Poetry without motion

The paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi were derided in his lifetime for being stark and uneventful. To

Copenhagen is, so they say, "the new Singapore", perfectly positioned to take advantage of the economic surge that is engulfing northern Europe. Denmark is close to Russia and is now linked to Sweden by a bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö. The boom has brought a frenzy of development to the Danish capital and an eruption of signature buildings: the Royal Library's "Black Diamond" on the waterfront; a new opera house on the waterfront; and a new theatre also, oddly enough, on the waterfront.

Yet the greatest signature building of them all remains the stark Thorvaldsens Museum, a poly chrome, mid-19th-century, neoclassical monument next to the now-redundant docks being colonised by the super-rich, in which are entombed the works of the only sculptor to rival Canova in pan-European prestige, Bertel Thorvaldsen. You cannot understand Danish art until you understand why the Thorvaldsens Museum exists. And Danish art is crying out for understanding: it is the most underappreciated national school in Europe.

The deliciously dusty, fusty Thorvaldsens Museum is a catacomb of a concatenation of glorious tat. The walls are lined with plaster models of innumerable bas-reliefs (you can still buy casts from the original moulds) and the display hall is dominated by statues suffering from severe gigantism. The numerous side rooms are full of marble busts, Thorvaldsen's surprisingly elegant furniture, and his superb personal collection of paintings. This vast shrine, erected by a grateful nation, was actually masterminded by the old poser himself, who had convinced the whole of Europe to take him as seriously as he took himself (which was very).

The building was constructed on the premise that Rome and the imitation of Rome - that is, Greece at one remove - still held the key to art, life, sculpture and everything, including Cop enhagen. Artistic standards had to conform as nearly as possible to those pertaining in Rome, however old hat, and, like all art academies (a very Roman notion), the Royal Danish Academy was resolved to keep it that way.

The painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, the subject of a definitive new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, did not fit the academic model. And it is clear that his contemporaries did not understand why. He had been trained properly. He knew the rules. He simply refused to conform. It did not make sense. There is still a "cloud of unknowing" hovering about his work, which is partly what makes it so compelling.

Hammershøi is the master of understatement, in tone, colour and even size of canvas. His masterpieces are small interiors, often devoid of figures. When human beings appear, they are likely to have their backs turned to the viewer or to be self-absorbed, refusing to engage. In this respect, they reveal the pervasive influence of Thorvaldsen's introspective poses, and Hammershøi sometimes shows a Thorvaldsen plaque on the wall as a delicate hint at his hidden classicism. Interior With Young Man Reading (1898, Hirsch sprung Collection) is a good example. Hammershøi's impressive cityscapes and landscapes are even emptier: there is nobody there.

The minimalism extends to technique. Some of his early paintings contain local colour - a discreet pink, perhaps, or a subdued purple. However, the predominant impression is of black and grey, of an overall dark tonality from which all other colour has been deliberately drained. And that is the way Hammershøi liked it, to the detriment, unfortunately, of several early canvases in which he experimented with making his blacks even blacker than commercially available pigments. But he learned his mistake when the surfaces quickly began to crack up, to the extent, in fact, that some of these paintings can never be exhibited. Hammershøi is, on the face of it, the stereotypically gloomy Dane.

An early masterpiece in which the thick black pigment has clearly broken up shows the artist's sister Anna - Portrait of a Young Woman, painted in 1885, when Hammershøi was 21. This picture caused a terrific row. It is obviously influenced by Whistler, and in parti cular by Whistler's Mother, which Hammershøi presumably knew in the form of a familiar heliographic print. Not for nothing did Whistler prefer to call this painting Arrangement in Grey and Black.

Hammershøi subsequently exhibited alongside Whistler in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, and visited London in 1897-98 in order to follow in the master's footsteps. He returned to the city in 1905-1906, when he painted Montague Street from the window of his lodgings (68 Great Russell Street - now, appropriately, an art gallery). It is a decidedly bleak vision of a damp and misty Bloomsbury (there are no people), but the picture also suggests that, in addition to Whistler, Hammershøi had looked at that far less fashionable painter, the master of the foggy townscape, Atkinson Grimshaw. The paintings made in 1912, on Hammershøi's last visit to London, are similarly intense, such as The Jewish School in Guilford Street, London and the remarkable Interior in London: Brunswick Square, which is nothing less than a grim, dark and forbidding reworking of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg's famously luminous triple view of Rome through the columns of the Colosseum.

