Why Hammershi is Europe's great painter of loneliness

Whether he was painting a corner stove, a sofa or a series of white doors, the late 19th Century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi managed to imbue the seemingly commonplace objects in his half-empty rooms with “a quality not of this world, a reflection of sublime existence,” as the art historian Julius Elias put it in 1916.

无论是画中角落里的炉子、沙发还是几扇白门,19世纪末的丹麦艺术家哈莫修依(Vilhelm Hammershøi)都会设法给空荡荡的房间里那些看似普通的物件“一种超脱尘世的品质,一种高尚的存在感”。艺术史学家埃利亚(Julius Elias)1916年如此评价道。

Although his oeuvre encompassed enigmatic portraits, eerily unpopulated landscapes and cityscapes and a series of uniquely disquieting nudes, it is these mysterious interiors, subtly rendered in shades of grey and white and often featuring a woman seen from the rear, which have struck a particular chord with contemporary audiences since his emergence from relative obscurity some 20 years ago.


“We see millions of images every day and most of them are horrible and then you put yourself in front of a bare interior by Hammershøi and, without wanting to sound trivial, it’s like being in a yoga lesson. You have to take out everything of yourself to go back to the essential,” says Jean-Loup Champion, curator of Hammershøi, the master of Danish Painting, a new exhibition devoted to him running at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris until November.

“我们每天看到数以百万计的图像,其中大部分还蛮可怕的,然后你走到哈莫修依光秃秃的室内场景画作前面,如果不想让自己平庸无奇,就当是在一堂瑜伽课上。你必须把自己掏空,才能追溯本源。”《哈莫修依:丹麦绘画大师》(Hammershøi, the master of Danish Painting)的策展人尚皮翁(Jean-Loup Champion)说。这个新的个人作品展览目前正在雅克马尔-安德烈美术馆(Musée Jacquemart-André)进行,直至11月。

They are pictures which certainly call for quiet contemplation even if an initial sense of calm often gives way to something more unsettling. In the sublimely beautiful Sunshine in the Drawing Room III (1903) the delicately observed play of light has an almost meditative quality to it; however its evocation of  silence gradually brings on a creeping sense of existential isolation.

最初的平静感之后,往往是更不安的感觉,但这些画作当然还是需要你安静沉思的情绪。在极美的《客厅的阳光III》(Sunshine in the Drawing Room III,1903年)中,对光线游走的微妙观察,具有一种近乎冥想的品质;然而,它唤起的寂静逐渐带出一种强烈的、与存在相关的孤立感。

The empty seat facing a closed door in Interior with Windsor Chair (1913) disquietingly suggests an absent presence or arouses a sense of anticipation for someone’s arrival. The entire space has the curiously ethereal feel of a waiting room between this world and the next.

在《有温莎椅的内景》(Interior with Windsor Chair,1913年)中,一把空椅子对着紧闭的门,令人不安地暗示着缺席,或者激起了对有客到来的期待。整个空间有一种奇怪的超越凡世的感觉,就像一间介于此生与来世之间的等候室。

Home discomforts


Hammershøi was painting at a time when interiors were a hugely popular motif. The home was seen as refuge from increasing industrialisation and artists enthusiastically portrayed the concept of hygge in paintings which suggested comfort and warmth. “But you cannot feel that in front of Hammershøi,” says Champion. “It’s absolutely the contrary, it’s very disturbing.”


Hammershøi appears to have been as taciturn, quiet and reserved as his art. He had a small, close circle of family and friends, many of whom appeared in his work, but in general he lived the life of a recluse, rarely appearing in public or commenting on his work.


From 1898 to 1909, his home was an apartment at Strandgade 30 in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen and it is here that he painted most of his interiors. Favouring an austere aesthetic, in marked contrast to the sumptuous interiors common amongst the upper-middle classes, he and his wife Ida had the  18th Century wall mouldings, doors and walls painted a uniform white and the walls and ceilings in muted shades of grey, blue and yellow, with the wooden floorboards stained dark brown.

从1898年到1909年,他住在哥本哈根克里斯蒂安港(Christianshavn)海滨街30号(Strandgade 30)的一套公寓,正是在这里,他创作了大部分的内景画。与中上阶层常见的豪华室内装修形成鲜明对比,他和妻子伊达(Ida)喜欢朴素之美,18世纪的墙壁线脚、门与一些墙壁涂成了一样的白色,还有一些墙与天花板采用了柔和的灰色、蓝色和黄色,木地板则是深棕色。

Their minimal furnishings, including two sofas, a chest of drawers, some tables and a piano, were systematically re-arranged to create compositions whose limited and non-naturalistic palette divorces the images from reality, giving them an almost otherworldly quality.


That is amplified when he introduces the figure of Ida, almost always seen from the rear. Although women were an integral presence in the Dutch genre and Danish Golden Age paintings which were a clear influence on Hammershøi, providing a sense of narrative, warmth or intimacy, none of these elements are evident in his work. The presence of Ida does not give his interiors life; instead, they remain as inaccessible and unreadable as the woman herself.


