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August 27, 2008

Christie Davies is bored by Vilhelm Hammersh°i - and reminded of why Denmark is boring: Vilhelm Hammersh°i: The Poetry of Silence at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Vilhelm Hammersh°i: The Poetry of Silence
Royal Academy, London
28th June - 7th September 2008
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

Denmark is dull, dismal and depressing and so is Hammersh°i. The curators label his work with that archaic, romantic euphemism, "melancholy". Well, at least Vilhelm Hammersh°i provides the anatomy of it. Some one ought to put lithium in the Danish water supply, assuming, of course, it doesn't clash with the added fluoride that provides their faultless teeth. Better they add lithium, for their souls are eaten away by spiritual caries. No wonder they have the highest suicide rate and the greatest proportion of committed atheists and feminists in Northern Europe.

We can see from Hammersh°i's work that the Danish sky is an endless undifferentiated grey and there are no hills. The Danes of Hammersh°i's ilk live in bleak houses with bare interior walls, sparse furniture and a total absence of cheerful, welcoming clutter. Where amiable German homes radiate friendly geműtlichkeit and those of the Dutch are cosily gezellig, the Danes describe their interiors as hygelig. Once you have experienced this quality you never again want to return to the glum dark land of Ibsen and Kierkegaard.

Hammersh°i then captures well the Danish boredom but he does so in a very boring way. It was a relief to escape into the courtyard outside the Royal Academy to see the bright garland placed around Sir Joshua Reynolds' neck, to paddle in those bright little fountains that piss like dachshunds on the feet of the unwary and to admire the RA's latest big erection.

Hammersh°i was painting at the end of the nineteenth and in the earliest years of the twentieth century when Denmark was particularly glum. The Danes' foolish alliance with Napoleon had cost them their fleet, destroyed by Nelson, the city of Copenhagen, which was bombarded into rubble by the British navy like Baltimore, and the Danish province of Norway which was given to Sweden as booty.

The bombardment gave rise to a new English verb, "to Copenhagen" meaning to destroy suddenly by a sneak naval attack. Jackie Fisher wanted to start World War I by "Copenhagening" Germany in this way in 1904. Then the Danish capital was occupied by the British military, who later did the same to Washington D.C. and they added insult to injury by garrisoning the town with Scotsmen in kilts.

In good King George's glorious days, when Britain set the world ablaze...
Then in 1864 the Danes led by Bishop Fog were easily defeated in war by the Prussians and Austrians, a war the Danes had provoked by their insensitive rule over Schleswig-Holstein. The Danish identity is still marked by what they call "The Great Scar" of that war. They lost between a third and a half of their territory.

The people who had once been fierce adventurous Vikings and the explorers of Greenland now turned in on themselves and lapsed into a featureless introversion. Their inability in Hammersh°i's day to relish the external world or to enjoy novelty stemmed from an inner sense of total loss and ruin. No wonder they feared the critic Georg Cohen Brandes who mocked their provincial lethargy.

In the face of these horrors most Danish artists fled to Skagen, the long thin peninsular at the very end of Jutland, the spit that marks their furthest northern point and is as far away from the core of Denmark as it is possible to get. It is also the only place in Denmark that ever gets any sun, though of course only for a few weeks in mid-summer. Here they painted bright and colourful, if crass, scenes of beaches where holiday makers could for a short while forget the horrors of being Danish in Denmark.

Hammersh°i did exactly the opposite. He locked himself into his glum apartment in Copenhagen with his dull, though in fairness devoted and sweet-natured, wife and produced dull, glum interiors which he sold to his dentist. Since the days of Harald Bluetooth the Danes have loved dentists, a visit there reminds them that they are still alive. Besides a Hammersh°i on the wall is as good as an anaesthetic.

All his interiors are the same, no play with light, no use of colour, no people or sense that there are any people there - empty, lonely, alienating. Each of them looks like the sad home of a recently bereaved widower, whose place has been forcibly tidied up by a cold, hard, bureaucratic, social worker who has also taken care to turn off all the lights when she left.

Yet, there was in fact a Mrs Hammersh°i who long outlived the artist. She is the only person ever to be seen in this barren house but only from the back and always in a plain black dress that reaches to the floor. Her only erotic aspect is the long white bare neck between her tucked up hair and the edge of her dress, which always seems to be unbuttoned at the top.

