Sunday, 7 September 2008

Writing like a painter?

Last week, The Secretary and I went to the Royal Academy to catch the Vilhelm Hammershøi exhibition before it closed this weekend. Hammershøi is best known for his sparse and enigmatic views of the interior of his Copenhagen flat, often featuring a woman with her back turned to the viewer (the model was usually his wife Ida). The exhibition, 'The Poetry of Silence', was the first British retrospective of the Danish painter whose paintings are full of emptiness (and if you think that’s a contradiction in terms then you should take a closer look at his work). Hammershøi's ‘trade mark’ includes a restricted, almost monochromatic palette and an uncanny sense that all is not as it seems in his pictures. What at first sight appears naturalistic turns out, on closer examination, to be ambiguous and not quite right. Uncanny, in fact. I found myself standing in front of the paintings with the hairs on the back of my head bristling. And it made me think how great it would be to write stories the way Hammershøi painted pictures. Does that make sense?

Take this painting, for example. A woman sits alone in an empty room. From her demeanour, it appears she is reading or sewing. Through an open door right in front we can see an interior of more empty rooms and open doors. Why is she sitting so close to the open door? Is she waiting for someone and, if so, who? Why is there an empty chair behind the door? What is going on here?

Hammershøi never explains. To him, the narrative of a painting was less important than the atmosphere – an atmosphere of silence, of subdued lighting, of subdued colours – a sense of unease. In a gallery packed as full as a London tube train, I found myself being drawn into these pictures of silence and emptiness, as if into another world. Just like a first-class short story, a Hammershøi painting refuses to explain its meaning immediately, but demands that you stop, look and think, and then look and think some more.

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