Hammershøi’s works — dazzling in their own right — reflect his focus on solitude, silence and a universe reduced to shades of gray.
In Hammershøi’s interiors, most people, like “Woman Seen from the Back” (1888), are turned away or preoccupied.
During my recent preview stroll through the Vilhelm Hammershøi painting exhibition at the Frye Museum, the staff seemed a bit concerned about potential attendance — understandably so.
Besides the fact that the 19th-century Danish artist Hammershøi is an unfamiliar name to most people, his work does not present the immediate dazzle and charm of his exact contemporaries, the Impressionists, whose crowd-pleasing celebrations of color, urban energy and pleasure are the opposite of Hammershøi’s focus on solitude, silence and a universe reduced to shades of gray.
Once one overcomes, however, the initial shock of encountering such a restrained and understated vision, the subtle and sophisticated pleasures of this very eccentric artist’s work start to become apparent.
The single figure, turned away, hides her face and hands, and the surrounding room lacks any grounding details of wall, ceiling or floor, dissolving into a sort of shimmering gray mist. A table without visible legs hovers uncertainly, framed by a partly seen mahogany chair. The only thing that is entirely solid and legible is the woman’s sculptural form itself, as weighty and monumental as a piece of marble statuary, her black dress and white apron rendered with extreme attention to slight variations in tone, as if the light on her back and neck is all that matters in the world.
It was his interiors, in fact, that made Hammershøi’s reputation, and the current exhibit includes a representative sampling. It’s not a criticism to say that the rooms with figures seem nearly as empty as those that contain only furniture; like “Woman Seen from the Back,” most of the people are turned away or preoccupied. Nor do we get to enjoy relieving views through the many windows and doorways, which are always blank.
What spares Hammershøi’s rooms from claustrophobia or entrapment are his strategically placed pools and panels of shimmering, pearly light, an almost mystical connection to a realm well beyond the domestic.
The show also includes examples of Hammershøi’s peculiar approach to other artistic genres of his times: street scenes, landscapes and portraits. While there are too few samples of his landscape work to make a strong impression, the half-dozen cityscapes are even odder than his interiors.
Copenhagen is quite the lively place now and must have been so then, but Hammershøi preferred to imagine its monuments as islands in a fog, with no foreground or background, no traffic, no people. What clearly caught the artist’s interest was the interplay of facade and ornament, of built-up textures and structural rhythms, treating architecture — in the words of the old metaphor — as frozen music.
Ironically, given Hammershøi’s reticence and aloofness, the strongest work in the exhibit is his masterful self-portrait. To one side of the large, rather dark canvas the artist faces us calmly, hard at work, his own substantial figure balanced against the sort of panorama of window, door frame and reflection which he spent so much of his life examining — and, for him, was as transcendent as the Impressionists’ color-saturated gardens and streams.