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Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershoi


Michael Palin wrote this in 2005

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight; more a slow, benign haunting. It began after a visit to the Hayward Gallery in London nearly 20 years ago to see an exhibition of Scandinavian art. The South Bank, cold, grey and severe, seemed to echo all my prejudices as I dodged the swirling litter around the door, and readied myself for a therapeutic touch of Norse rigor. Instead I found walls full of colour, and canvases as bright and boundless as those of any impressionist, tinged with an appealing touch of melancholy. Golden harvest fields, couples strolling along beaches enveloped in the odd blue light of the midnight sun, women in deck chairs in long, white cotton dresses, big healthy nudes, thatched houses with spick-and-span rooms. Positive, glowing stuff, and very much in the general run of 19th-century European and American taste.

Except, that is, for two or three canvases, which stood out from the rest of the exhibition like undertakers at a carnival. These depicted sparsely furnished rooms, almost stripped of colour, conveying a powerful sense of stillness and silence, occasionally emphasised by the addition of a single female figure, always in black, her back turned. There was something about the work that drew me like a magnet. Something beyond appreciation of technique or decorative effect, something deeper and more compulsive, taking me in a direction I’d never been before.

I remember registering the name of the artist: Vilhelm Hammershoi, a Dane, born in 1864, died in 1916. But for some reason I never wrote it down or followed it up, and I lost the postcard I bought and life went on and I visited a hundred other exhibitions and became happily involved with many other artists.

Then, three years ago, riffling through a pile of books in a covered arcade in Paris, I found myself staring at the back of a woman in a simple black dress standing in a corner of a room with panelled doors on either side of her and a glow of light on the nape of her neck. It was the cover of a catalogue devoted to “Vilhelm Hammershoi, Danish painter of solitude and light”.

Inside were more of his paintings than I’d ever seen before, all gathered in an exhibition shown in Copenhagen, Paris and the Guggenheim in New York in 1997 and 1998. Apart from the interiors, there were landscapes, portraits, even nudes, all painted in his quiet, neutral colours, a style at once classical and modern, a weird but heady fusion of Vermeer and Edward Hopper. This time I wasn’t going to let him get away and knew as I bought the catalogue that I wouldn’t rest until I’d found out everything I could about him.

He was to prove as evasive as the meaning of his paintings. He left no journals and before his death destroyed his collection of letters. He was by all accounts a shy, retiring man with few close friends.

There are only two Hammershois in public collections in Britain – one on display in the basement of the National Gallery, and one in store at Tate Britain. A conservator there confirmed that Hammershoi’s woman in black was his wife Ida, model and muse, whom he married when he was 26 and who nursed him through the throat cancer from which he died only 24 years later.

Both paintings were left to the nation by Leonard Borwick, a Hammershoi fan and Queen Victoria’s favourite concert pianist. Between 1897 and 1906, Hammershoi made three visits to London, drawn to the sooty mists and fogs that everyone else complained about. He was a great admirer of Whistler and envied his mastery of subdued tones and abstract effects of light. Urged on by Borwick, he went to meet Whistler at his house, but was told the great man was too busy. Hammershoi went away and never tried again.

Not a clubby man, Hammershoi preferred the anonymity of the British Museum, where mist rolled in from the streets outside and the reading room was open until 10pm. From his flat opposite, he made a remarkable painting of the museum. Instead of celebrating the neo-classical glory of the facade, his composition featured the ornate railings running down the side of Montague Street.

He achieved some international recognition in his lifetime, winning prizes in Berlin and Paris, and paid visits to Rome and Amsterdam (where he feasted on the Vermeers). But his workshop and primary source of information was Denmark, and in particular the capital, Copenhagen, where he was born to enlightened parents, attended drawing classes from the age of eight, and lived until his death.

Copenhagen is a comfortable place. A city that seems at ease with itself. There is an elegant sprinkling of fine classical buildings, and an architectural harmony that London lacks. Red brick, red roofs, lots of windows. An absence of thrusting skyscrapers gives it a low, settled scale.

There is no Hammershoi trail in Copenhagen, so I had to make up one of my own. I discovered that the two main apartments in which Hammershoi painted still exist. One is now the office of protocol at the foreign ministry and, by extraordinary coincidence, the current chief of protocol is the great-nephew of Alfred Bramsen, the Copenhagen dentist who became Hammershoi’s greatest champion, patron and friend.

The interiors that caught my eye all those years ago still exist, with only minor adjustments. The long, graceful window from which Ida looks out is as it was and the doors he painted still swing open at the flat at 30 Strandgade, one of the oldest houses in the city. Access is a problem. This is a private house now and only with the greatest reluctance did the occupants let me see inside.

At the Hirschsprung Collection, in a stash of letters saved by his doting mother, Hammershoi, about to marry Ida, worries about the mental instability of his prospective mother-in-law. This madness in the family could explain the downcast eyes and profound sadness in most of the portraits of Ida, and perhaps why they never had children.

Hammershoi had an early taste of professional failure when a marvellously accomplished portrait of his sister Anna, painted when he was only 21, was passed over by the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and the award was given to someone else. Later in his life, he was bruised again when his enormous and painstakingly crafted masterpiece Five Portraits proved impossible to sell in his home country and went instead to Sweden. Perhaps it’s as well he wasn’t around in the 1930s when the Danish National Gallery, claiming that the artist had gone out of fashion, returned 28 Hammershois left to them by Bramsen.

Then, just as all the evidence seemed to confirm the image of a timid, frustrated recluse, along came Vilhelm’s younger brother Sven. He belonged to a group of young men who took a summer house on the sea some 60 miles from Copenhagen where, inspired by Hellenistic ideals, they sang, danced, wore togas and ran around naked in celebratory Nordic fashion. Erik Steffensen, an artist, critic and professor, suggested that Vilhelm spent quite a lot of time in his brother’s company and would have enjoyed good food and wine with them, and seen and perhaps even contributed to their satirical magazines. As Professor Steffensen was at pains to point out, Sven and his friends were “funny people”.

It was quite a relief to find that all was not unrelieved gloom and that while not being a hoot himself, Hammershoi might at least have enjoyed fun by association. It also showed that he did get out of the house. Not only to paint a number of fine landscapes around Copenhagen, but also the great palaces and courtyards of the capital, always, of course, devoid of people.

His nudes were a revelation to me. Very different from the voluptuous sun-worshippers of the Danish Golden Age on which he would have been brought up, they are not so much nudes as naked women, revealed and vulnerable, painted in cool, hard colours and sometimes from an almost voyeuristic perspective. I read somewhere that while painting them Hammershoi had to have frequent pauses for a lie down.

I don’t think Hammershoi would have liked the confessional times we live in now, when a desire for privacy is considered suspect and appreciation of any work of art seems to depend on how much we know about the artist’s personal life. He left us his quirky, innovative paintings and I think he intended them to say everything about himself that he wanted the world to know.

I started out admiring him, then feeling sorry for him, and now I’m even more convinced that he is someone special. It seems I’m not alone. Last month, one of his interiors with Ida was sold at Sotheby’s for a world record price of £340,000.

© Michael Palin

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