Saturday, November 7, 2015

Entry - 11.7.15

I was thrilled to learn a few months ago that Scandinavia House would be hosting an exhibition of the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi, one of my favorite painters whose works are rarely seen firsthand in America.  Hammershøi is one of those rare artists whose work you either love or hate, the admirers and despisers citing the same attributes to support their respective opinions.  Hammershøi definitely doesn’t fit any mold, his oeuvre refuses to be defined by any specific time period, his approach, though blatantly unaffected by revolutionary trends within Europe’s artistic community, seems strangely modern today.  If you are unfamiliar with the work of this Danish master, I hope to provide a reasonable introduction here.

Vilhelm Hammershøi was born in Copenhagen in 1864.  His father was a successful merchant, so he grew up in fairly prosperous circumstances, his family able to provide art lessons for him from an early age.  He studied independently with a number of painters including the talented Norwegian, P.S. Kroyer, and also attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts for formal training.

Hammershøi’s life appears to have been delightfully mundane, exhibiting none of the turmoil and drama we normally associate with an artist’s existence.  After completing his studies, he painted a number of successful works featuring his sister, Anna, and was accepted for the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in 1885.  In 1891, he married Ida Ilsted, the sister of a close friend and colleague, and she became his predominant model for the remainder of his life.  His work enjoyed critical acclaim and provided him a reliable income.  Artists and intellectuals visited Hammershøi, often finding him shy and retiring.  He remained rooted in his native Copenhagen, living principally in just two locations which he documented thoroughly in his work.  Hammershøi died in 1916 at the age of 51.

 Hammershøi explored relatively few motifs throughout his career.  He painted landscapes, particularly the austere environs on the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - From Refsnaes - 1900

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape from Lejre - 1905

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape from Virum near Fredericksdal, Summer - 1888

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Rainy Summer Landscape from Virum near Fredericksdal - date unavailable
He was also interested in architectural details in urban settings: the façades of buildings, constricted courtyards, unpopulated streets, a glimpse of the sea between structures.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - From the British Museum, Winter -1906

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior of Courtyard, Strandgade -1899

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Strandgade with Christians Kirke in the Background - 1908

Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Royal Palace Church in Copenhagen - 1910

Vilhelm Hammershoi - View of the Old Asiatic Company - 1902
By far, the motif that dominates his mature oeuvre is that of a lone female figure set in an intimate interior space, most commonly with her back turned to the viewer.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - A Woman Reading by a Window - date unavailable

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida in a White Chair - 1900

Early on he used his sister as his model, but, once he married, his wife, Ida, almost exclusively populates his carefully documented interiors.  Hammershøi and his wife lived in two locations throughout their marriage, and the artist repeatedly and painstakingly documented their living quarters: the polished wooden floors, the heavy molding framing each doorway, the cool tentative light that drizzles through the thick windowpanes, the dark, hidden recesses glimpsed down hallways or through partially open doorways, the familiar furniture which appears again and again in his various paintings.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Drawing Room - The Four Copper Prints - 1905

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior in Strandgade - date unavailable

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Two Candles - 1904

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior, Sunlight on the Floor - 1906
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hammershøi was a great admirer of the paintings of Vermeer and Whistler.  There are many striking similarities between his work and theirs: muted tonalities, a focus on carefully arranged compositions and a sensitivity to atmosphere and light.

Johannes Vermeer - The Milkmaid - 1658c

James Whistler - Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 - 1871
Whistler, as a portrait painter, arrived at two essential innovations: he made the perfection of the overall composition his supreme concern and he used brushwork organically, almost matter-of-factly, as determined by his subject matter.  Vermeer presents a vignette, catching an instant in time that is in flux and will never happen again.  Hammershøi brings something new to the equation.  There is a sense that time is standing still, that this same moment could be experienced again in a week or even a year into the future.  Perhaps this strange suspension of time is what gives Hammershøi’s work its surreal quality.  His paintings still seem fresh and contemporary over a century after their creation.

