The Hammershøi exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André on Boulevard Haussman not only vindicates everything I say about Hammershøi’s use of grey in The Truth is Always Grey, but is also a stunning example of the brilliance of a modernist painter’s use of grey as a technique.
From his earliest works, this exhibition shows us that the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi was interested in stripping away the narrative details of his painting, details such as identifying features of faces and places. Looking at the early works, it’s not outlandish to suggest that he wasn’t much of a portrait painter. None of the figures are emotive or memorable as individual characters, and in works such as Five Portraits Hammershøi is already trying to do something different with figures. He uses gradations of grey paint as light and darkness to create atmosphere. From the beginning of this exhibition, Hammershøi removes all furniture from spaces, and faces from people in order that the architectonics of space and the color grey have the opportunity to slip into the role of expressing emotions, creating mood and significance, as well as inviting the viewer to come closer to the painting. Above all, Hammershøi is committed to the use of grey to create light and darkness, warmth and coldness in the literal and metaphorical air of his paintings. From the beginning we see the radicality of painting in Hammershøi’s refusal to soften any aspect of facial features through light. The face is not the focus. These works may be representational, but they are as abstract as any non-representational work of the early 20th century. They are about the harshness of the lines and structures of the image, the rigid and fixed framing, flatness of the canvas and the experimentation with a single color palette.
The influence of James Abbot McNeill Whistler can be seen everywhere in the thinness of Hammershøi’s paint, as well as the manipulation of gradations and shades of grey. The works on display are so hastily painted that sometimes Hammershøi does not paint to the edges, and at others, one could be forgiven for thinking he never finished the work. We don’t need the evidence of the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (influenced by Whistler’s Composition No. 1) to convince us of Whistler’s influence on Hammershøi’s experiments: the evidence is in the use and application of paint on the canvas, as well as the formal organization of the spaces. Also, like his American inspiration, Hammershøi brushes against the accepted wisdom of painting conventions of his time in an attempt to transpose the temperatures and tones of industrial modernity to the canvas. In a work such as The Jewish School in Guilford Street, (1912-13), it’s not just that the work is executed in grey paint, but that the tone, temperature and social significance of the work is achieved through the nuances and fluidity of grey. Grey is the color of modernity at this moment of immense upheaval. And it is the color in which Hammershøi suspends the Guilford school in stillness and silence.
Visitors will also notice the influence of Vermeer when looking at Hammershøi’s women standing in rooms on their own. However, while the figures are familiar, Hammershøi removes all the narrative, and so, unlike Vermeer’s works, there are no milk jugs, maps, globes, earrings or paintings in the background. The Vermeer influence pervades Hammershøi’s paintings in the form of intimacy and warmth, a sense of vibrancy introduced through the use of light. However, Hammershøi’s works are also flat, and refuse the viewer’s imagination, most significantly because the woman is usually sitting or standing with her back to us. The result is that, rather than the ambiguity of narrative that leaves us puzzling in front of Vermeer’s women, Hammershøi’s scenes are pervaded by emptiness.
For me, the most exquisite of these paintings are those in which people have left the room and the sun express itself on uneven floors and old skirting boards. These spaces are highly constructed, but always made unsettling by light. The paintings are often focused on corners, door frames, floorboards, walls and their relation to the picture frame that is never parallel. The skewed lines are emphasized by light falling at impossible angles, shining through windows that are also closed to the world. In Sunlight in the Salon for example, light falls at a different diagonal, to the imagined presence of the window, at a greater intensity than would seem possible given the soft illumination on the floor. We are left trying to figure out how can the window create this pattern on the wall? Alternatively, we are drawn to study the use of light and shadow to articulate space on grey walls and floors.
The brilliance and radicality of Hammershøi comes in the slow move to abstraction as we see it in the interior spaces. The thinness of the paint, the emphasis on form and structure, in spaces where something isn’t quite right. The recognition of multiple spaces beyond and to the side of the one depicted. The use of open and closed doors, creating disquiet in both the room in the image and the unexplained spaces beyond. The most exciting image in the exhibition is that of his wife leaning out of the window into the yard of their apartment building, Courtyard Strandgarde 30. It is an exterior that is also an interior, an imbalanced composition in which the brilliant light on the woman peering through the window is so intense that she could be on a stage. And the light, as well as the view on a corner of windows, creates an impossible perspective that is more illusory than it could ever be real.
The pamphlet provided by the museum claims that Hammershøi’s paintings reflect a clinical sobriety. To me, they reflect the absolute opposite. The figures may be without character, but they are filled with emotion, it’s simply that we can’t access those emotions. And when the people have no emotions, it’s because the background is infused with all the feeling through the careful use of grey to articulate volume and shape, impossible lines and mysterious illumination. The museum also claims that Hammershøi’s palette is limited. Again, I would disagree. While he might use a single color palette, the greyscale is infinite. If ever there was evidence of grey being multiple and varied, fluid and exciting, this is it. Within a single body of work, Hammershøi gives us the full range of possibilities of the color grey.