Tag Archives: Hunger

Peter Ilsted and Hamsun’s Hunger: Ylajali Looking Out the Window

4 Feb

I recently wrote about the turn of the century Danish painter Peter Ilsted and his delightful, sunny and cozy interior scenes with girls playing or reading books and I mentioned Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”, well today I want to focus exclusively on Hamsun’s novel and the painting which reminds me of one scene from the novel.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Looking Out the Window, 1908

In “Looking Out of the Window”, a pretty young girl in a black dress and two long braids is looking out of the window. As usual with these Northern painter such as Hammershoi and Ilsted, the girl’s face is not seen, but still I know that she is pretty because she must be and I want her to be because I see her as the Ylajali from Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”; the sweet-scented, pretty and mysterious girl that the narrator meets one day by chance in the street and later he has a very interesting conversation with her one night. In this painting Ilsted offers a somewhat voyeuristic view of the girl looking out of the window because she is in the other room, and she left the doors behind her open and that’s why we see her through the corridor. If the white doors were closed, the girl would be a mystery and all that would remain on the canvas would be the little table, a painting with shadowy figures and the door. The interior would seem cold and uninviting, but the girl with the braids adds a mysterious touch to it.

What is she looking at? Or should I say, on what strange gentleman are her eyes set? The answer lies in Hamsun novel “Hunger”; written in the first person in the stream of consciousness style, the unnamed narrator is a young aspiring journalist who, poor and hungry, wanders the streets and encounters many things on his way. This is how the novel begins: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.” Hungry, half-desperate and half-hopeful in a mad way, with frail nerves, empty stomach and a thin coat, he leaves his attic room in search of….something to fill his day. While on a walk in the beginning of the novel, he sees two ladies walking with their parasols, and accidentally brushes one, turning around to apologise, he sees her pale face and cheeks blushing and she is instantly lovely to him; “I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way. I overtake her again, pass her by, turn quickly round, and meet her face-to-face in order to observe her well. I stand and gaze into her eyes, and hit, on the spur of the moment, on a name which I have never heard before–a name with a gliding, nervous sound–Ylajali!

The mysterious girl whose pale face hidden under the veil cannot leave his mind is named Ylajali and he follows her to the bookstore and then to the house where she apparently lives and here is that part of the novel which reminds me of Ilsted’s painting:

Outside No. 2, a large four-storeyed house, they turned again before going in. I leant against a lamp-post near the fountain and listened for their footsteps on the stairs. They died away on the second floor.

I advanced from the lamp-post and looked up at the house. Then something odd happened. The curtains above were stirred, and a second after a window opened, a head popped out, and two singular-looking eyes dwelt on me. “Ylajali!” I muttered, half-aloud, and I felt I grew red.

Why does she not call for help, or push over one of these flower-pots and strike me on the head, or send some one down to drive me away? We stand and look into one another’s eyes without moving; it lasts a minute. Thoughts dart between the window and the street, and not a word is spoken. She turns round, I feel a wrench in me, a delicate shock through my senses; I see a shoulder that turns, a back that disappears across the floor. That reluctant turning from the window, the accentuation in that movement of the shoulders was like a nod to me. My blood was sensible of all the delicate, dainty greeting, and I felt all at once rarely glad. Then I wheeled round and went down the street.

I dared not look back, and knew not if she had returned to the window. The more I considered this question the more nervous and restless I became. Probably at this very moment she was standing watching closely all my movements. It is by no means comfortable to know that you are being watched from behind your back. I pulled myself together as well as I could and proceeded on my way; my legs began to jerk under me, my gait became unsteady just because I purposely tried to make it look well. In order to appear at ease and indifferent, I flung my arms about, spat out, and threw my head well back–all without avail, for I continually felt the pursuing eyes on my neck, and a cold shiver ran down my back. At length I escaped down a side street, from which I took the road to Pyle Street to get my pencil.

Ylajali, what a beautiful and exotic name to my ears! This scene from “Hunger” lingered in my mind for some time after finishing the novel.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1901

And just for comparison, here is Vilhelm Hammershoi’s painting with a similar theme, again a lady is looking out the window, her back turned against us, her face hidden, but this version of the same scene doesn’t speak to me as much as Ilsted’s version does. Hammershoi does have a mystery and a certain magic, but this strictness of elements, minimalism, and the palette of greys is painfully oppressive and I just wanna die when I gaze it for a long time.