I wonder why these paintings of lone women inhabiting dimly lit interior spaces are so appealing and so evocative.  The woman is usually conservatively attired in a dark, fairly plain dress, her hair pulled back and neatly arranged in a knot at the back of the head and her face turned away from the viewer.  There is nothing opulent about the woman.  A simple comb holds her braid in place.  She wears little or no jewelry.  Her dress is utilitarian.  The space she occupies is equally unexceptional, neat, clean and sparsely furnished.  Very few luxuries intrude on this Spartan lifestyle.  A carefully maintained spinet, perhaps a family heirloom, is featured in several paintings.  Glossy tabletops bear a silver candlestick holder or a few pieces of fine china.  A book perused in quiet contemplation is a rare indulgence.  The world depicted is thoroughly middleclass, an aura of restrained conservatism emanates from these intimate scenes.

I think comparing the work of Hammershøi to that of the Nabis artists, Pierre Bonnard and Eduoard Vuillard, will be revealing.  Both Bonnard and Vuillard came to their artistic maturities at about the same time as Hammershøi and were also best known for depicting intimate scenes of home life.

An initial glance reveals most blatantly that the Nabis were participants in the modernist revolution in art.  These French artists, living at the hub of the European art world, were aware of all the current trends and innovations in modern art: Impressionism, Pointillism and Symbolism.  Technically, they were freed up to use paint however their need dictated, from thin transparent glazes to thick, mortar-like impasto.  They used a heightened palette and did not employ color naturalistically.  Hammershøi applied paint using time-proven, conservative techniques, and his palette is extremely restrained.

 Compositionally, the Nabis present an explosion of activity, people, objects, patterns, reflections and flickering light filling their canvases – at times actually spilling out of the picture plane leaving figures strangely cropped as one might find in an unstaged snapshot.

Pierre Bonnard - Lunch at Le Grand Lamps - 1899

Pierre Bonnard - The Luncheon - 1899
Hammershøi’s scenes are carefully constructed, the figure usually placed nearly centrally, a rigid symmetry prevailing and a sense of balance achieved.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Rest - date unavailable
The light in Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s paintings is warm and golden, essentially Mediterranean.  It bursts into a house, filling rooms with a cheerful glow.  Often the windows are cast open, inviting inside the outdoor light retaining the tones of gardens, trees and lawns.

Eduoard Vuillard - The End of Breakfast with Madame Vuillard - 1895

Pierre Bonnard - Woman with Cat - 1947
A cool northern light illuminates Hammershøi’s scenes, feebly casting a pattern on the floor, filling the panes of a distant window or catching a swarm of dust particles swirling in its rays.  Hammershøi’s windows are always shut.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight - 1900

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Open Doors - 1905

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Sunshine in the Drawing Room III - 1903
The Nabis inhabit a social world.  Friends and family members meander into their paintings to enjoy some conversation, tend to a child’s needs, share a meal, play an instrument or simply read a newspaper.  Tables are generously laid with colorful foods, polished crockery, sparkling glasses and patterned tablecloths.  In the rare instances when an individual is presented alone, he or she is commonly accompanied by a family pet.  There is a sense of the moment in these works… a deceptive feeling that the artist almost arbitrarily caught his subjects in mid-movement… that we have been privileged to catch a brief glimpse of the intimate family life of the artist.  These paintings are filled with noise.

Eduoard Vuillard - Family Lunch - 1899

Eduoard Vuillard - Breakfast at Villerville - 1910

Pierre Bonnard - Convocation - date unavailable

Pierre Bonnard - The Red Checkered Tablecloth - 1910
Hammershøi was a reserved, contemplative man.  Those intellectuals who chose to visit him found him shy and reluctant to converse.  His world was fairly restricted – defined by his economic status and the places in which he lived.  His social outlets were limited to a few close colleagues and family.  The walls in his homes are unpapered and unpatterned, and the furniture is of dark wood, carefully dusted and polished.  There is no sense of spontaneity in his paintings; every object included has been carefully chosen and positioned according to the demands of composition.  Commonly, Hammershøi’s interiors are inhabited by figures, almost exclusively alone and usually female.  These women are sometimes engaged in quiet activity: carrying a platter, sitting at a spinet or reading a book.  Just as commonly, they do nothing at all.  Their world is undisturbed by visitors.  Their days are not filled with demanding chores and physical exertion.  Their homes are not filled with the sound of babies crying, animated conversation, animals mewing and barking, the laughter of children and the clatter of utensils on dishes.  All is still and quiet.  All activity is internal.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida Playing the Piano - 1910

