I recently had the chance to see the “Impressionist Treasures” exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, and while the big names of impressionism were impressive, it was a lesser known painter of the Danish Golden Age who really caught my eye. I had never heard of Vilhelm Hammershøi or seen his work before, but after Cezanne’s airy landscapes and Gauguin’s striking primary colours, Hammershøi’s dark, muted interiors were a startling change of pace.
Hammershøi’s subjects were mundane and simple, but painted in such a way that made them seem cold and distant and mysterious. In his time, he was known as “the painter of tranquil rooms.” And they are tranquil, yes. But it seems to me that beneath the tranquility lies something a little darker, a little more unsettling. The rooms he painted are almost always empty. When a figure does occupy them—usually Hammershøi’s wife, Ida—her back is turned away from us, or else her face blurred, indistinct. Hammershøi’s paintings seem devoid of life, yet they remain evocative and alluring. Standing there in the gallery, gazing into a space that looked less than inviting, whatever tranquility I might have felt began to transform into something else.
The word that comes to mind is uncanny. Hammershøi takes the utterly familiar—his home, his wife—and makes them seem strange and disquieting—unfamiliar. Now, forgive me for invoking Freud, but he was onto something when he talked about the uncanny. According to Freud, “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” It’s the experience of discovering the familiar in what is strange and unknown. Think the uncanny valley—the closer a thing is to human likeness without actually being human, the creepier it seems to us. The same concept applies here. Hammershøi’s interiors are nothing if not uncanny. The longer you stare into his dim hallways and lifeless living rooms, the more unsettling they become.
Take, for instance, my favourite painting featured in the exhibition, The Four Rooms:
At first glance, it seems innocuous. But there’s something just a little bit off about this painting. Doors hang open at different angles. Floorboards don’t quite line up. Lines are disrupted everywhere and there doesn’t appear to be a way out. It almost looks like when you hold up a mirror to another mirror, creating an endless reflection of frames. Rooms lead into rooms which ultimately lead nowhere.
It’s no coincidence that Hammershøi painted The Four Rooms in 1914, the year World War I began. People often think of the early twentieth century, and particularly the interwar period, as an Age of Uncertainty. But perhaps a better name might be the Age of the Uncanny. The Great War threw everyday life off-balance and what was once familiar became, well, unfamiliar. Like a house that is no longer a home. In this case, one we’re compelled to return to again and again because it unsettles us in all the right ways.