Tag Archives: window

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.

Laurits Andersen Ring – Young Girl Looking Out a Window

4 Dec

“City of swarming, city full of dreams
Where ghosts in daylight tug the stroller’s sleeve!
Mysteries everywhere run like the sap
That fills this great colossus’ conduits.

One morning, while along the sombre street
The houses, rendered taller by the mist….”

(Baudelaire, Seven Old Men)

Laurits Andersen Ring, Young Girl Looking Out a Window, 1885

A young girl is standing by the window and looking out at the urban grey cityscape; grey skies and old roofs gradually disappearing in the mist. Their brown and fading brick red shades are the only colour in this sea of greyness. Then there’s also the soft pink of the girl’s cheek, perhaps from the cold winter air, or perhaps thoughts of distant beloved someone have turned her cheek into a summer’s garden of pink roses. She is dressed in simple, somber attire, and we see so little of her face that it is hard to tell what she is feeling, but we can imagine. She’s clearly a poor, working class girl, yearning for more. Perhaps she moved from the countryside as many have at the time, including the painter himself, and now, looking out of her small attic window at the “swarming city, city full of dreams” she doesn’t see the things that were promised to her. Even though it isn’t shown on the painting, we can imagine the rest of the scene; a poorly furnished cold little room, with old wooden floor, a tattered worn-out wooden furniture, little comfort and little brightness and little warmth, a perfect background for a Joy Division song to play in the background and flood the space and the girl’s life with an even greater sea of misery. It must be a singularly dreary late autumn day, for if it was a winter day, the roofs of Copenhagen would have probably been covered in a layer of snow. These verses seem as if they were directed to this girl looking out of her window:

Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agatha,
Far from the black ocean of the filthy city,
Toward another ocean where splendor glitters,
Blue, clear, profound, as is virginity?
Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agatha?

(Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, translated by William Aggeler, 1954)

Born as Laurits Andersen in 1854 in a little village of Ring, as a carpenter’s son, the ambitious Danish painter added “Ring” to his name as a way to differentiate himself from a fellow painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde (who added Bredenkiled himself out of the same reason) because they both exhibited their paintings at a joint exhibition in 1881. Ring began his art journey as a painter’s apprentice in his village, took some private classes in painting while working in Copenhagen in 1873, until he was accepted as a student at the Danish Academy of Arts and for a while studied under Peder Severin Krøyer, but he never liked the discipline and themes promoted by the Academy. You know someone is a great painter if they rebel against the Academy. The painting “Young Girl Looking Out a Window” is a fairly early and a fairly unknown work, at least compared to his more famous paintings, such as his Northern landscapes and village scenes which tackle the difficult aspects of poor people’s lives. Ring was very interested in the social justice and portraying realism in art, real things and real people, and not mythological fantasy themes. He didn’t want to escape reality, he wanted to tame it and transform it into colours and forms on his canvases. And this painting of a sad-looking girl gazing out the window was painted at the time when Ring himself was struggling financially and artistically, and spent a winter in an attic room in Copenhagen, living more on his ambitions than on bread and butter. Also, the way she was painted, seen from the profile and crammed into the very corner of the canvas, is something he typically did.