The long sustained gaze

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight, Interior of the Artist's Home, 1900

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight, Interior of the Artists Home (1900) by Vilhelm Hammershoi


 In his 1991 essay ‘Shadow-Catchers’ Pavel Buchler describes snap-shot photographs as ‘records of sudden glances rather than residues of long, sustained gazes’, this came to mind recently when I visited the Royal Academy’s exhibition of the Danish Painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916). Obviously the physical act of applying paint to canvas is a more sustained process than even the most archaic of photographic techniques, but the way that Hammershoi seems to have returned again and again to paint the same scene for several paintings emphasises the almost oppressive sensation of concentrated observation that fills this exhibition. Hammershoi made many paintings of the interior of his apartment at Strandgade 30, Copenhagen over the course of 11 years – a continuous, repeated study of a relatively small, constructed space. It is this repeated observation and depiction that I realise I began to identify with while looking around the exhibition, in some ways this is how I see my role at the Tower of London.

I have a copy of the catalogue from the Musee d’Orsay 1997 Hammershoi Exhibition and have become familiar with his paintings through this book, but in the exhibition at the RA I was fascinated by the painting ‘Veiw of the old Asiatic Company (1902)’  – a large painting (approx 6ft sq) of a company building opposite where Hammershoi lived, the colours are muted by a wash of dark grey creating an almost monochrome finish, its an incredible image that really had an effect on me. I came home and searched for the picture in my book, how had this painting escaped me in the past? I found the image on page 87 – it looked dead, it held none of the power of the original, no wonder I had flipped past it when looking at the book. So I urge you, if you havn’t already, please go and see these paintings as they are meant to be seen.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy ends on the 7th September.


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