Saturday, 6 September 2008

Modernism again: Hammershøi and Mondrian

Images from the current show at the Royal Academy, Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence, are familiar to all in the UK who look at the art pages in the papers. (It finishes on Sunday 7th.)

The majority of the paintings are scenes of the interiors of Hammershøi’s spacious apartments in Copenhagen, almost bare of furniture. What we mainly see are walls, panelled doors, floors, windows, vistas of rooms and hallways seen through open doors. Hammershøi seems to be moving away from representational realism in the direction of Mondrian in that he’s interested in straight edges and corners and in areas of uniform colour and texture. On the flat surface of the painting, the lines that represent the edges and corners could mostly be described in terms of simple geometry.

It would be wrong, though, to see Hammershøi as an incomplete Mondrian who operated a bit too early to embrace full abstraction. What would have been lost if he had just traced his edges in thick black and coloured in the shapes with flat colour would have been significant. If the original colours had been kept, the result would probably still, at a stretch, have evoked an apartment; if he had used Mondrian’s colours, that association would probably have been completely lost or else have persisted only very faintly, as just one of a number of possible resonances.

As Hammershøi did them, these paintings are modernist works though they aren’t Mondrian. They are so because in them images of real scenes seem reducible to a 'language', as in Matisse (see earlier posting). The most subtle distinctions in reality -- the different lighting in that series of the same view of the same room, experienced by the viewer as rich and delicious and sensuous -- could almost be (this seems to be the suggestion) 'just' (or, at another level) combinatory permutations of items from a catalogue of colours and textures: each area of paint (almost) is consistent across its whole area: not each square millimetre but each 5 cm square would be pretty well interchangeable inside the shape made by the edges. So the paintings could serve as displays of sample colour/ textures, any of which could conceivably be lifted and used in a standardised way in some quite different painting -- with a different meaning.

Thus the complexity of visual reality reduces to a code or system -- or Hammershøi hints that it almost could, carried to its logical conclusion. The world, for all its sensuous variety, is actually abstract -- each scene is one instantiation of an abstract set of possibilities -- the parole is just the langue. Very modernist, that.

But the paintings intrigue because you can go the other way too. For all the structured and abstract system that lies behind it, the world appears -- when inspected closely, after the first drab impression -- as lively, vibrant. Those large areas of subdued colour are not dead; each colour is a mixture, the brush marks contributing to a sense of frozen motion, a momentary stasis of something dynamic. Thus our experience oscillates between the abstraction and the infinite variety and motion of the actual.

OK, that’s a very partial account and I'd like to go back and check it again against the paintings, but I won’t have time to before the show closes. Also, some of his paintings are of exterior scenes (though mainly architecture, and thus akin to his interiors) and not a few contain a female figure, more often than not from the back. I don’t know how to fit them into my account.

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