What Does Light Look Like? Love, Silence and the Paradoxes of Being in the Paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi

by Ben Rose

Fall 2011

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) is one of few Danish painters to have gained considerable reputation throughout Europe during his lifetime. While acknowledgement within Denmark was scarce until the mid-twentieth century, critics and poets from around Europe—famously including Rilke, who intended to write an entire book on the Dane’s work—recognized in his paintings an unusual power to portray deeply unique emotional and spiritual states using a minimum of motifs and color. He had no proper studio, using his home as the center for his artistic production, both productively and inspirationally. Virtually all of his interiors are near-photo realistic depictions of his personal space and, in the case of his portraits, his wife. The result is an oeuvre of unusual personal intimacy, seemingly enabling access to his inner life.

Yet Hammershøi’s paintings are decidedly inaccessible; the intimate connections they promise the viewer are undermined by an extreme austerity and an atmosphere of loneliness and isolation. Hammershøi’s work is defined by such paradoxes. In his shockingly simple depictions of his unglamorous home, Hammershøi created profound explorations of the natures of being and personal reality, revealing the contradictions fundamental to each. His work explores the disconnection inherent in connection, the movement within stillness. These paradoxes are the essence of Hammershøi’s work, the wellsprings from which it derives its almost supernatural power, the irony itself the vehicle through which the viewer confronts the eternal within him.

One of Hammershøi’s most well-known works is his Two Figures (Double Portrait of the Artist and His Wife) (1898). The artist and his wife sit silently, both looking at the tablecloth in front of them, each person’s presence unacknowledged by the other. While they are seated together at the same table and bound to one another by marriage (as explained in the title), they are seen as individuals: Ida is seemingly lost in thought and Hammershøi’s expression is obscured, his back to us, head tilted downward. Leaning forward toward his wife, Hammershøi appears tense and frustrated, as though he is desperate to connect to her. The portrait is devoid of romantic sentimentality, the only indication of their intimacy being the small gold wedding band on Ida’s hand. The subsequent ambiguity of their relationship is cleverly accented by their spatial positioning. As scholar Poul Vad points out, Ida and Hammershøi’s left arms intersect one another to form a “V” shape. (Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century, 1988). Their bodies at once meet and conflict, their separation poignantly underscored by their physical closeness. A similar dynamic is present in the picture’s setting, as the couple is seated together at a table, establishing at least a rudimentary connection between them. Yet there is no communion, and despite their physical and social proximity, they appear miles apart. The setting and subject provide numerous opportunities for Hammershøi to highlight an active connection between him and his wife, yet he deliberately avoids all of them.

The unusually depicted couple is spatially mediated by the tablecloth—a crucial element in the picture’s structural and thematic essence. The tablecloth is comprised of a series of folds in the form of rectangles—Hammershøi’s geometric shape of choice. The vertical lines of the tablecloth run directly toward Ida, the horizontal folds running into Hammershøi’s figure. Accordingly, we identify each figure with their commensurate axis, which form rectangles when they intersect. Here we see the basis of Hammershøi’s use of lines and geometry as metaphors for individuals and their emotions, an extension of his complete rejection of sentimentality. The rectangles dominate the painting’s composition, thus becoming metaphors for the couple as individuals and partners in a larger relationship. Here Hammershøi points to the fact that all objects—and all relationships—contain smaller forms. Although they are part of a larger whole, each rectangle and line has its own identity; in defining each shape, we disconnect it from its neighbors, yet simultaneously acknowledge their relationship. As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote, “By choosing two items from the undisturbed store of natural things in order to designate them as ‘separate’ we have already related them to one another in our consciousness, we have emphasized these two together against whatever lies between them…things must first be separated from one another in order to be together” (“Bridge and Door”, 1909). In separating forms, their relationship is only strengthened. This irony is present in the phenomenological consideration of all objects in space—no form may be considered outside of its relationship to others (even if only ourselves), even as it is seen as an individual form.

A romantic partnership is a prime example of this paradox, in which the discrepancy of our bodies is transcended through communication and spiritual connection. Yet even in sex, there is no true physical union, no literal unification of form. And in that striving, the distinction of two bodies is simultaneously transcended and made even starker. Like the rectangles, the artist and his wife are seen as distinct individuals intrinsically defined by one another. Hammershøi posits marriage and human relationships as inherently discrepant, unmasking the illusion of oneness without condemning it. Hammershøi and Ida are suspended in an inconclusive state, tethered between communion and isolation, emotion and objectivity. Typically of Hammershøi’s work, profound emotional and spiritual themes are expressed by simple geometry—a “less is more” practice used to even greater effect in his interiors.

