What better way to see a city than through the eyes of a painter? For everyone knows that great painters see life not as it is for an ordinary person, but rather, life as it can be transformed into something otherworldly — an artwork. On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I did exactly that — I saw the Danish city, which was founded as a fishing village in the 10th century, through the eyes of Vilhelm Hammershøi, a painter who lived and worked there for most of his life. Born in 1864, Hammershøi made a name for himself painting the interior spaces where he lived, and the landmarks of the city, in a stripped-bare style that anticipated both pointillism and modernism. Revered in his home country, he has been largely forgotten abroad. That is, until now. Currently, he is the subject of Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark, a critically acclaimed exhibition of his paintings currently on view at the Scandinavia House in New York through February 27, 2016. xxxxx
I was invited on the trip by the Danish Cultural Ministry, who on the morning after the group of American journalists I was traveling with arrived, arranged a walking tour of the city with Nina Dyrmose, a graduate student in arts and cultural studies at Copenhagen University. Unlike New York, where we all hailed from, which has undergone so many changes over the past century that is unrecognizable even to itself, Copenhagen has remained largely unchanged since the end of the 19th century when Hammershøi roamed the streets freely with his canvas, capturing medieval churches, royal palaces, bridges, and other landmarks.
Left: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), Self-portrait (1895).
Our first stop was Strandgade, the street where Hammershøi lived for much of his adult life with his beloved wife, Ida, who is also the subject of many of his portraits. There, we were given unique access to Strandgade 25, the building where Hammershøi lived in a luxurious second floor apartment for three years before he died from cancer in 1916. The building, which is now owned by the government, is generally closed to the public — currently, it is unoccupied.
At first glance, Hammershøi’s paintings can be very strange. Largely devoid of not only human life, but also the objects that inhabit it — furniture, clothing, pets, waste — the paintings have a surreal, almost abstract quality to them. Rather than being studies of a specific place or person, or even realistic depictions of landscapes, they are expressions of light and mood. Brooding and spare, they trace our world rather than copy it. They exist a few dimensions removed from reality. In 1885, the painter P.S. Krøyer, his teacher at the Artists’ Independent School, said of Hammershøi’s work: “I have a pupil who paints most oddly. I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do not try to influence him.”
Left: Vilhelm Hammershøi, The Buildings of the Asiatic Society, Seen from St. Annæ Street, Copenhagen (1902).
Like many paintings, one cannot get a full appreciation for Hammershøi’s work unless they see them in person. What was unexpected about visiting Strandgade 25 was how much more I could appreciate Hammershøi’s talent having seen what inspired it. What seemed otherworldly, or impossible, on the canvas came to life in the apartment — and vice versa. The quality of light was there, flooding the space through massive windows. And the emptiness as well; although the emptiness was only temporary, a function of the building not being inhabited. When Hammershøi lived there, photographic evidence shows that it would have been filled with the same objects that any bourgeois household of the time contained — along with being a successful painter, Hammershøi came from a wealthy family of merchants. But in his mind’s eye, Hammershøi saw his room as we did on our tour — emptied of most contents, and stripped to their basic components. Translating that without reference is a feat one can only appreciate having visited the apartment in modern times.
Right: Interior courtyard of Strandgade 30. Photo: Brienne Walsh.
Across the street from Strandgade 25 is Strandgade 30, another apartment building where Hammershøi lived from 1898 to 1909. Although the apartment where Hammershøi lived is currently occupied by a residential tenant, any pedestrian can walk into the courtyard behind the building to catch a glimpse of the bay windows that were a frequent subject in Hammershøi’s early paintings. For this reason, it is a wonderful starting point for a walking tour in the artist’s footsteps, which leads a tourist past every major landmark in Copenhagen.
After admiring the bay windows — and petting the cat that wandered over from an adjacent garden — Nina led our group over the Knippelsbro Bridge, which spans the inner harbor of the city, and to Ved Stranden, the street where Hammershøi lived as a child. From there, we walked roughly ¾ of a mile to the Amalienborg Palace, where Margrethe II, the current queen of Denmark, lives. Along the way, we passed the Marble Church, designed in 1740; the modern Danish Opera House, which opened in 2005, and is rumored to have cost over $500 million; and Nyhavn (New Harbor), a canal lined by quaint restaurants and buildings painted in bright colors, that is the most photographed place in all of Denmark. In essence, we passed by all of the places that any tourist visits when they come to Copenhagen.