Like Whistler's compositions, Portrait of a Young Woman is a study in tonality rather than in light and colour, and it was promptly rejected for the prize at the Royal Danish Academy's exhibition. Hammershøi was certainly upset, but he cannot have been surprised. Ever since the wondrous Eckersberg had perfected his high-pitched views of Rome in the years 1813-16, Danish painters had sought to crank up both colour and tone to the utmost degree. A supreme master of the style was Hammershøi's teacher Peder Kroyer (one of Hammershøi's chief defenders), whose "blue paintings" of the coast at Skagen and of the sea off Ravello are rightly celebrated - if overused in tourist posters. Just when the cream of Denmark's academicians thought they had succeeded in re-creating Italian splendour under a Scandinavian sky, along came this gifted young man with . . . dull, grey paintings.

Very soon, however, Hammershøi had developed a sophisticated technique of thinly brushed paint, through which the canvas grain often emerges, and at the same time the light within his compositions came alive, beginning to shimmer and reflect, glittering amid the half-tones. This compelling sheen, together with the powerful in fluence of Vermeer, appears in works of great delicacy and strength, including the Tate Collection's Interior (1899).

An enduring problem for his contemporaries was that Hammershøi's best pictures were not, to all intents and purposes, "about" anything. Even if they showed individual human beings, they were rarely portraits in the accepted sense. He did not paint landscapes that anyone might readily enjoy. Nor were his interiors really still lifes. Rather, Hammershøi seems to have aimed above all at creating a mood, whatever the ostensible "subject". And so, he often achieves the distilled sensation of a deeply meditated stillness. This lack of any movement marks his compositions as strongly as the absence of sound to which the title of the exhibition refers. The paintings remain self-sufficient and ultimately impenetrable, but perhaps that is the appeal they hold for the modern viewer familiar with, or suffering from, existential angst.

When we are confronted with Hammershøi's best images we can just detect, filtering out from their "silent" interiors, a barely heard murmur of loneliness and isolation; and this was precisely the kind of life that Hammershøi chose to lead. He married, although the couple had no children and lived in seclusion in a stylish if bare 17th- century apartment. Here Hammershøi painted the rooms - the furniture lightly, mathematically rearranged for the purpose - no fewer than 60 times. This way of life also had the advantage of keeping the artist's deeply scary mother at arm's length. By refusing to die, she may well have been the cause of much of his trouble: his nightmare muse. It is probably because of her that the Hammershøis, unusually for such home biddies, travelled abroad so frequently, to London, Am sterdam, Paris, Italy - anywhere - in acts of defensive wanderlust. Throughout these characteristically muted escapades, Vilhelm observed and absorbed, though he rarely painted.

After Hammershøi died in 1916, his art fell into even greater disfavour, reaching a nadir in the 1930s when the National Gallery of Denmark, claiming that he had gone out of fashion (with which no one could disagree), returned 28 canvases bequeathed by a well-off dentist, Alfred Bramsen, who had been his biggest fan. Hammershøi had always had a few significant champions, notably fellow artists such as Renoir and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. This last may not have been a good thing. Modern interest in the symbolists has rescued him from obscurity, but the contemporary attention he had from the likes of Puvis seems to have encouraged him to attempt more overtly symbolist compositions, and on a larger scale than he could control. Several of these are clumsy for such a deft and painstaking master. If Hammershøi is indeed a symbolist, as many would argue, then he functions best when deeper meanings are barely intimated beneath a deceptively calm surface, their force compressed within rigorous constraints, and his paintings are all the more powerful for that.

"Vilhelm Hammershøi: the Poetry of Silence" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, from 28 June to 7 September. For more details, log on to: www.royalacademy.org.uk

For information on art collections in and around Copenhagen see: http://www.visitdenmark.com

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically