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Danish Paintings at AGO in Toronto

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Interior in Strangade @National Gallery of Denmark Interior in Strangade @National Gallery of Denmark

One of the finest writers of our time, Peter Davidson, has recently written an extraordinary book entitled The Last of the Light by Reaktion Books. I will soon be reviewing this book for Sun News Miami. Davidson has this to say about Vilhelm Hammershoi: “The vast majority of his works are evening pictures, haunting depictions of the northern light and its fall. They are often extraordinary experiments with the very last of the light, the final ebbing of definition from grey things, the catching of a sliver of belated reflection on the moulding of a panel or a window mirrored in a polished floorboard.” The latter can be seen in the main picture with this article, entitled Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor (@ National Gallery of Denmark). Like many of the paintings in this exhibit that spans two rooms, it is dated to 1901.


Since his death in 1916, Hammershoi has been largely forgotten outside of Denmark, so this exhibit of his paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario is especially welcome. The exhibit is due to the generous load of his major works from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, owner of the largest Hammershoi collection in the world. The AGO itself acquired one of his works, which is also on display along with the others. It is Interior with 4 Etchings and features a piano with its lid shut. But this not hidden symbolism. The piano is a structural, geometric element in a room of a 17th century house Hammershoi lived in for 11 years.


At first glance the paintings can seem drab as their colour palette is so muted. Hammershoi had this to say on the matter. “I absolutely think that a picture has the best effect in strictly coloristic regards the fewer colours there are in it.” His works are certainly an acquired taste, and require a certain measure of solitude to appreciate.


They have elements of the minimalist paintings by the Canadian artist Christopher Pratt, now 80 years old, but Hammershoi's work is much more human. Even when his subjects (quite often his wife Ida) have their back turned to the viewer, the curiosity is piqued. As in the featured painting with this article, we have to ponder what she is doing as her hands are not visible.


In another painting on display, Interior with Woman, we again have to wonder as we can't see what the seated figure is occupying herself with. Knitting perhaps? There is a softness about her hair in comparison with the hard bowl on the table beside her. But above all what strikes the viewer is how it is very mathematically done. The block on the floor for her feet to rest on is at the same angle as the table. And the single etching on the wall provides the horizontal/vertical element that balances the composition. Without that small etching, the painting would be a failure. With the etching, it's a masterpiece worthy of contemplation.


Ida Ilsted, @National Gallery of DenmarkIda Ilsted, @National Gallery of DenmarkOne painting Hammershoi considered to be his masterpiece is the portrait of Ida done in 1891, shown here. He sent it to Paris for display, where his art dealer expressed an interest to buy it. The young artist put such a high price tag on it that the dealer declined, so the artist brought it back to Copenhagen where it eventually sold. He did the portrait from a photograph, but deleted all the furniture beside her to concentrate the viewer's attention only on her. Close inspection shows the white in her eye is blurred to make it appear she is daydreaming. (Portrait of Ida Ilsted, later the artist's wife; @National Gallery of Denmark)


There are many other notable paintings in the exhibit that concludes with a 1909 work Interior. Artificial Light that consists of two candles at the centre of a circular table draped with a cloth. The sparkles of light on curved elements of a chair are masterful as is the uneven glow of the candles on the wall behind the table. Very evocative. This one painting alone makes a trip to the AGO worthwhile.


The exhibit continues through July 30, 2016. The AGO is at 317 Dundas St West, Toronto and is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays).

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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