Vilhem Hammershoi - Interior with Young Woman from Behind - 1904
And, of course, the most striking thing about these paintings is that the figure is most often turned away from the viewer.  This creates a strange paradox for us.  These images depict intimate scenes of the artist’s home life.  His model is usually his wife or a close relation, and yet she is presented anonymously, almost serving purely as a compositional element.  Depending upon personal predilections, desires and associations, the viewer is permitted to assert the features of his or her own choosing on the model.  The woman becomes universal for us, but is this legitimate?  The question becomes: how is identity established?  For centuries, the answer would have been through the unique facial features of the individual.  Often a portrait artist would have his subject sit for the painting of the head and use a stand-in model appropriately attired to pose for the body.  Hammershøi challenges the accepted notion of what establishes identity – which seems to me a very modern conundrum.  If the face is used to determine identity, then how does one evaluate the individual disfigured by injury or enhanced by cosmetic surgery?  Would the coloration, texture and style of an individual’s hair or the telltale turn of the waist be just as legitimate?  Perhaps, the map of an individual’s DNA would provide the definitive portrait.

Some critics have disparaged Hammershøi’s efforts because his oeuvre appears to be relatively unaffected by developments made by the contemporary avante garde.   After all, Hammershøi’s life spans one of the most volatile and fertile periods in the history of art, beginning in the age of Impressionism and ending with Cubism firmly established as the predominant language of modern art.  Was Hammershøi’s choice not to participate in the fray of the modernist revolution indicative of some deficiency in his character – perhaps a weakness of will or conservative immutability?  I don’t think so.  The greatest challenge facing any artist in making art significant to his audience is finding a language most apt for communicating his or her personal vision.  Hammershøi accomplished this.  During his lifetime, his work was admired and praised by members of the avante garde.  And even today, a century after his death, Hammershøi’s reputation is waxing, his paintings more marketable than ever and exhibitions of his work becoming more common, even in museums and galleries committed to presenting modern and contemporary art.

Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark will be showing at Scandinavia House through February 27th, 2016.  Scandinavia House is located at 58 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016 (between East 37th and 38th Streets).  The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday 12-6 PM and Wednesday 12-7 PM.    

As always I encourage readers to comment here, but, if you would prefer to do so privately, you can email me at

Endnote: I wrote this entry prior to the opening of the show at Scandinavia House.  Yesterday evening after work, I finally hoofed it down to 38th Street to see the exhibit.  Scandinavia House’s exhibition space is relatively modest, so I never expect to see an extensive collection of work there.  The first room was devoted mainly to early portraiture, the second to mature figures studies and interior spaces and the last to landscapes and architectural studies.  And, by the way, if you should visit the exhibition, be sure not to overlook a small side room off the main exhibition space that appears to be more of a coat closet or storage space but actually offers a video presentation on Hammershøi’s life and work.  I was surprised to discover that “process”, something that I look for in any artwork, was very evident in many of the paintings; the few paintings of his that I’ve previously seen “live” were a lot more polished.  I was also pleased to find that I had never seen a lot of work included in the show – even in reproduction.  My only criticism of the exhibition is that none of Hammershøi’s “signature” work was on display. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Entry - 8.22.15

While in my middle twenties, I went to a party in an apartment building located in one of the better areas of Manhattan.  I knew a couple of the folk who would be there and just tagged along with them.  At one point in the evening, I had a talk with a kid I’d known for years, an intelligent and cultured attorney-in-the-making in fact, about abstract art.  Agog after attending a recent show of Abstract Expressionist art, I was singing the praises of de Kooning, in particular.  He was of the not so unusual opinion that anyone could paint abstractly, that little skill or talent was required to throw paint arbitrarily onto a canvas.  I assured him that there was nothing arbitrary about the process, but he was pretty incredulous.  Essentially, he saw Abstract Expressionists as con artists who, lacking education and training, simply glommed onto a movement as opportunity arose and were foisting their crude daubings on an unwitting public.  “I could take their art seriously,” he opined, “if I saw that they really had some ability, that they could produce serious representational art, that they actually chose to paint the way they did.”

