I have been an ardent fan of the paintings of Edward Hopper, and I always strive to write at least one Hopperesque moment into a novel. This involves putting one of my characters alone in a room and keeping them still, while allowing the room to express itself. When a scene like this succeeds, it seems to offer the character a choice: accept this room, which, when you still all thought and see, buzzes with implication about you and about your life, or else summon the strength to find another room, one in which you can reinvent yourself.
Although I have written a number of these scenes, I have only succeeded once to my own satisfaction. In Nights in the Asylum, a young woman in a remote outback petrol station stares in through the window at the place where she spends her days. I like to think that Edward Hopper would have wanted to paint her.
Recently I discovered the Danish artist, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and as with Edward Hopper it was love at first sight. Of the two, I prefer Hammershøi’, not because I have tired of Hopper but because the quality of stillness which is central to the work of both artists is of a different temperament and temperature in Hammershøi’s muted, exquisite paintings.
Perhaps they speak to my own fascination with empty rooms. We live out our lives in rooms filled with things we’ve chosen, and they speak about us, as the rooms of others speak about them. When I am away from home I often visualise the empty rooms that await my return; I wonder about their life without me and whether they retain traces of the many other unknown lives they have sheltered.
In a BBC documentary about Vilhelm Hammershøi, the English writer, Michael Palin, remarks on the emotional quality of the paintings, saying that it is almost as if Hammershøi has given the rooms feelings. While his portraits and landscapes are striking, and the interiors in which a figure sits or stands facing away from the viewer are enticingly mysterious, it is the quiet rooms suffused with light from a pair of tall windows, or with a square of sunlight falling upon the floor, a stretch of wall, or a card table, that for me are the most mesmerising of all his paintings.
There is a timelessness at work in them, and although the world they show is closed and private, there is an odd sense of infinity. Perhaps this has to do with the restricted colour palette he favoured, a world of beautiful greys balanced against a complex and even more beautiful black. Hammershøi’s figures are alone at home, whereas Hopper’s are often alone in public places, or in rooms so impersonal, so stripped of belongings, that they focus all the loneliness of hotel rooms, their transitory, other-world nature. Hopper paints America in saturated colour; he paints the night, with his subjects pinned under shadowless artificial light until they seem drained of life. Even when the sun shines, it falls heavily, except in his coastal watercolours, where it glints as sharp and bright as knives.
Hammershøi paints light as a precious presence. In his rooms at Copenhagen’s Strandgade 30, sunlight often falls from an unseen source on the left of the painting. When his wife Ida poses for him it strokes the nape of her neck like a caress; perhaps this is why Ida faces away from us in so many of his pictures.
An admirer of Vermeer and of Whistler, in time Hammershøi was sought out by artists and writers like Emile Nolde and Rainer Maria Rilke. Both remarked on his reserved nature, and he does seem to have been a shy man. In London, having gathered the courage to visit Whistler, when he found that he was not at home Hammershøi did not return.
I have never been able to decide whether Hopper’s characters are poised at some personal turning point or whether they are frozen in resignation and despair. Whatever the answer, they are troubling; I do not want to swap places with them. By contrast, Hammershøi’s figures are meditative and calm; there is protective quality to the way he paints them, as if he wants to preserve them forever in untroubled stillness.
His quiet rooms beckon us in. Hammershøi loves the fall of light on domestic surfaces, he loves the invitation of a partly open door, and perhaps this is where the sense of infinity comes in – rooms opening into other rooms, other lives, other times, on and on for ever. In capturing these secret, unobserved moments, it feels as if Hammershøi has painted time itself, and our tenuous relationship with it.