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  • Luke Roberts

(ESSAY) Greys on greys in virtual days by Luke Roberts

Young woman seen from behind in grey interior with piano/harpsichord and a bookshelf, chair, two paintings with details unseen
Interior with young woman from behind, 1904. Randers Kunstmuseum.

Luke Roberts attends to a spectrum of grey in this essay that recalls Danish artist, Vilhem Hammershøi, and his bleak tonalities. As Roberts goes on to argue, a sensitive rendering of the ‘grey space’ between the virtual and the physical exposes our relationship to World and Earth, the experiential and the unnoticed. So, how do we make their shadows meet?

Grey goes largely unnoticed. It takes a force of will, a conscious awareness, to notice the greys that reside quietly all around you. Unlike the extremes of blacks and whites – shades that appear in all instances as absolute breaks in our perception, world-less and unable to be ignored – grey sits very much within our world, often ignored by virtue of this very fact. Its mundanity takes it beyond being treated with disinterest to some further, deeper ignorance. Look around you: spot those sombre hues you are so used to passing over.

Nobody asked for another comment on lockdown – not least in this, our third iteration – and yet, sadly, this is what is offered. In this last year, grey has proved itself more important than ever, and worthy of attention — as our current year seems likely to follow much of the same pattern, the sooner we take note the better. For that reason, it was with an expert eye that Danish art expert and TV presenter Peter Kær selected Vilhem Hammershøi his virtual advent calendar in December. With little comment on the substance of this calendar itself, its appearance raises the question of the nature of the interaction between the original and the representation, the physical and the virtual. It is a question to which we must more quickly find answers to in an increasingly digital world, and grey holds one of many keys.

Hammershøi, the master of grey, makes that which goes ignored – that which actively avoids attention – unavoidable. An eager follower of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an artist who inspired similarly moody artistic figures such as Walter Sickert and Spencer Gore, his scenes are inherently Scandinavian in essence. Their long dark winters serving a clear inspiration to similarly geographically located artist’s including Balke and Sager-Nelson before him, and Munch among others beyond. Where Hammershøi makes a different turn, however, is in bringing these landscapes into the home. More specifically, into Strandgade 30: his home and canvas. With more of us now than ever held within some four walls, his is a set of works that resonates like perhaps it never has before.

Looking in particular at his Interior (1899) and Interior with piano and woman in black (1901) – works that capture Hammershøi’s greyness in its clearest form – black clad figures present a human void, an abyss in the very centre around which the grey is oriented. As we project ourselves into these faceless heroines, they are greys for us: we are swimming in grey. Heads bowed, engrossed in some unseen and intensely personal task or contemplation, their presence is a lack. Their solitude is our solitude, watched by some faceless and silent observer, whilst closed doors and out-of-shot windows whisper suggestions of the distant rustling of an-Other. Doors and pianos stand out as potential breakers-of-silence, tense and aching items threatening to inject some colour into the sombre scenes – potential annoyances, for sure, but posing no real threat. It is this lack of impending action, this engrossment in small and minor activities, that sings so clearly to a uniquely placed modern audience. Any internal struggle or disenchantment passes silently, subjugated by a crushing, weighty greyness.

For those who perhaps wish to see these paintings ‘in the flesh’ – and meet their sisters in mundanity – they will be disappointed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, whether in the UK or in their native Denmark, they stand behind closed doors. In London’s towering Tate Interior (1899) lies inaccessible amidst the subdued bustle of the capital’s central streets. Meanwhile, in leafy suburban surroundings, Interior with piano and woman in black (1901) — homed in the beautiful Ordrupgaard gallery — stands equally unseen, albeit this time owing to a scheduled long-term closure. For most, then, Kær’s calendar provides a vision of Hammershøi’s works that would otherwise be missed amidst these, our international lockdowns. To this end, we offer some gratitude.

And yet, there is an unmistakeable loss. If we consider the distinction between Earth and World as that between the raw, present elements that ground our existence and those contextualising features that we, as social and human beings, garb them in, this loss becomes clear. Art is an important meeting place between Earth and World — standing as a spotlight in each instance, it provides the clearest of insights into the human reorganisation of the crudest forms of nature. Stood before a physical painting there is available to all willing eyes a reductionist views of the intentional object: an ability to view the work of art as a natural thing-without-context, formed through the manipulation of dirt and life for the eyes of those who might understand.

In Hammershøi, it is this Earthly aspect that makes accessible these worlds of greys. The human manipulation that creates these dark and gloomy abysses is made possible through its being a known creation — the possibility of its reduction is an important aspect in its description of the mundane, for the Earth is always intrinsically dull in its separation from a World. Ahuman and asocial, it stands as a limit on our understanding by its simply existing. With an understanding of Hammershøi’s life, and a more general view of Copenhagen around the turn of the twentieth century, we might make guesses at the lives of his figures and the meanings he wished to convey. Beneath it all, however, this cognitive limit remains, confronting us in our worldly understandings.

Virtual art collapses this distinction. Through it, Earth is destroyed: it makes the natural imperceptible and the Worldliness of the image the whole. Context and viewer come to define it, and as such a whole level of meaning (and of potential individualised understanding) is destroyed. In a virtual space, art is reduced to a study of that which it is ­ the pursuit of art historians and snobs of high-culture ­– rather than a space for any viewer to lose themselves outside of their world. Virtual art is trapped within its own fundamentally digital form, inaccessible to any human being and instead offering itself up to be viewed only.

This is never more so than in the case of Hammershøi. His works encapsulate loss and emptiness, yet paradoxically it is this very loss and emptiness that is itself lost in the transition to the virtual. They are reduced to a whole; their gaps are filled. The physical exploration of these themes that we undergo when perceiving them in their ‘natural’ form is made possible by the one degree of separation between Earth and World: an awareness of the visible, human manipulation that opens up these spaces in our perception. In contrast, the infinite manipulations – technological in the standard sense – undertaken in transferring it to the digital realm destroy any level of physicality, becoming just a flat representation, devoid of any spatial sense. The presence of a photographer or curator in the uploading of some photo-representation of a work of art is irrelevant in the face of its transformation into pixels on pixels on pixels.

To this extent, the dynamic between physical and virtual cannot be reconciled. The new can never present the old as the two forms lie separated across a yawning chasm. Yet perhaps there is some use. In the first place, they play a purely aesthetic role, being something Nice-to-look-at in these mundane and rolling days. The virtual and the physical both provide space for enjoyment, with neither being a more valid form than the other. In the second instance, however, they may serve as an ambiguous trigger to recollection, real or imagined.

Increased access to these works, now more than ever, is to be celebrated. That the physical form invokes a spatial element is a simple statement of fact, and the loss of this element in the transfer to the digital should appear (when couched in these terms) almost beyond need of description. The experience of the ‘same’ piece of art, once in the flesh and once mediated digitally, is radically different: the experience and the phenomenon each offers up is of an entirely different nature. Yet, what the digital can offer – transcending its own form – is a whisper of the physical. Fundamentally incapable of recreating those gaps in perception typified by Hammershøi’s figures, it can at least remind us of their existence. A digital grey is not the same as an Earthy one, but perhaps by reminding us of those greys that often pass us by we can become more conscientious of their existence, and in doing so place ourselves more clearly within them.


Text: Luke Roberts Image: Ordrupgaard

Published: 9/3/21


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