Left: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Amalienborg Plads, 1896
The Amalienborg palace is located on a square with three other palaces, occupied by the Queen’s sons, and is marked by a rococo façade. Built in the 18th century by four noble families, it became inhabited by the monarchy in 1794 when their ancestral home, the Christiansborg Palace, was burned to the ground in a fire. Like many of Copenhagen’s landmarks, it was painted by Hammershøi — and remains largely unchanged, except for the automobiles that traverse the square’s central monument.
Considering that Hammershøi painted urban scenes, many find it off-putting that his compositions so infrequently include a human presence — they are, they say, unrealistic. Moreover, rather than capturing the entirety of a monument, he often only painted part of it — as was the case with his painting of the National Theater, which we passed on our way from the Amalienborg Palace back in the direction from which we came, on our way to Christiansborg, which currently holds the Parliament. But what struck me most wandering Copenhagen in his footsteps, and later, looking at his paintings again in person at the National Gallery, was how much Hammershøi’s landscapes resemble early photographs of Paris taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1838. Thanks to long exposures, Niépce’s urbanscapes were largely devoid of people as well — only rather than being a choice, the lack could be attributed to extremely long exposure times and crude technology.
Right: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Stue I Strandgade med solskin paa gulvet (1901).
Even more than Niépce, Hammershøi was redolent of Eugene Atget, a photographer who lived in obscurity in Paris from 1857 to 1927, only to be discovered by surrealists such as Man Ray and Berenice Abbott right before his death. Like Hammershøi, he was an obsessive chronicler of the city of his birth, one who captured it empty and at strange, unexpected angles — only his medium was photography rather than painting. It is unlikely that Hammershøi and Atget knew of each other over the course of their lifetimes, but if they had, they would have been either delighted – or horrified – by the similarities between each other’s work. In my humble opinion, of course.
Far left: Artist’s version of St Peter’s Church (1906); left: Contemporary photo by Brienne Walsh
By the time we reached the Christianborg — where instead of going indoors, we visited the outdoor corral where Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, exercises her horses — our group was exhausted. We passed over the Marble Bridge, another one of Hammershøi’s many subjects, which is clad in sandstone, and sat down for a cup of coffee at one of the city’s many idyllic outdoor cafes. Around us, mothers left their children on the street in their carriages while they went inside for food. Copenhagen is so safe that such a thing is possible. For those following in this path, lunch is recommended at this juncture.
After revitalizing ourselves with caffeine, we headed to St. Peter’s Cathedral, a medieval Catholic church that was converted to a Protestant site of worship during the reformation. Clad in red brick, the structure was another subject’s of Hammershøi’s — we were lucky enough to see it from the vantage of the perfectly appointed apartment of Alette Scavenius, a theater historian. From there, we began our final trek, through the King’s Gardens, which were blossoming even in the fall. We landed at the Statens Museum Kunst — in English, the National Gallery — to see what remained of the institution’s collection of paintings by Hammershøi. Most had already been shipped to New York for the exhibition at the Scandinavia House.
Right: Artemis (1893-4), oil on canvas.
Kaspar Monrad, the curator of the exhibition, led us around the show — and noted that the presence of so many nude ladies in the room generally devoted to landscapes by Hammershøi was a result of the Danes thinking that Americans were too prude to appreciate such explicit work. For while Hammershøi loved his wife, he also loved the female form, and used it freely in works such as Artemis, which didn’t make it to New York.
To round off a day of the ordinary, we witnessed the divine. From the National Gallery, we first visited the Hirschsprung Collection, a museum devoted to 19th and 20th century Danish art that has an exemplary collection of works by Hammershøi — fortunately, it was located just a few hundred yards from the National Gallery. There hung Hammershøi’s incredible Portrait of a Young Girl (1885), a likeness of his sister, Anna, which he painted when he was only 21. Afterwards, we visited the David Collection, which focuses on Islamic art from the 8th to 19th centuries, but nevertheless has a room entirely devoted to Hammershøi. This time, to some of his more rural landscapes, and abstract interiors. The director told us that Japanese guests are very much enraptured by the room.
Right: Portrait of a Young Girl (1885), oil on canvas.
By the end of the day, we were all in an art coma — a blissful one that can only be achieved by filling your brain with visual knowledge in an entirely foreign country. We learned a lot about Hammershøi — but in truth, what we really saw was Copenhagen, as it is now, as it was a century ago, and how it likely will be for many hundreds of years in the future. By following in Hammershøi’s footsteps, we got to know not only the city, but also its best cultural institutions. The best part besides the art? It was impossible to go more than a few hundred feet without running into a bakery that looked like it was birthed from a fairy tale book.
By Brienne Walsh, Contributing Writer
Visit New York City’s Scandinavia House site at: http://www.scandinaviahouse.org