Peter Ilsted – Two girls playing

27 Jan

Out of the three leading Danish painters in the early twentieth century; Peter Ilsted (1861-1933), Carl Holsøe (1863-1935) and Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), it was Peter Ilsted who brought the warmth, the yellow rays of sunlight, coziness and quiet cheerfulness in his interior scenes, while imbuing them with the little bit of the mystery, the kind that haunts Hammershoi’s well-known interiors. Ilsted was the oldest of the three painters, born on Valentine’s day in 1861, and his sister Ida later became Hammershoi’s wife and appears often in his interior scenes, as a mysterious figure in black.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Two girls playing, c. 1900

Ilsted’s painting “Two girls playing” exudes loveliness and warmth. Sunlight is streaming into the room, pale, peachy-orange and yellowish, and suddenly the same minimalist Northern interior which would appear cold and distant in the paintings of Holsoe or Hammershoi, is filled with quiet sweetness and hopes. Two girls, perhaps sisters are playing with something. They turned their backs on us, they don’t care about us because whatever they are playing with is far more amusing. Their appearance is matching; dark dresses under white aprons, little black boots, hair in a single plait follows the line of the neck and ends in a little bow. While the lighter haired girl is kneeling on the chair, the other seems to be standing on the tips of her toes to see better that secretive toy which seems to provide them both with so much amusement. I can imagine them chatting quietly, even giggling, but all in moderation, for the children ought to be seen but not heard. An interesting detail to notice are the paintings on the wall, little paintings in a painting, figures on them are shadowy and dreamy.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior with girl reading, 1910

The painting “Interior with girl reading” from 1910, is again filled with the same Ilsted-esque sunshine, silence and tranquility. Sweet moments at home, the coziness and the safety. The future, its trials, tribulations and uncertainties are miles away from this little girl reading a book in her drawing room. How sweet and shy and modest she appears, in a simple grey dress, hair tied in a braid, completely absorbed in the book she is reading. What thoughts occupy her sweet and innocent mind? The bookshelf, the mirror and the drawer are the only pieces of furniture in this simple room, but again there is something warm and cozy about it which doesn’t appear in the paintings of Ilsted’s contemporaries Holsoe and Hammershoi. I love how Ilsted continually achieves this delightful warmth and coziness in his interiors with little girls playing, reading or chatting, without allowing his canvases to fall into the abyss of sentimentality. Far from it, these paintings are equally thrilling and mysterious as any interior painted by Hammershoi. This delicate, gentle portrayal of the home life and childhood resonated with me, the warm orange-yellowish light that colours the space in his interiors almost fills me with nostalgia. Just take a look at that golden sunlight on the floor, how yellow and tangible it appears! It makes me wanna lie there and take a nap like a cat.

It being winter; cold and dreary, and I am weary, weary of it, my thoughts go to “Northern” painters and writers. I recently read Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger” originally published in 1890, and while he isn’t a Danish but a Norwegian writer, some interior scenes by Hammershoi and Ilsted came to my mind because these cozy, quiet and sunny interiors are a stark contrast to the cold and unwelcoming outside world. “Hunger” is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator who is struggling to get his writing published, his extreme poverty brought him to the state of perpetual hunger and this hunger makes his nerves frail and his behavior somewhat eccentric. In one scene from the novel, he keeps staring at a window until a girl’s face appears, they stare at each other for a while, but then her lovely countenance disappears behind the thick white curtains, the borders between the outside world and the indoor coziness, the narrator continues staring at the window, feeling curious and slightly embarrassed.

I wonder, if the girls from Ilsted’s painting would leave their books and their toys, and if they looked through the window and saw a thin, hungry man in a tattered suit, with wild untamed hair and crazy eyes, how would they feel about him? A mix of pity and fear. Would they stare for some time, until their mother or the servant chased them away from the window because it’s inappropriate to stare at the outside world. This simple and sober middle class interior is a safe cage for the girls-birds; they are too shy, too innocent and too sweet to see the reality out there, on the other side of the curtains and windows which serve are protectors. Whatever crazy stuff is going on outside, none of it can harm them.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior, 1897

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior with two girls, 1904