Pt V: Hammershøi – The Divine in the Ordinary


     The final way in which Lutheran spirituality is present in Hammershøi’s work is in the intimate privacy depicted. This privacy is that of the humble and powerless. Christ invited fishermen and ordinary people to his table. Christian artists in the nineteenth century such as Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) gave dignity to ordinary people through painting farmers at work. Furthermore, paintings during the Dutch Golden Age depicted private happiness; Hammershøi took much inspiration from Dutch artists from this period. During both the Dutch and Danish Golden Ages, domestic interiors were seen as spaces of inner reflection. As previously mentioned, Pietism also favoured intimate privacy. Christ said that when praying, one should “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret.” This sense of intimacy is evoked in the immediacy captured in each painting; the figures are all occupied. For example, The Coin Collector [Fig.1] depicts a man, head bent, examining an article from his collection hidden in shadow. His figure is difficult to see due to the soft lighting and his dark clothes. Hammershøi focusses on the effect of candlelight on different surfaces: fabric, glass, wood, and metal. What stands out however is the man’s illuminated cheek, providing just enough information for the viewer to see his head is bowed in thought. Similar to Hammershøi’s other paintings such as Rest [Fig.2] and White Doors [Fig.3], the amount of information available to the viewer is limited, thus forcing one to examine the painting closely, forcing the viewer to stop. The audience does the same as the coin collector; they pause to examine. This is perhaps what Hammershøi wants the viewer to do, like his wife in Rest, we are called to stop. In this painting there is a sense of silent, stoic meditation. The figure’s back to us gives the impression of privacy.

Pt V: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 1: Vilhelm Hammershøi, The Coin Collector, 1904, oil on canvas, (89cm x 70cm), National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo

     The thin veneer of paint on Rest, the subdued colour palette, the simple wooden chair all point to a severe way of life. This can further be seen in the dark, simple clothes that the figure wears – typically Lutheran in style. The pale nape of her neck and the simple hairstyle also emphasise a Lutheran simplicity. This is important in uncovering Hammershøi’s Lutheranism. We see that these dark clothes were not typically worn by the majority of the population. typically worn Like Vermeer, the figure is not doing anything grand or ostentatious, rather a moment in her life has been captured and frozen, nothing has interrupted this tranquillity. She has turned her back on the viewer and on the world. Forever turned away, in silent meditation, frozen in the paint. All that remains are the woman’s thoughts. Kierkegaard described faith as a “passionate inwardness.” A sense of inwardness is precisely what veils this figure. An intimate scene of thought feels opaque – the painting does not give us information about the figure. This is an appropriate representation of what Hammershøi read in Either/Or. Kierkegaard argued that an artwork has an interior and exterior picture. The interior picture is not perceptible without seeing through the exterior. Kierkegaard gives the analogy of a fisherman looking at his float, not because he is interested in it, but rather because it signals what is happening below, “in the deep within.” The exterior’s significance is dependent on what the interior image, or meaning of a piece is. The interior image is too delicate to be externally manifested, for an idea can only be hinted at through paint. This is what can be seen in Hammershøi’s Rest. His work is so mysterious, it is easy to only gain a vague idea of what it is about. All has been stripped away but when one places his work in a Kierkegaardian context one sees that, in the theologian’s words: “the more understanding increases the more it becomes an inhuman understanding.” We are not meant to concretely understand these paintings. To use Kierkegaard’s vocabulary, some images are “shadowgraphs”, they simply suggest ideas of what lies “deep within”.

Pt V: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 2: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Rest, 1905, oil on canvas, (49cm x 46cm), Musée d’Orsay, Paris

     This sense of inaccessible intimacy is made stronger with the cold palette used by Hammershøi. This is quite different to Copenhagen’s Cathedral of Our Lady, rebuilt a few decades before Hammershøi’s lifetime. It appears warm and welcoming, despite it being primarily white in appearance. The welcoming figure of Christ with open arms beckoning the congregation towards him, surrounded by gold mosaic, is warmer than what one finds in Hammershøi’s grey canvases. In Hammershøi’s work one finds a rigidity that is less present in Copenhagen’s cathedral, bathed in warm light. This being said, Hammershøi’s work does draw one in – his light welcomes the viewer in a more tactful manner. In Dust Motes Dancing in the Sun Beams [Fig.4], we see a demonstration of Hammershøi’s interest in line before colour. The harmonious composition is based upon strong, defined lines. All is horizontal and vertical. All except the light breaking through. This idea of a breakthrough, literally the exterior breaking into the interior, can also be seen as a Kierkegaardian take on Lutheran spirituality. The boundaries of these two realms meet through the transparency of the glass. This is similar to the previously mentioned importance that Friedrich placed on windows – a barrier between interior and exterior.

     When one sees Dust Motes through a Kierkegaardian framework, one can see these ideas being conveyed. Not only the idea of there being an interior meaning to his work, but that the interior meaning is very close to the exterior one. In other words, one can view Hammershøi’s work as the manifestation of an idea: there is no visible narrative. Instead, a void is left in his work. Knowing Kierkegaard’s belief that loving God is to “not love what the world loves”, we see this lack of worldly pleasures in Hammershøi’s work. The physical world has been rejected; replaced with a spiritual one.

