The Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) was secretive and silent. So, too, is his art. We do not know his passions; his life was underamatic. We do not know his voice, he would not speak of painting. We know him from his ghost.
To look into his pictures is to almost feel him breathing -- as if he were still sitting there, in timid winter light, pondering the pale walls of nearly empty rooms. Something gray, translucent, haunts these subtle paintings. They seem to be portrayals of the sensed, not of the seen. The simple things within them -- the gleam on a brass doorknob, dust motes in a sunbeam, a stark-white, straight-backed chair -- assume peculiar power. They reach into the room.
"Vilhelm Hammershoi: Painter of Stillness and Light," which goes on view today at the Phillips Collection, is a show through which one stumbles. Time and time again -- when jerked back to reality by a voice from the next gallery or the squealing of a car outside -- the viewer feels as if he's just been pulled from a distraction fit. Then he sees another painting -- another damp, unpeopled street, another pale room -- and slides away again.
Hammershoi has often been neglected in his native land. Most museums there ignored him. But in Washington, last fall, he achieved sudden fame. Ten of his best pictures -- one of them, "Five Portraits," his masterwork -- were included in "Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting: 1880-1910," Kirk Varnedoe's memorable exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. They made Hammershoi seem a wonder. The bigger, less-well-edited exhibit at the Phillips drags him down a bit. The academic studies and unimportant paintings that dent it here and there disturb that beyond-the-real reverie his finest works evoke.
Because his art relies on mystery, it is seen best in small doses.
The building glimpsed through glass in "Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight" (1900) is intentionally enigmatic. "The Coin Collector" (1904) shows the same white room, but now the time is nigh, and there is a seated figure in the candlelight. A young man in a night-black suit, he is studying a coin one does not need to see.
Often in these views of rooms, one looks through open doors into other rooms beyond. But these paintings do not lead us on. They urge, instead, a strange retreat, a spiritual withdrawal. They pull us from the everyday and turn us back into ourselves.
The people in these paintings, most of them at least, pay us no attention. The baker in "A Baker's Shop" (1888) seems to be a sort of monk dressed in a dark cassock and presiding at a tomb. He is busy at a task at which we can only guess. The actions of the figure in "Interior with a Woman Seated on a White Chair" (1900) are equally unclear. Is she sewing, weeping, reading? We only see her back. Most of the dark figures here -- the woman in the chair, that cellist lost in music, that reader lost in thought -- urge introspection.
These pictures, one remembers, were painted at a time of great confidence in progress, unabashed materialism, and nationalistic bombast. Hammershoi was not the only artist of the day to pull back from portrayals of the noisy world outside. John Frederick Peto's American still lifes, now on exhibit at the National Gallery, also conjure up a memoryimbued, out-of-time seclusion. Edouard Vuillard, in France, was another artist able to find a world worth painting in his own apartment. But Peto's works are witty, and Vuillard's are warm. Hammershoi's are neither.
Their subtle clors range from the darks of night to the washed-out hues of winter. His rooms do not seem heated -- by either stoves or love. Though he took more than a dozen trips to foreign lands, he returned each time to Copenhagen to burrow back into the same whitewalled apartment and the same time-stopping themes.
This show does offer passages of extraordinary painting -- those sunbeams in the air, those glinting gilded walls, the light on that dark tabletop -- but even these fine pictures evoke little pleasure. A melancholy emptiness hollows out his paintings. His ghost is not at peace. Hammershoi's pictures chill.
Hanne Finsen of the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen, was the curator of the Phillips show. Part of the year-long celebration, "Scandinavia Today," it closes March 27.