Essays: From an imaginary journal: Rilke’s notes on Hammershǿi |
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From an imaginary journal: Rilke’s notes on Hammershǿi

by Nichola Deane

Rilke, an admirer of Vilhelm Hammershǿi, made a visit to Copenhagen to meet the Danish artist in the autumn of 1904. Rilke wished to write an essay on Hammershǿi, a task rendered difficult by the artist’s inability to hold a conversation. Although Rilke records the visit, briefly, in letters, the essay was never completed.

I see him now before me, in the polished wooden chair, his hands on the armrest, the wood reflecting light. Every single surface in the Strandgade apartment sings back this whiteness. Light descends on him and then it stays. His wife, Ida, pours coffee for us and I look at their faces, both wearing a near-identical softness of expression. The emptiness of this Spartan room wells and brims inside their broken-focus gaze.

For who can bear to focus in this place? Objects to fix on are few: a table, a bowl, a chair or two; his paintings. Nothing here distracts the visitor from the light. Yet my hosts, gentle and hesitant, seem so distant—indeed, they are hardly with me at all—that I wonder how we can begin to speak. Ida seems always to look beyond the four walls: on what point in space does her eye rest? He looks with silence. I want him to break that silence, just for me. I want him to talk to me now that we’re face to face and drinking coffee, for this was pilgrimage to come to him.

Yet his words rise like bubbles of light and burst before they reach his tongue. Words have gone from him: gone into the paintings of the women (sister, wife, and servant). These women can only turn their backs on him—and yet he holds their sadness, speaking it with his blacks and greys and blues, and in the ways he gathers in their gently wilting bodies and their bare necks, making them alive as if just touched. Oh act of giving—he gives himself to their silence. He is these women, whose breathing and whose meditation makes the room burn.

I watch him sip from the plain white cup he holds, and his gaze is down and inward like a woman’s, as if he reserves his amorous glance for the space he paints. I start to ask about the image of the woman in the bedroom, standing between the separate beds, her back turned. But he will not respond, so I talk of her as if talking to the air, like an actor rehearsing his speech before an empty auditorium. I speak of that woman who looks out on a winter landscape, somehow holding the distant world between her drooping shoulders. Only a sense of that bitter exterior is given, a quick shock: of bare trees and shrubs; of snow on the ground; of the frozen, pitiless light. Not a bird sings in what she sees, not a human soul punctuates her view. No, she is the hard, cold ground and the stripped-down tree. She is the icy light-source, unable to weep. Yes, her tears are there—she holds them in her concealed hands—but they look strange to her, remote as diamonds or an unstrung rosary.

And here, just here, as I voice the thought of her tears, his moustachioed lip curls a little and warms for once. His eye flickers and glimmers, wobbling like Saturn when viewed through a telescope. He is glad I like his paintings, he manages. ‘We have anticipated your arrival, Mr Rilke, with some…’ and there he pauses, clambering with some difficulty towards a word. ‘Pleasure,’ his wife interjects, her eye opening towards me like a hand. But his glance flashes to her and her word is palmed.

I broach the subject of exhibitions, sales, his reputation. A cough, a faint blush. His hand lifts my words away. Futile to try this talk, I realise. No-one can take these canvases from him, nor can his work be injured. He could sell each of his portraits and interiors and lose none. Poured out from a point of feeling, they seed like sad stars. He is a galaxy away, bearing all these feelings like a mother.

Come to the canvases once and you receive nothing. Memorize them and return and they will yield a loneliness like wings beating. They are the only canvases prepared to leave themselves behind. As poems must, they cancel out their images in favour of absorption into the pulse, the muscle, and the reaches of the mind.

Hammershǿi is prepared to paint in this ruinous way, but are we ready to receive him? His inverted gaze seemed to give the answer as I gathered my gloves and hat and took my leave. I had garnered a handful of images and counted myself rich. But I doubted the light was ripe in me (had yet I journeyed inward as far and deep as he had clearly done?). How could I transmit his lucent rooms in frail words when his light was still descending like a meteor—towards my breastbone? Oh, it must fall right. It must become experience, this knowledge we share: only what is gone can truly live. Yet will the world comprehend this: my leaving with empty hands, my singular joy in losing?

© Nichola Deane