Hammershøi to Hossack: Inspiration and Resources
When Ottawa-based art photographer Leslie Hossack set out to document the life of celebrated Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), she spent a lot of time studying his painting Sunshine in the Drawing Room (1910), from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Acquired by the Gallery in 2017, it is one of his renowned contemplative interior scenes. Normally on display in the permanent galleries, Sunshine in the Drawing Room was shown in 2018 alongside five other Hammershøi paintings in the Gallery’s special exhibition, Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection, which featured an entire room devoted to works by masters of the Danish Golden Age.
Hossack says the Gallery's Hammershøi painting – together with seeing it within the context of other Hammershøi works from the Ordrupgaard Collection – was the catalyst for her latest photography project. “I felt Hammershøi and I were speaking the same visual language,” she says of his work. “Viewing his interiors is an intimate experience. One enters his private home, moves around his physical space and then slowly encounters one’s own soul.”
Hossack typically explores the lives of historical figures and subjects. She is inspired by architectural forms, including Berlin's National Socialist architecture, Mussolini’s Rome and the internment structures of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Her work is held in collections including Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian War Museum, the National Churchill Library and Center in Washington, D.C., and the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna.
Her Hammershøi photographs are a departure from previous projects that focused on “the vortex of power that consumed our planet during the Second World War and the Cold War,” she says. “The Hammershøi project is about confronting and invading our own foreign territory, crossing into that last unknown frontier within ourselves. He uses psychological seduction to entice us to explore our own interiority.”
In delving into the great Danish master’s life and work, Hossack also discovered a wealth of behind-the-scenes, publicly available expertise and resources at the Gallery. “I became aware of the breadth and depth of material one can find on an artist at the Gallery,” she says, “and the extensive knowledge and generosity of sharing by the Gallery’s curators and staff.”
Much of Hossack’s research involves handling and photographing original, archival documents. “If I am photographing a building in Freud’s Vienna, for example, it becomes a representation of what it was like when he lived there,” she explains.
The Gallery’s Library and Archives – housing the most extensive collection of visual arts literature in Canada – was an invaluable resource for her. “The Library is accessible to the public, so anyone can come and use our resources," comments Amy Rose, Head of Reference Services. "As one would expect, we have rich archival collections, but we also have a huge collection of artists’ books and multiples which, in themselves, are works of art.” Rose also points out that in researching art-related topics, much of the scholarly publishing is still paper-based, “so it is important to come in and actually consult the physical journals or books." Hossack is extremely grateful for the support and help she received. “With Amy, there was an ongoing dialogue. She would look out for relevant articles in journals on Hammershøi and on Copenhagen, and that was really significant to my research.”
A good example of this was Hossack’s extensive use of “a wonderful old volume” in the Gallery’s Rare Books Collection: Vilhelm Hammershøi, kunstneren og hans vaerk (The Artist and His Work) by Sophus Michaëlis and Alfred Bramsen. Published in Copenhagen in 1918, this numbered, limited-edition book features 66 tipped-in plates – pages that are printed separately from the main text, then attached to the book. “I photographed each of these monochromatic reproductions of Hammershøi’s paintings” Hossack says. “These 66 photographs have become one of the main streams of my Hammershøi series.” Only 850 copies of the book were ever printed, but Hossack scoured the Internet and managed to find and purchase her own copy.
Working onsite at the Gallery also introduced Hossack to some of the Gallery's curators, including Sonia Del Re, Jonathan Shaughnessy and Erika Dolphin. Dolphin is Associate Curator in the Chief Curator’s office and specializes in European art; she was also the organizing curator for the Gallery's Ordrupgaard exhibition. She emphasizes that the Gallery "is a public collection and it is our responsibility to make it as available as possible.” Doing that, she explains, “involves a lot of expertise and a lot of passion. Curators and conservators are probably the best-known staff, but there is a myriad of people involved in making works of art accessible to the public (on different platforms), both visible and behind-the-scenes.” Dolphin says Hossack’s interest in Hammershøi is understandable given the photographic quality of his work. “There is a haunting emptiness of many of his works, especially the interior rooms, which are often unpopulated,” she notes. “His inward look has a quality of mystery to it.”
Hossack says she was “blown away” by the generosity of the people at the Gallery. “I’m a researcher at heart, but I have no background in art history,” she says. “I went to the National Gallery as a practising artist, not an academic scholar. I didn’t expect the richness that evolved. It was encouraging, rewarding and stimulating.” She plans to mount an exhibition and publish a book of her Hammershøi photos in 2021, and hopes this will allow more people to become familiar with his work. “They are artistic gems that can be enjoyed simply as such, but their richness is that they promise so much more.”
Vilhelm Hammershøi's Sunshine in the Drawing Room is in Gallery at the National Gallery of Canada. To visit the Gallery's Library & Archives, consult the web page for opening hours. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.