1 February 2019

Vilhelm Hammershøi - In The Silent Eye

Vilhelm Hammershøi

Having worked at the British Museum for many years I’ve long been fascinated by two somewhat eccentric views of the building. Both were painted from the same vantage point in 1905 by a Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi. In the mid-late 1990s I was very involved with the archaeology of the BM site ahead of the building of the Great Court which opened in 2000 (see here). As part of this we often consulted old photographs, paintings and plans of the BM buildings, using them to piece together clues about some of the architectural remnants we discovered. We opened up several trenches on the BM forecourt and most of the finds made there related to Montagu House, the seventeenth century building which preceded the current one. Eight metres below the present colonnade we managed to dig down into the old building itself. Later consulting a set of hand-drawn plans of Montagu House it was thrilling to see the exact step on which I’d sat with trowel in hand, effectively sitting in the basement of the old building which had been demolished in the 1840s (see here). We also found a large area of cobblestone paving in front of the main steps, although I can’t now recall if this was associated with the original courtyard of Montagu House or the later building, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, which still stands today – either way it had long been covered over and forgotten. Cobblestones and basement steps might seem like strange things to be fascinated by, but it’s often the smallest remnants which can lend a direct continuity between the past and the present. It’s these elements of the everyday which are most often passed over and rendered unseen. Physical archaeology, and, perhaps even moreso, the ‘archaeology’ of images is one of our best routes to reconnect with the past.

The British Museum, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1905 (Fulsang Kunstmuseum)

I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way. Walking past the house in which Hammershøi painted these two views each day eventually piqued my interest. I couldn’t help wondering how closely the views from those upper storey windows today compared with his two views painted over a hundred years ago. Too shy to just knock on the door and ask the present inhabitant if they’d let me take a look, I decided to do a little research to see if anyone else had been struck by the same curiosity and had done the necessary footwork before me. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

Michael Palin (photo by Chris Blott)

It seems me and “that Michael Palin chap from the telly” have a fair few things in common. Asides from being a big fan of Monty Python and his many entertaining and inspirational travel documentaries it seems he and I share a fascination for this artist and these two paintings in particular. In fact Palin used these two views as a springboard for a fascinating documentary in which he follows Hammershøi back to his native Copenhagen, via a brief excursion to Amsterdam en route (Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershøi, BBC, 2005 – see here). In this wonderful one hour long film Palin manages to track down many of the places, mostly interiors, which Hammershøi painted and delights in seeing what they look like today. He even interviews the current occupant of the flat in Great Russell Street in which Hammershøi and his wife stayed in 1905. What fascinates Palin the most about Hammershøi’s paintings are the ambiguities captured there in muted tones. Simple views of sunlight filtering into empty rooms. Half open doorways. Solitary women (often Hammershøi’s wife, or earlier on in his career, his sister) seen from behind, their bodies obscuring what they might be doing – playing a piano, reading a letter, threading a needle, or any number of activities we might care to imagine could absorb an individual deeply ensconced in their own company. (Palin is also taken by the motif of the woman’s exposed neck which is often repeated in many of Hammershøi’s paintings and which I find reminiscent of Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey – a very different painting and one which I find intensely moving). Suffused with a quiet stillness, one thing which all of Hammershøi’s paintings tend to evoke is the silence of a moment.

Montague Street, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1905 (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek)

That play of light and gloom is something which seems peculiar to Scandinavian art. It is something which appeals to me as much as it does to Michael Palin. As with most people, my fascination began with the works of Edvard Munch. I remember when I was at Sixth Form I was very taken by Munch’s famous painting of The Scream from his projected but uncompleted ‘Frieze of Life’ series of works. At the time The Scream was temporarily on display in London. I never managed to see it myself on that occasion, but I remember discussing it with a close friend of mine who went to see it with the other students of her art class – she is now a highly talented painter herself (and incidentally, there’s something about the technique of her brushwork which I find reminiscent of Hammershøi, even though I know Hammershøi is not necessarily one of her main influences – see here). We were greatly shocked when, only a year or so after The Scream had been on display in London, we saw some very dramatic CCTV footage shown on the TV News of the painting being stolen in Norway – the thieves exiting a high window and audaciously sliding the painting down a ladder propped against the side of the building, all done and away in a matter of moments. That same day I painted my own version of The Scream – to temporarily ‘replace’ the one which was now missing. Thankfully the actual Munch painting was recovered several years later. I’ve still not seen this famous version of The Scream, although I have seen other iterations of this motif made by Munch in different formats and different sizes in various exhibitions both in London and in Japan.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch, 1893 (National Gallery, Norway)

My copy of Munch's The Scream, painted 12 February 1994

A few years ago I found myself captivated by the landscape paintings of a Norwegian painter, Peder Balke. The National Gallery in London had a small exhibition of his works, which was accompanied by a very handsome book. Perhaps there’s something about the long dark gloomy weather of the autumn-winter-spring seasons in these northern latitudes which speaks to this sense of melancholy introspection reflected in the elemental transformations of the landscape (both interior as well as exterior), and the play of light and dark across muted surfaces which speaks to the Northern European soul in such a distinctive way. British painters have it too – think of the works of Whistler or Turner. Some painters, such as Van Gogh and Gauguin, fled from it – seeking out distinctly sunnier climes in the south of France or even as far afield as the Marquesas in the South Seas. Yet others, like Hammershøi, Balke, Munch, and Turner, embraced it and examined it to the full. 

La Route Royale près de Gentofte, by Vilhelm Hammershøi

There are no simple answers here. How we each fathom what these paintings are meant to depict is very much up to us. For me, when I look at Hammershøi’s oblique views of the British Museum, I am aware of the shift in focus. As with many of his paintings they can seem like a momentary distraction from the main event. An eye caught by something else passing by on the periphery. That something might even be a momentary passing thought, entirely unconnected, which distracts us albeit only very briefly. But another angle on these muted views which strikes me is how much like early photographs they are. There are no people depicted in these two canvases. Just buildings, railings, trees and empty thoroughfares which would normally be bustling with life at any hour of the day or night. They seem to me like those early photos in which the prolonged length of exposure time would necessarily dissolve any figures who were not absolutely stationary from appearing there. In that sense such early photographs, and similarly Hammershøi’s paintings, are like the still unchanging point of stillness itself. They embody the elements of life which remain unchanging. They are the places and the moments on which we can anchor, and in many senses – as Palin’s documentary shows – they can be the things which last the longest, outlasting us, even if they don’t quite remain exactly the same. In some senses, to me at any rate, Hammershøi’s paintings capture the unchanging essence of transience and transition. Tempus fugit – Time flies, even if it passes so slowly that we can’t perceive it changing. As the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Hammershøi, famously said: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” – “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Interior, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1899 (Tate Gallery)

Photo of Michael Palin by Chris Blott, used here with kind permission of the photographer.

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