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The Poetry of Silence
The work of a Danish artist, who said that keeping interiors simple made them more beautiful, is on show in London for the first time, writes Corinne JuliusThe maxim “less is more” is normally associated with the leading Twenties modernist Mies van der Rohe but it could have been said of 19th century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Born in 1864, Hammershøi painted haunted interiors in cool greys, whites and blues. The rooms he painted were often mysteriously empty, although the domestic objects that do appear reappear in painting after painting.
The Poetry of Silence, at the Royal Academy, is the first major exhibition of his work in this country.
Hammershøi achieved sudden fame in 1885 with his Portrait of a Young Woman. But a painting called The Artist’s Sister Anna Hammershøi was rejected for the prestigious Nuehaus Prize. The resultant outcry lead to his recognition.
The artist’s solitary figures, when they appear, have their backs to the viewer. The figure (often his wife, Ida Ilsted) seems lost in her own thoughts, unengaged with the world around her. Hammershøi’s colours are fairly monochrome and his scenes limited to his domestic environment.
After their marriage in Copenhagen in 1891 the couple searched for a flat in an old part of town. Hammershøi then painted sections of the apartment (typically just a couple of windowed walls) and the view of the building opposite many times over. When he was forced to change flat, he moved only across the road — to the building whose exterior he had painted.
His home became his work of art: a pictorial laboratory
He looked and looked again, minutely observing each of its objects in the cool summer sunlight. He stripped the flat’s interiors away to the minimum, transforming them into hermetically sealed places of almost disturbing emptiness. Hammershøi treated colour in a similar way, reducing it to a narrow palette and so increasing its effect.
He was interviewed only twice in print, once for an interiors magazine, where he said: “If only people would open their eyes to the fact that a few good things in a room give it a far more beautiful and finer quality than many mediocre things, that every genuine object, even if it is of cheap materials, is better and handsomer than imitation expensive objects.”
This ideal interior was in striking contrast to the fussy bourgeois excesses of his contemporaries. “How much better homes would look,” he said, “if all this ‘rubbish’ was got rid of.”
* The Poetry of Silence, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1; until 7 September. Call 0870 848 8484 for ticket prices, or visit www. royalacademy.org.uk.