Thursday, 4 September 2008
The Poetry of Silence, or...
Caught Vilhelm Hammershoi's exhibition at the RA just before it closes at the end of the week. The show is titled The Poetry of Silence. Hammershoi is Danish, 1865-1916. The paintings come complete with recommendations from Rainer Maria Rilke among others.
The place was packed out with the aged and the refined. The RA is like that. It is intelligent, knowledgeable, well-dressed and, generally, rich.
It is a complex act taking in a painting. Most people, most of the time, drift past a series of them, and form an impression of some sort, or hover for a minute in front of one or the other before moving on. In an ideal world you would be given a good half an hour in front of anything even vaguely interesting and let your eye inhabit the work a little. That's hard in life, generally because of time and other people, which is why I have always gone away from a good exhibition wishing I could steal one of the works, usually just a small one, if only for a month or so, to live it a little the way the artist lived it.
Because pictures don't just appear. They come about, often rather slowly and painstakingly, and were coming about well before the brush first touched the surface. So looking at a painting is a kind of undressing of the work, then re-dressing it. I sat in front of the only full sized figure in the exhibition, the painting of a cellist, playing near the bridge of the instrument, on the top strings, and made notes. Cello seemed appropriate to Hammershoi, especially one that was straining to be a viola.
What you generally get with him are plain walls, plain doors, plain windows and not very much light, except, here and there, a kind of fluttering. The city views are determinedly grey-toned as though a giant spider had done a Christo on them and wrapped them entirely in fine cobwebs. You do sometimes get Mrs Hammershoi, but usually she has her back to you. If I said think of an unlikely blend of Gabriel Metsu, L S Lowry, Rene Magritte, Gwen John, Georges Seurat, Pierre Renoir (on a particularly rainy day) and Pieter Saenredam, you wouldn't thank me. I thought of all these, settling chiefly on Metsu and Gwen John but never quite being able to forget Magritte. If he had painted a bowler hat on his wife the association would have been complete. But then the back of Mrs Hammershoi is often the nape of her neck or the small of her back, so there is an air of voyeurism there too, as if he had crept up on her, the way Hitchcock's camera creeps up on his female victims.
Interior St. Bavo-Haarlem Pieter Saenredam
Mère Poussepin Gwen John
But walls are not entirely straight, windows not entirely set in their frames, chairs not absolutely fixed to the floor, nor ceiling free of a certain occasional tendency to sag. Nothing is quite as certain as that simple view of a simple room would indicate.
And the simplicity is that peculiar Scandinavian Calvinist simplicity that is permanently pitched between sin and mourning. The rooms are obsessively tidy, the light fixedly non-sensual. If it caught so much as a sniff of voluptuousness it would flap its black skirts and scream.
These are spaces to hover in, and maybe that's why they called the exhibition The Poetry of Silence. Put it another way. Think of Ingmar Bergman remaking Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire. Or put it still another way...