Pt V: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 3: Vilhelm Hammershøi, White Doors, Strandgade 30, 1899, oil on canvas, (39.5cm x 42.5cm), Jens Risom’s Private Collection

     One could argue Hammershøi has succeeded in getting as close as possible to incarnating an idea in paint. That is to say, in creating a void in his paintings, he has made space for the “interior image” to be made manifest. This image can be seen as a Lutheran view of the human condition, which is depicted through small spaces, inevitably leading to an intimate atmosphere. Kierkegaard’s view of the human condition was as follows. He believed that ‘despair’ was a natural result of a human being’s inherent disunity within themselves. The inward split within leads to despair and sin. Humans make the mistake of either blaming external factors or of trying to cure themselves of this despair. Instead of doing this, Kierkegaard claimed that humans must receive deliverance from an external source. This led him to talking about the leap of faith. Only a self-denying and world-denying faith in God would provide unification of the self.

     This idea of a denial of the self and of the world is visible in Dust Motes where the self has been entirely removed and the world outside is barely visible. This results in a beam of sunlight infiltrating the atmosphere, bringing a sense of hope. In Rest, the figure turns her back on the artist, the viewer and on human interaction. The despair that Kierkegaard talks of is remedied through a severing of links with the world. This is reemphasised in Hammershøi’s grey palette showing a separation with the real world, a world of colour. Dust Motes’ empty room would seem to suggest hopelessness. Kierkegaard believed that the more one strove to be a Christian, the more one would become aware of one’s sin; thus giving the impression that Kierkegaard is a little like the parable of the servant who buried his money out of fear of his master. It is possible to interpret Hammershøi’s figures in the same way: enclosed and shrouded in a mist of grey. This melancholic despair is an emotion advocated by many art historians when viewing his paintings. However, knowing Hammershøi’s interest in Kierkegaard, it would be a grave misunderstanding of his paintings to say they are without hope. Instead, we can see his work as deeply hopeful. The Christian symbol of hope [Matthew 4:16] is light; it brings humanity out of darkness into the Divine presence. Kierkegaard writes that it is only “in the night of hopelessness” that comes “the life-giving spirit […], the hope of eternity.” In the framework of a Kierkegaardian spirituality, emphasising the meaninglessness of life without God, it follows to see the light in Hammershøi’s work as symbolising this “life-giving spirit” incarnated in the Christian hope that is offered through a relationship with Christ. In Dust Motes, the streams of light filter through the glass, crisply illuminating the otherwise dark, blank room. With this in mind, it is possible to see Hammershøi’s work as a coherently meditative world rather than an opaque world, devoid of hope.

Pt V: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 4: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Dust Motes Dancing in the Sun Beams, 1900, oil on canvas, (70cm x 59cm), Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen

     It is not only through the idea of despair and hope that Hammershøi demonstrates his understanding of Kierkegaard’s theology. Kierkegaard goes on to write of Christ’s dual “loftiness” and “lowliness,” being both God and man. One may even argue that this dual nature of Christ can be seen through the light. Parallels can be drawn between the sunrays entering the dark ash-coloured room in Dust Motes and Christ’s Holy Spirit entering a new Christian. Paul writes that before Christ “we were [spiritually] dead”. Christ’s lowliness can be seen through the humility of Hammershøi’s figures. The humility in clothing in Rest and the symbol of sanctity through light can be seen to reflect what the Christian life ought to be, according to Lutheranism. Being reminded of Kierkegaard’s focus on the Christian’s “silent surrender to God,” we can see Hammershøi’s figures as the depicting this. This gives coherency to Hammershøi’s work and it gives a sense of hope, steeped in the works that Hammershøi read. Rather than being depictions of hopelessness and a misunderstood existentialism, his art is a uniquely modern expression of Lutheran Christianity for its time. During the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard’s ideas were ridiculed. He even observed that those in society who strove for a godly life were despised. This idea of scorn is conveyed through Hammershøi’s depiction of lonely figures, cut off from society. Once again, like Christ, not only are these figures humble and meditative but they are not entirely accepted by the society in which they live. It is perhaps due to Hammershøi’s fascination with Kierkegaard that his work is so novel and different to the work of his contemporaries. Hammershøi’s love for the theologian was rare for Kierkegaard was mocked during much of his life, with stones being thrown at him and caricatures being made of him. In this sense, one can see why this radical and unappreciated man meant that Hammershøi’s appreciation of him lead to his art being so unique.

     Finally, Hammershøi’s pieces can be seen as pointing to something more. The viewer is invited into the intimate world of each canvas. An art critic in 1900 wrote that Hammershøi’s pieces leave the soul unsatisfied. White Doors is an example of his work leading on to something more – it has a deeper meaning which is not immediately perceivable to the viewer. This way of leading the viewer in, creates a sense of unity between the artwork and the viewer; the painting is, in a sense, completed by the viewer’s gaze. Once again, demonstrating the extent to which Lutheran spirituality affects Hammershøi’s work. We are invited to focus on the scene at hand and to appreciate what is there. Hammershøi does not want the viewer to experience a conversion or to become a Christian, rather he is simply taking these Lutheran principles of being still and dwelling in the space provided by the painting. This space is indeed provided by Hammershøi in the spartan simplicity with which he paints. As previously discussed, the Kierkegaardian idea of the interior and exterior image is relevant as often Hammershøi’s work appears opaque in its mystery. It is down to the viewer as an individual to reflect on what is being depicted. This is perhaps due to the unique amount of space in the painting, a void is left within each piece creating stillness. This is what Kierkegaard wanted; a dependence on God, leaving all else behind. Kierkegaard believed that God could be best known through one’s individual faith. He asked that the Christian “should worship God with simplicity.” As a result of this, one may infer that it is Hammershøi’s private faith coming across in his work. “One experiences oneself through painting.” It was his temperament that guided his painting and not theory. He depicts simple, humble scenes, cut off from the world outside, intimate in privacy – inviting us in, yet remaining mysterious. The viewer, when observing these intimate quiet scenes, bathed in soft, cold light is invited to stop and to dwell on the small world depicted, so very different to the modern world.

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