The woman in the window


That inscrutability is only enhanced when Hammershøi subverts the familiar Golden Age window motif which was often used to express a dialogue with the outside world. However, in a work such as Interior, Strandgade 30 (1901) in which Ida stands in shadow facing a wall, unable or unwilling to approach the window further in front of her, Hammershøi instead creates  a metaphor for the loneliness of the individual. Her solitude is heightened by the frames, eerily devoid of pictures, which hang on the wall behind her. “You don’t know why this poor woman is facing the wall like that,” says Champion. “There is no hint as to what is happening inside her mind.”

黄金时代的绘画,往往借由窗口这个主题表达与外界的对话。但哈莫修依却颠覆了这个常用的涵义,他的作品因此更加晦涩难懂。然而,在像《内景,海滨街30号》(Interior, Strandgarde 30 ,1901年)这样的作品中,伊达站在暗处,面对墙壁,无法或者不愿意走近面前的窗口,哈莫修依以此隐喻个人的孤独。伊达身后墙上的画框令她看起来愈加孤独,诡异的是,画框里并没有画。“你不知道为什么这个可怜的女人要那样对墙而立,”尚皮翁说。“她究竟在想什么,没有任何暗示。”

The empty frames appear again in Interior with a Woman Standing (undated) in which Ida stands with bowed head in front of a window. Perhaps it is the softer light or the delicate nature of the duck-egg blue walls but here she seems more contemplative than alone. “I think that’s one of the reasons people are attracted to it now,” says Champion. “Since there is no psychology, no story, you can just put your own vision in to it.”

《室内,一个站着的女人》(Interior with a Woman Standing,未注明日期)再次出现了空画框,伊达低着头站在窗前。也许是因为光线更为柔和,或者因为鸭蛋青色墙壁的微妙本质,她给人的感觉似乎是在沉思,而非孤独。“我想这就是画作能吸引当代观众的原因之一吧,”尚皮翁说。“因为没有心理描述,没有情节,所以你只能把自己的想像放进去。”

There is only one image in which Ida seems at ease and this is Rest (1905) in which she sits turned away from us, slumped in a chair, the nape of her neck making for an uncharacteristically sensual focus.  “It’s very special this one, because it doesn’t look like the others,” says Champion. “I find in this one everything that is lacking in the others… there is a sweetness in this painting. It’s almost like he wanted to paint a portrait, but from behind.”


The painting is a rare example of Hammershøi’s work projecting warmth. By contrast, when Ida is seen from the front in Three Young Women (1895) along with her two sisters in law, the picture, far from displaying happy families, feels oppressive. “They don’t connect ever, it’s like each one was imprisoned in his own world,” says Champion.

这件作品是哈莫修依画作呈现出暖意的罕见例子。相比之下,在《三位年轻女子》(Three Young Women,1895年)中,伊达与她的两个姻亲以正面示人,但也没有展示家庭的温馨,而让人感到压抑。“她们之间没有沟通,就像每个人都被囚禁在自己的世界里,”尚皮翁说。

Hammershøi may have subverted the motifs of his Dutch and Danish predecessors but in another sense he can be seen as a forerunner of Edward Hopper. Champion agrees there is “the same discomfort.” In drawing comparisons between Hopper’s most famous work, Nighthawks (1942) and Three Young Women he says “it’s always a question of being alone, you feel alone when you are in front of both these paintings.”

哈莫修依可能颠覆了他的荷兰和丹麦前辈们的创作主题,但从另一个意义上,他可以被视为爱德华·霍普(Edward Hopper)的前辈。尚皮翁也认为两人的作品存在“同样的不适感”。在将霍普最著名的作品《夜莺》(Nighthawks,1942年)与《三个年轻女子》进行比较时,他说:“都是孤独,当你面对这两幅作品时,你感受到的是孤独。”

However, he sees Hopper as being more emphatic in his portrayals of anguish. “There is a beautiful Hopper painting with a woman half-clothed sitting on a bed and there is a window and nothing else,” says Champion. “You can feel the drama which was there before. There is narrative, that’s the difference.”


A painter for our times?


With Hammershøi we are left to project our own emotions onto the paintings and if they are frequently ones of anxiety and unease that perhaps says more about the turbulent times we live in than the Danish master’s unfathomable intentions. Though given Hammershøi was living in an era when Danes were contending with significant territorial losses and growing tensions within Europe, it is possible contemporary viewers reacted similarly to the work.


But his ability to draw such feelings from us is not the sole source of his appeal.  “Of course, we don’t forget that they are incredibly beautiful,” says Champion.


Emil Hannover, an art historian and friend of Hammershøi’s, saw his work as “a silent protest against all the gaudy and gaping tastelessness of our time.” In our own era which is infinitely gaudier and more tasteless than late 19th and early 20th Century Denmark, in which we yearn to declutter our homes of unnecessary purchases and our minds of unnecessary distraction perhaps it is unsurprising that his paintings resonate so deeply. Disquieting he may be, but there’s also a solace in his sparseness – he is the painter we need right now.

汉诺威(Emil Hannover)是一名艺术史学家,也是哈莫修依的朋友,他认为他的作品“是对我们这个时代所有华而不实和巨大庸俗的无声抗议”。我们当前的时代,绝对比19世纪末20世纪初的丹麦更加华而不实、品味更坏,我们渴望清理家中不必要的物品和大脑中不必要的干扰,因此,他的作品能引发如此强烈的共鸣,也就不足为奇了。他也许令人不安,但他的简朴也是一种安慰——他是我们现在需要的画家。