoi and Ilsted. Even the dark-light contrasts, the silhouettes, in the black cont'e drawings of Seurat, as well as his tendency to abstract and organize forms, have something in common with Ilsted's mezzotints.

The abstract relationships of line and shape, dark and light, in ``The Old Apartment'' are the result of a highly calculated balancing and placing of vertical, horizontal, curve. Such geometry of the picture-plane is surprisingly close, when you think about it, to things that abstract artists were to do in the following decades - people like Piet Mondrian. And Ilsted's sensitivity to the posture and mood of his daughters as they inhabit the interiors of his art also brings to mind now the strange tenderness sometimes found in the paintings of Balthus.

However remote or retrograde his art may have been (or may still be), and however overshadowed by the reputation of his brother-in-law, Ilsted is still one of those admirable cogs in the wheel of art that have their pertinent place.

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