Was it a fetish? Did Hammersh°i nibble it in brief outbursts of desire. The dress itself is shapeless and utterly obliterates the shape of Mrs Hammersh°i's secondary sexual characteristics to an extent that would satisfy the most fatuous of imams. You can hardly believe that Denmark was later to become the world's greatest producer of hard-core pornography. Perhaps it is necessary to arouse them from their dreadful ennui.

In his lifetime Hammersh°i was much celebrated but after his death totally forgotten. Posterity showed more sense than his contemporaries and it is a pity that the RA has defied that good sense. Hammersh°i's pictures should have been left for eternity in the basement of some gloomy provincial gallery in Aarhus, that overgrown village near Molbo whose famous town hall is a deliberate replica of Pentonville prison. They should be seen only by delinquent schoolchildren on forced visits and then as a punishment.

The curators' praise for him is as forced as these school visits. They compare his dark palette with that of Whistler, that master of the Thames at night. But Whistler is not boring; there is always excitement beneath the sombreness. Hammersh°i did in fact visit London and produced paintings of the outside of the British Museum, choosing days when settled grey skies and dirt from urban chimneys blocked out all hint of sun.

The curators have the cheek to compare him with Monet who also came to London for the smoke and fog. But Monet's dirt in the sky swirls and changes and there is contrast, colour and a broad river to suit an impressionist. I am not saying that artists should not seek to capture boredom. Manet, Sickert and Hopper do it very well. But the depiction of boredom should not be boring. Hammersh°i is. Someone should tell the curators that poetry is not meant to be silent.

Christie Davies has lectured in Denmark about the films of John Cleese to try and cheer the moody Danes up. He is the co-editor with Rajeev Dhavan of Censorship and Obscenity, which considers Denmark and admires the Danes' courageous refusal to back down over the Mohammed cartoons. Denmark has at last emerged into the sunlight and escaped from its sad and passive past.

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Quite right. Denmark is the world's most dreary country, though Norway and Sweden are close runners-up. The Danes are a nullity because they do not have a language. Danish is a German dialect , a sort of Platdeutsch in which words are swallower and consonants left out. They would have better off if Prussia had annexed the entire country instead of just Schleswig-Holstein.
On the war-memorials in Schleswig to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 you will find many Danish surnames. The Danes in the annexed territories soon became good Prussians. In Denmark itself the people lapsed into the obsessive collecting of folklore which became their sole identity. Germany produced kultur and Denmark Evald Tang Kristensen.
Still you have to feel sorry for them. You ought not, as Davies does, kick a man while he is lying in the gutter

Posted by: Jack at September 6, 2008 12:32 PM

Well they did give us the best bacon in the world and Carlsberg too (probably)

Posted by: Damo Mackerel at September 8, 2008 04:34 PM

Where to begin? The plethora of inaccuracies and downright untruths? The casual racism? Your call to poison an entire nation? Your outrageous extrapolation from one dreary painter to an entire dreary nation? Your claim that because Denmark didn't partake in warfare and colonisation their past is 'sad'?

Denmark sits on top of all sorts of development and happiness tables, has a thriving economy, low crime rate and is populated by some of the most sophisticated and friendly people in the world. Oh, and let's not forget about the great art and films it produces.

I know jealousy is sometimes hard to swallow.

ps Denmark's suicide rate is 29th in the world, and is lower than 19 countries in Europe.

Posted by: Marc at September 9, 2008 09:47 AM

ôJackö is wrong about the linguistics. Danish is a Scandinavian language, along with Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese. On the contrary, Low German shows strong affinities with English.

However, Y-chromosome studies suggest that the Danish Vikings were related to the Anglo-Saxons, while the Norwegian ones are distinct. An explanation appears to be that the Jutes were indeed related to the Angles and the Saxons, but after some of them came over to Britain, the rest were culturally assimilated (resistance was futile?) by the North Scandinavian Vikings. So, taking a clue from the Star Trek film First Contact:

ôBorg? Sounds Swedish. Well, Norwegian, maybe.ö

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 10, 2008 07:41 PM
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