by Kimmo Rosenthal
In the silence we are seized with the sensation of something deep, vast, and boundless.
The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
“In the picture, many questions find their finest, most subtle, most delicious significance — which is that they cannot be answered.” Might it be that this quality in a picture is the genesis of much ekphrastic writing? This quote is by Robert Walser as he contemplates van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne. He goes on to say that “at first I intended to devote only a moment’s consideration to this picture….a strange something held me back.” Reading this I immediately thought of another painting, Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Interior with Young Woman from Behind, a painting that evoked an identical response in me, a painting I had been trying to write about for several years, yet, somehow, I was never quite able to express my thoughts adequately.
Vilhelm Hammershoi has been called “the poet of quietude.” I first saw a work of his on the cover of Laszlo Foldenyi’s erudite and illuminating book Melancholy. It is a dark, shadowy interior scene, with faint, crepuscular light entering through windows, starkly evoking the titular mood. I imagined a person sitting in the dark, out of view, shrouded in silence, gazing at the lighted windows while also looking inward. It was without surprise that I later read in an essay by Felix Krämer that Rilke, the quintessential poet of melancholy, was an admirer of Hammershoi. “His work is long and slow, and at whichever moment one apprehends it, it will offer plentiful reasons to speak of what is important and essential in art.”
In Interior with Young Woman from Behind, the woman, with her back to us holding a silver tray in a sparsely yet well-appointed room, has paused very close to the wall, too close it seems, and she is deep in thought looking askance at a triangular patch of light that falls softly by her elbow on the wall, I imagine near the corner. The light suggests bright sunlight outside, coming aslant across the room at a diagonal, seemingly from a high window, as it cuts across the edge of a painting on a wall. In stark contrast to the light, the painting is so dark; in the darkest element of the picture, that nothing can be made out. And those subtle questions I can’t seem to answer come to the fore. Why has the painter situated her there? Why is she so totally absorbed, one might even say lost, in that patch of light? What would her face reveal were we to glimpse it? Wherein lies the mystery of this painting?
As with all of Hammershoi’s work, it is a meticulously executed scene, an austere, quiet painting with a muted, somber palette of browns and blue-tinged gray. The simplicity and restrained eloquence bespeaks a clarity of vision; there is a geometrical coherence with the cut-off rectangle of the painting in the left corner mirroring the similarly cut-off rectangle of molding along the wall; the sense of harmony and order has an undertone of tension, which, perhaps, is what keeps me returning to it. The very reserve of the painting embodies a form of resistance to deciphering its secrets. Proust has described the “true” reality in art as residing at a depth where appearances are of little consequence.
Hammershoi’s interior paintings have been described as being free of narrative, however they offer an invitation to imagine a version of the lives lived in their stark rooms. Letting the gaze settle once more on the painting, one is drawn to the tenderly rendered figure; the sensuous nape of her neck with its pale skin is in contrast to the black dress that almost looks like a mourning shroud; there are those beautifully rounded shoulders, the wisp of hair that has escaped. The viewer follows her gaze to the light on the wall. The close immediacy of the view makes the observer into an unwanted intruder, catching her at a private moment. This is not a space to be shared. In spite of the light on the wall, there is no sense of vitality, rather the mood is a somber one of solitude. Has this room ever seen laughter and gaiety? Is there any comfort to be found in this cloistral atmosphere? It is a room of words almost yet never spoken, of emotions that of necessity she must keep to herself. Yet, I am reminded of Foldenyi writing that “there is something about melancholy that beautifies the everyday…..it offers the possibility of glimpsing a deeper, more dynamic life understanding.”
In typical his fashion, shortly after positing that van Gogh’s painting presents the viewer with unanswerable questions, Walser goes on to exuberantly proclaim that L’Arlésienne is “full of deep, majestic, and beautiful answers.” I began to find some, for me, at least, answers to my questions by rereading sections of Gaston Bachelard’s exquisitely poetic The Poetics of Space. He convincingly expounds on the inherent “poetry” of houses, rooms, corners, and more, articulating how the seemingly ordinary and commonplace can suddenly, through daydreaming and reverie, yield images and emotions heretofore hidden, creating moments of what he describes as intimate immensity.
Returning to Interior with Young Woman from Behind, with Bachelard serving as my guide, a fundamental question he raises is “how do we inhabit our corner of the world?” Perhaps this is precisely what is going through the mind of the young woman, as she pauses to look at the swath of light near the corner of the room. Corners welcome us to embrace solitude, as we turn in silence to our thoughts. “The corner becomes the negation of the universe.” Corners not only represent solitude, they are sanctuaries, places of withdrawal from the life of the room and the world, places for contemplation. The intimacy of the space encompasses the infinitude of our inner space. Bachelard posits that “all corners are haunted,” provoking contemplation.
The young woman is adduced by this triangle of light to enter a most private of interiors, thoughts giving rein to emotions and feelings she zealously guards. “The daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” Time has become suspended and she has been transported “elsewhere,” away from the structured confines of her existence in this room to come face to face with her own intimate immensity. As I look at her standing there I can imagine she is in a”state of repose that divides being and non-being. The center of “being-there” wavers and trembles.”
The restricted somber tonality, her figure, and the play of light and dark all bathe the painting with a poetic aura revolving contrapuntally between reality and imagination, between her orderly existence circumscribed by this room and and the freeness of the spirit, untethered by obligation and convention. As I write this I am reminded of a favorite phrase from Wallace Stevens: “the world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.” Bachelard often invokes the the dialectical nature of things. “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” There is grandeur in the painting’s simplicity, passion underlying its serenity, beauty in its ordinariness.
Great art has no boundaries and it is the essence of great artists that irrespective of different styles, temperaments, and approaches to their work, they can evoke the same emotions and wonderment in viewers. One could not imagine a painter more diametrically opposed to Hammershoi than van Gogh, whose exuberant bursts of color are the antithesis of Hammershoi’s muted hues, and van Gogh’s often skewed, strange perspectives form a kind of drunken geometry in contrast to the sculptural order and geometric logic inherent in Hammershoi. Yet, it is striking how Walser’s summary commentary on the portrait of Madame Ginoux, van Gogh’s landlady in Arles, also offers itself as a coda to Interior with Young Woman from Behind:
Something great and noble enters into the simple picture, a solemnity of the soul that it is impossible to overlook.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Penguin Books, 2014.
Foldenyi, Laszlo. “Happiness and Melancholy.” Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, Yale University Press, 2020.
Krämer, Felix. “Vilhelm Hammershoi: The Poetry of Silence”. Hammershoi, Royal Academy of Arts, 2008
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel (Essays on Reality and Imagination), Vintage Books, 1951
Walser, Robert. “The van Gogh Picture” and “A note on van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne”. Looking at Pictures, New Directions Books, 2015.
Kimmo Rosenthal has turned from a career in mathematics and teaching to writing. Recent work has appeared in MacQueen’s Quinterly, The Decadent Review, The Fib Review, Hinterland, The Dillydoun Review, BigCityLit and Tiny Molecules. He also has a Pushcart Prize nomination and is a non-fiction Staff Reader for Ploughshares.