“But,” I replied, “most of these artists received rigorous training in their craft and early on tackled the conventions of representational imagery,  De Kooning, for instance, from a very early age was trained in traditional techniques in his native Holland, eventually landing secure employment producing commercial art.  I’ve seen a couple of his early representational pieces that would amaze you.”

He was surprised and a little doubtful, but, without a foundation in this area, had no choice but to concede the point and let the discussion drop.

Willem de Kooning - Bowl, Pitcher and Jug - 1921

I tell this story not to poke fun at my friend.  I am sure that at some point in my development I shared his opinion and could make neither head nor tail of abstract art.  The effort to convincingly translate form and space into a two-dimensional format is very challenging and requires many years of training and experimentation to master.  It’s difficult when immersed in the struggle to acquire the traditional techniques of creating representational imagery to seriously consider work that seems to discard the very skills you are trying to attain.

However, by the time I was an undergraduate art student at SUNY Stony Brook, I was ready for some experimentation.  I approached abstraction warily, without serious commitment on my part.  Though abstraction begs for a large format, I worked on very small canvases, unwilling to squander precious resources on a flight of fancy.  I really didn’t understand what abstraction was about, how powerfully emotive it could be.  Since at that time my figurative work was about spontaneity and immediacy, I avoided nuance, working in pure tones applied in impasto.

Gerard Wickham - Abstraction I -1978c
This work seeks to discard a traditional approach to composition but fails, ultimately retreating to comfortable conventions.  Paint handling is consistent, unvaried and uninteresting.  It really offers none of the technical, visual rewards that one would expect from an abstract painting.

Gerard Wickham - Abstraction II -1978c
It’s difficult to abandon subject matter when painting.  Here I suggest biomorphic forms without providing tangible definition.  We might be peering into the lens of a microscope to view strange, multicellular organisms.  The beings could be alien lifeforms, prehistoric creatures or robots.  Whatever is going on here, the overall effect is whimsical.  I was definitely under the influence of Arshile Gorky and Joan Miró.

Gerard Wickham - Backyard Abstraction - 1979
Of course, it was inevitable that I would take the Jackson Pollock route at least once.  There was a twenty year accumulation of partially filled house paint cans in my parents’ basement.  I popped open a few of them to create this unsuccessful abstraction inspired by the view out the backdoor of my childhood home.

I think that to paint a successful abstraction it is essential that the artist has attained a true understanding of and passion for paint itself.  Early on, paint, for me, was solely a vehicle to create an illusion of space and form.  There are so many things to consider when painting (composition, perspective, anatomy, the opposition of lights and darks, tonal value, color harmony, etc.) that it’s easy to lose touch with the medium itself.  Only when technical concerns are addressed intuitively, almost unconsciously, after years of persistent activity, does one begin to appreciate the medium itself: the pull on the brush when applying paint to a still tacky lower layer; the way thinned out paint splatters or drips when rapidly brushed onto a surface; how impasto paint retains the imprint of the brush and documents the path and speed of the stroke; how a thin glaze of color effects the tonal value of the layers below; or what happens when a palette knife is raked over still wet paint.  It took me years to learn that paint is subject matter.

 Let me digress a moment to address terminology.  Probably one of the most confusing words used to define a technical approach to creating imagery is “abstraction”.  When modern artists first started to experiment with imagery not firmly rooted in reality, they began with real subject matter which in their translations was distorted and disguised to the point at which compositional concerns and emotional impact became the determining factors on how that subject matter was represented.  At times, the subject matter of the artwork could still be easily recognized.  At other times, the subject matter was nearly obliterated.  But regardless of how far the artist wanted to push it, he was in effect “abstracting” from reality.  For instance, Wassily Kandinsky codified or created symbols for the things that resonated most powerfully with him (horses, cannons and mountains, for example).  Over time, the symbols became so abstract that they were barely recognizable, but they continued to be necessary to the artist to initiate the process of painting.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition IV - 1911
Eventually artists naturally transitioned to creating work that had no link to any real visual reference, but unfortunately the label “abstraction” stuck.  To differentiate this new radical approach to creating imagery from that of traditional abstraction, the term “pure abstraction” was applied.

