Saturday, September 06, 2008

On closed Open doors and eloquent silences:

George Szirtez has some interesting thoughts he shares about:

"... Vilhelm Hammershoi's exhibition at the RA just before it closes at the end of the week. The show is titled The Poetry of Silence. Hammershoi is Danish, 1865-1916. The paintings come complete with recommendations from Rainer Maria Rilke among others.."

My own attention was captivated by two elements treated in characteristic Szirtez' pensive contemplation: the unusual choreography of doors and the forlorn atmosphere of silence.
We have direct visual access to two rooms in this modest apartment. In the inner room a woman in a sober black dress stands still facing a wall in semi-darkness. To her left, a door is open to a French window through which joyless light seems to stream into the room. The woman is untouched by the light. She stands well away from it. We are able to observe this scene because the door that connect what seems like a hall and the inner room is wide open. The woman stands with her back to the door. There is a third door, on the right of the painting. It is also open, but ushers in no light; only more shadows. We do not know where this door gives to. Is it the way to the outdoors? Is it another room? The room the viewer inhabits is also quite well-lit, but again, it is a sourceless sort of light, ill-defined, cheerless. But again, the light reaches just over the doorstep, still excluding the woman. She always remains within that rectangle of umbra.

It is a picture of silent resignation. The silence in the painting, where does it come from? What qualifies its listless desperation? The empty spaces, the nearly bare walls, the eerie light that brings no comfort, the open doors which seem to lead inwards.
We associate closed doors with failures, open doors with new opportunities. Yet this painting appears to invert this expectation. The woman passively occupies a dark corner, her back turned on two open doors. Her indifference to the promise of an open door is further accentuated by her facing a wall, enclosed in a darkened corner rather than the more liberating desiring preference of an open door and window through which the incoming light suggests an outside.
There is something perverse about this insistence on eschewing open doors. But the viewer is not angry with her, maybe because of her silent acquiescence and possible complicity, maybe because we feel she knows something we don't. Maybe she knows what those open doors offer, and that what they offer is not an opportunity. She reminds me of our mothers and grandmothers, for whom the beckoning of freedom through open doors was something to be feared, free-floating self-agency a thing from which to shrink away. Bewildered and fettered by culture and tradition, they kept away from open doors and stealthy light.
In the art of poetry, silence is usually a fraction of a void, an emptiness, a pause, between words that sound and resound. And for some poets, the silence can only be contrasted by a great scream of emotion or anguish or joy.
This painting, which has been included in an exhibition entitled "The Poetry of silence", seems to defy the poetical notion that silence is only a punctuated absence of noise, or voice. Where is the contextualizing noise, that pronounces this silence and gives it meaning? Should we regard the outlying spaces hinted by the open doors as the visual equivalent of noise? But we are not allowed to know where the doors lead to, so how can we know?
The coldness and politeness in the painting are very "nordic" in texture and sense. In the south, the Mediterranean, we encounter a very different idea of the silence.
About that, later.


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