Quite literally a picture of nothing more than several open doors in his bare apartment, Open Doors (1905) is painted in a room looking outward through another to a window in the rear of the apartment. We are allowed a small glimpse into a side room on the right edge of the canvas thanks to one of three visible open doors and one of two close to the picture’s foreground. The space of the room immediately beyond the other near door is blurrier and heavily shaded, containing the frame of an entryway—and possibly a closed door or one opened beyond its walls and our visibility—and the third open door. The room subsequently revealed is scarcely visible, the only apparent elements a thin strip of a wall and a window within it. The possibility of entry into each room is highlighted by its respective open door, the various compartments of space spreading before us like a maze of unknown possibilities. Just as an open door is a common symbol for opportunity, each door presents the viewer with the promise of a new room, a new experience. Yet as each of these spaces could be entered, none of them are; access is simultaneously granted and denied. In one of Hammershøi’s favorite techniques, the foreground is left bare, distancing us from the space depicted and furthering the almost frustrating sense of connection and disconnection to and from the space, once again addressing the central concept of Two Figures.

Like the tablecloth in Two Figures, the larger space of Hammershøi’s apartment is thus broken up into smaller pieces (individual rooms) through the use of walls and doors, and the same metaphorical possibilities are presented to the viewer, albeit with greater complexity. The same considerations of form are now extended to pure space through the use of form. Each room is connected yet separate, a finite space within a theoretically infinite one. The possibility of the unseen spaces—as well as of an undivided space free of form—is palpable. The doors stare back at us, reminding us that they are the only potentially active forms, emphasizing the total sparseness of the apartment and essentially making that the painting’s subject. We experience a domesticity that is at once welcoming and impenetrable, peaceful and haunting. Open Doors is a portrait of unfulfilled transition, of an entity on the cusp of transformation, endowing the painting with an elusive spiritual presence and a glimpse into the metaphysical possibilities of space. Even what lies beyond the window in the background is indiscernible. Simmel continues: “[T]he door forms … a linkage between the space of human beings and everything that remains outside it, it transcends the separation between the inner and the outer … The finitude into which we have entered somehow always borders somewhere on the infinitude of physical or metaphysical being. Thus the door becomes the image of the boundary point at which human beings actually always stand or can stand … life flows forth out of the door from the limitation of isolated separate existence into the limitlessness of all possible directions.”

Like Two Figures, Open Doors produces, yet never satisfies, the promise of communion. Nothingness becomes something, what is unseen becomes the subject. In Open Doors, the possibilities of emptiness are felt between both between the viewer and the space and each room with the other. The rooms’ existence as distinct parts of a larger unity, separated yet concomitantly connected by each door, is a spatial and formal analogue for the estrangement between the viewer and the space, between any two individuals and between the human space of the room and the “limitlessness” beyond, re-emphasizing the concept’s significance in Hammershøi’s work and taking it in an even more metaphysical direction. The open doors—much like our senses (reminding one of Blake’s “doors of perception”)—expand the space yet make us aware of its boundaries, the essence of human phenomenological experience. We identify with the space of the room as well as its walls—we represent the possibilities of infinity yet also its limitations. As Sartre wrote, humans are “condemned to choose.” So are we as we imagine inhabiting the space. Which door do we choose? What do we want to explore? The possibilities are many, yet only one can be chosen at once—another irony of the liberty of free will. As in life, we are at once infinite and finite, the room and the wall, free and captive. The resultant emotional and spiritual identification with Hammershøi’s work is extraordinary given its austerity and seemingly cold indifference to the viewer. Vad describes it astutely when he writes: “Hammershøi made the holy of holies of the home into a kind of laboratory for the pictorial investigation of space and light. The result is a captivating duality: a remarkable emotional identification with, indeed, nearly a spiritual osmosis into these rooms, and at the same time a totally alienating objectification.” In this sense, the mere acts of depiction and subsequent viewing become a spiritual experience.

The window in Open Doors has a divine presence, the light a harbinger of hope and clarity. Beyond and within the labyrinth of unfulfilled communion lies a powerful grace, a well of faith that warms and spreads through each room, endowing them with a simple beauty. Like love, the light has a benevolent power, a relief from the disconnection—for in darkness, the connection between each room would be invisible and obscured by blackness. It presents us with a hopeful paradox: Despite our absolute selfhood and the impossibility of true unity with another, beauty and love are still with us if we will only see them. The divine power of light is explored further in what is arguably Hammershøi’s most well-known work: 1900’s Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight.