While experiencing a particularly inventive period during my years in grad school, I thought myself ready to tackle pure abstraction.  My appreciation and understanding of the properties of paint were probably at an all-time high, and I was ready to seriously commit myself intellectually to the process of painting without subject matter.  Part of that commitment was working in a larger format – much more appropriate to the approach.

Gerard Wickham - Abstract Painting - 1984
In this work, I explored what could be achieved through limited means.  I confined myself, for the most part, to applying paint of fairly regular consistency with a brush.  I restrained my brushwork and restricted my palette.  My intention was to let the paint play the lead role.  Though this work is by no means a masterpiece, I enjoy its overall effect of regularity occasionally interrupted by accents of concentrated color, the way that the barely perceptible tightening of the brushwork at the top of the canvas suggests space and the aura of complacency implicit in its execution.

Gerard Wickham - The Red X - 1983
By far my most successful abstraction, The Red X was painted using every technical means I had mastered during my years of study.  It was first constructed by establishing a subtle foundation of pale zones which was then overlaid with a network of bold strokes (generally ranging from dark gray to black).  The brushwork was varied and inventive – many times amended or edited out completely by subsequent washes of pale pastels.  The green area in the lower right of the canvas was painted for the most part in impasto, which in turn demanded the counterbalance of the orange glaze above it.  The composition functioned pretty simply: weak vertical sectors of activity flanked the left and right-hand sides of the canvas providing structure and stability while an overall diagonal provided stress and movement.  Sensing that the painting was nearing completion, I stopped at this point to survey my work and recognized that the right-hand side of the canvas was far more active than the left.  I placed a bold stroke of bright red on the diagonal axis of the composition running perpendicular to the diagonal’s thrust.  It wasn’t enough, so I pulled a line of paint away from that stroke somewhat toward the center of the canvas.  Later when I examined the painting, I saw that the two strokes resembled an “X”, and when Sam Gelber suggested that calling the work “The Red X” would be natural, the name stuck.

Without a doubt, a few fledgling attempts at pure abstraction do not make one a master.  Artists devoted many years, often the entirety of their careers, to attaining a fluency in the technique.  I never seriously considered pure abstraction an avenue that would permit me to fully address my artistic concerns, either intellectually or emotionally, though I enjoyed the challenge of the occasional technical exercise.  Even so, I learned to appreciate and greatly respect pure abstraction, studied the work of some of the giants in the field and avidly sought out exhibitions of their work.

I’ve put together a small selection of artwork, that I particularly like, created by a variety of painters who worked in a purely abstract manner.

New York School - Action Painters

Willem de Kooning - Untitled - 1950

Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm, No 30 - 1950

Franz Kline - Mahoning - 1956

New York School - Color Field Painters

Mark Rothko - Orange, Red, Yellow - 1961

Adolph Gottlieb - Flotsam at Noon (Imaginary Landscape) - 1952

School of Paris

Wols - It's All Over The City - 1947

Serge Poliakoff - Abstract Composition - 1954

Pierre Soulages - Bleu - 1972c

Second Generation Abstract Expressionism

Joan Mitchell - City Landscape - 1955

Helen Frankenthaler - Into the West - 1977

Bay Area Abstraction

Richard Diebenkorn - Ocean Park #79 - 1975


Mark Tobey - Universal Field - 1949

Antoni Tapies - Painting - 1955

Asger Jorn - Green Ballet - 1960

Brice Marden - Cold Mountain Series, Zen Study 2 - 1991

Gerhard Richter - Abstract Painting - 1987

All comments are welcome.  If you prefer to comment privately, you can email me at