Hammershøi is sometimes called “the Vermeer of the North” for his spectacular depictions of light. Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight is indeed nothing more than a portrait of light shining through a window and falling on a bare floor in front of a closed door, the space devoid of furniture and humanity, as in Open Doors. The space of the room is absolute, its presence a mysterious world unto itself and part of the labyrinth of Hammershøi’s domestic space. The only entity of interest beyond the window is the source of that which is illuminating the space: the light. The beams in Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight are inseparable from the appearance of the surrounding space and forms, as shapes and colors are either highlighted or muted by their presence of absence. The light, with its symbolic connotations of divinity and grace, exhibits its ability to reduce or accent the appearance of formal distinctions, just as love can in a human relationship. Yet the light is mediated through the rigid, rectangular window—reminding us of the metaphor for the human body and its senses—denying the viewer the source of the light. The divine light is seen only through the human perceptual system, again evoking the themes of Open Doors. A further spiritual paradox is evoked by Hammershøi’s depiction of the eternal in the momentary, the infinite in the finite. The lighting conditions in Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight are temporary, for the angle of the light’s rays is only possible at a very specific time of day, yet it appears timeless and universal, an image of a passing moment so poetic it is released from temporality. The specificity of the depicted moment is almost unfathomable, as the countless dust motes are continually moving. The paradox of the immense stillness of the image and their frenetic movement is striking, evoking a feeling of helplessness and wonder at the limitations of human perception. The profound beauty of the light is only visible through the presence of that which seems most insignificant: dust. This leads us to reconsider the notion of emptiness in Open Doors—is nothingness truly that? Isn’t space filled with dust, if nothing else? The seemingly immaterial is full of matter, just as physicists have found all matter to be, at its core, immaterial. As the subject of Open Doors is essentially emptiness, Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight explicitly states that its subject is the matter that we usually cannot perceive in nothingness. Only the light reveals that nothing is always something.

Thorkild Hansen described Hammershøi’s work as depictions of a “world on the point of disintegration” (“Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Black and White Colorist,” Vilhelm Hammershøi: Painter of Stillness and Light, 1981). Not only is the light going to vanish, leaving the room awash in darkness, but the dust motes themselves are literally a disintegrated world. The ghostly quality of the room is subtly underscored by the dust and the implications of its eventual demise, for as other forms disintegrated into dust, thus bringing beauty into the room, the forms of the room itself will suffer the same fate. The room will also soon be swallowed in the darkness of night, erasing its visual presence. Yet as night turns to day and reveals space after obscuring it, the forms become the dust that renders the light’s beauty, as life exhibits its own patterns.

Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight is a portrait of a moment in time that captures the cycle of life and death, light and dark and confronts us with the eternal essence of being, space and form. It inspires terror and wonder, hopelessness and joy. In Hansen’s words, “we sense…that time has stopped, the world has been brought to silence, and eternity has commenced – without our having died first.” It is a picture of a moment of grace, a portrait of the deepest existential and emotional states that naturally become spiritual. The light’s gracing of the complex and unfulfilled communion of the concomitantly connected and separate human relationship is that of love and faith, conflating the two, as if to evoke the adage “God is love and love is God” and posit the source of human emotional relationships as the source of spirituality.

In Two Figures, Open Doors and Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight, the intrinsic division between individuals and forms is impossible to overcome completely, yet can be bridged to some degree by an intangible force that he ironically depicts through various forms in space. Hammershøi challenges us to find the communion in our own lives and ponder what connects us. His stark portrayals of space engender an awareness of our own bodies as they relate to others’, in turn developing an acute cognizance of our spiritual being and its navigation of the boundaries created by forms in space, initiating a further consciousness of our formal and spiritual distinctness and simultaneous connection to others—Hammershøi’s central paradox.

Hammershøi’s work confronts us with ourselves. He shows us images of spaces and moments we take for granted and challenges us to find the extraordinary beauty within them. He presents a seemingly spiritual presence in his images, and asks us if we have some sense of spirituality and see it ourselves, or view them merely as ordinary, meaningless objects. When viewing a Hammershøi, as in life, silence is all we know—the rest is left to what we believe.