Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper at the Grand Palais Galeries Nationales 10 October 2012-3 February 2013.

Edward Hopper is what happened to Impressionism when it reached America. In fact, given that Impressionism couldn’t travel on its own but needed a vehicle Hopper was both the means of transportaion and, since he transported it not in his luggage but in his brain and nerve ends and fingertips, also the destination, It was in and through Hopper and his work and the work of a few other artists who were his contemporaries that Impressionism immigrated to the US where it was transformed and at the same time transformed its hosts on a molecular level. All those free-floating cells that were brushstrokes and dots of paint the Impressionsts had liberated from the subject, when they came into contact with the hard, bright surfaces and vast empty spaces of America reassembled themselves, they shrank back into the forms of their old adversary and partner, the visible world. Hopper himself said he was always trying to paint light but it was very difficult: the only way to paint it was in its effects as it lit on objects which kept taking over and overwhelming the composition with their solidity and sheer materiality.

Does that mean European Impressionism met and was conquered by American materialism? Well, no, there is more to the story than that, something stranger and more interesting. Impressionism that had made bourgeois European civilisation look lighter than air found bourgeois America heavier than the stone and brick of the buildings that were Hopper’s frequent subjects. Impressionism that had filled its canvases with people, picnics, restaurant scenes, Sundays in the park and evenings at the opera could find only a solitary individual or two to inhabit them in America. All American art tends to the condition of landscape but the early landscape, the first encounters with the wilderness by painters like Thomas Cole were full of awe and wonder at its titanic scale while its emptiness seemed a promise not a threat, so that the works of the American Sublime translated naturally into advertising for the new railroads as they reached across the continent. A century later, things were different. For some years Hopper had to work on advertisements- mainly magazine covers- to subsidise his painting. Hopper’s covers are images of people, white people, happy on holiday at mountain resorts, being driven in open-topped landau through the city, taking tea. Best of all are muscular workers working on and around ships, drawn for The Morse Dial, slightly outsized compared with their background, stylised, the capitalist equivalent of Soviet realism.

His mature paintings are the opposite, full of ghosts: haunted houses, streets and landscapes. When there are figures in them, they stare vacantly or pose stiffly. The continent has been tamed but at a price, it seems. Is the price the tamers’ souls? And is that why there are no black or brown people around? In Cole’s work, Indians are tiny additions that establish the scale of the forests and hills surrounding them but by Hopper’s time they’re not even that, they’re gone. Expunged. Eradicated. Cleansed.

Hopper could draw anything. He was a terrific draughtsman. The etchings that form a bridge between his Paris work and his US career are full of very mobile and natural figures who on their graduation to oil freeze into dolls, thick-limbed, stiff-backed in lumpish, awkward poses, arranged by EH to show off not themselves but the rooms or the offices or the streets they all too temporarily inhabit. In the strongest of his pictures, which are also the most characteristic, the ones known (quite rightly) as the essence of Hopper, they are waiting for something. But for what?

There is a (true) story about an African man named Paul, a faithful retainer to his French master who one day took him on a trip to the south of France. Paul looked at the crowd of sunbathers on the beach lined up in their rows, on deckchairs or towels on the sand, sitting or lying or standing under beach umbrellas, all without exception facing seawards. It was a mystery to Paul. What, he asked his employer, are they waiting for?

That’s an appropriate story for Hopper whose people are waiting for something that will never come. While the Impressionists captured the movement, the dynamism, the gaeity and the whirl of the new bourgeois society that had its epicentre in Paris, Hopper saw through to its inner melancholy and despair, to the forces that had already destroyed it once, in 1914-18 and were in the course of doing so again with the Great Depression that would only end in a Second World War. Yet this melancholy and despair also had a peculiarly American aspect where it was the shadow life of the confident, brash, onwards and upwards, hustle and bustle American Dream.

Simply sitting still is an offence against the Dream. Sitting in your slip on the bed in a hotel room reading in the afternoon is an offence against it. Standing staring out of your apartment window at night is an offence against it. Sitting in a railroad car- also reading- or in a restaurant over chop suey or standing in a hotel lobby or a sitting in a cinema or a theater when the show is apparently over or has yet to begin- why aren’t these people working? Why aren’t they out making the big bucks and getting ahead?

They are waiting for something that will never come, and in the very best paintings they know it as well as we do. It’s as if they are staring out to sea but there is no sea, just the street below or the buildings opposite, and the sun that bathes them slides in shafts through the window before moving on. In Nighthawks, Hopper’s uber picture, his Mona Lisa or Last Supper, it’s 4 am and the only light is artificial, the light in the diner where the nighthawks sit around the counter. For all Hopper’s vaunted interest in painting light and shadow, this painting, again typically American, is really about space and the relation between space and people. The hope of the New World was of a great empty wilderness to be conquered and settled by doughty pioneers. The terror of America is that you end up in the small hours of the morning, in the circle of a log cabin or a coffee shop, alone and with the vast continental night pressing all around you.

The people in Nighthawks- the two men in their trilbys who look like the same man seen from front and back, the orange-haired woman, the sharp-faced counterman- could be happy, successful, rich. One of the men is sitting next to the woman: they could be a comfortably married couple on their way home from a charity ball or gala dinner except they’re not dressed for it- the woman maybe more than the man. Or they could be new lovers who’ve interrupted their lovemaking to rush out, on a whim, for late-night coffee and a slice of pie, which is the sort of frolic new lovers undertake. The solitary man might be a poet who needs the quiet of night to write. The counterman could be a moonlighting millionaire. But we don’t think so. We look at the painting and we think these are losers, solitaries, people who have no place else to go and who’ve washed up here, people who started out as sunbathers and ended up as urban flotsam and jetsam. What are they waiting for? Nothing. They’re past all expectations.

Of course, this kind of thing can be overdone, as some critics have pointed out:

“If Hopper’s rural work can be too simple, his city scenes can be fussily overcomplicated, illustrational in a different way. But when the balance is right, they’re great. In “House at Dusk” (1935), a woman silhouetted by light stares from a top-floor apartment window, unaware of the darkening park and glorious afterglow sky behind the building. She sees nothing; we see it all, from a God’s-eye view.

We’re back to light. If art reflects the sensibility of a time and a culture, it also helps to create that sensibility. Hopper’s light gave Depression-era Americans, and those who have viewed his paintings ever since, a glamorous, even heroic image of themselves as solitary and tragic, persevering, deservedly nostalgic. Some people think Hopper invented this, but he didn’t. The American landscape painters were there before him.

Hopper grew up in Nyack, N.Y., just up the Hudson from Manhattan. From the bedroom window of his childhood home he had a panoramic view of the river. And in essential ways he is direct heir to the 19th-century Hudson River School tradition, particularly the elegiac work of Thomas Cole.

As the nation’s first “official” artist, Cole was probably expected to create Romantic images of a brave and optimistic New World at its dawning. What he actually painted was a vision of a golden age of innocence already past. His art is far less about hope than about fear: fear of change, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of the brash, crass, will-do America bumping and screeching around him.

Hopper’s art is not so different. Technically, he is a Modernist, but without a drop of Modernism’s utopian rationality, confidence and breadth. He didn’t make a dystopian art, either, one that stakes out an alternative position, as Warhol would do. He went with anxiety and longing, and made them feel-good entertaining, like Hollywood films, which he both influenced and was influenced by.

Often his most ambitious paintings feel Hollywood-fake, overproduced, overwritten.”[1]

That’s the case for the prosecution, and it’s true that realism is always popular and often populist (though the first retrospective Hopper received was given by a curator responding to the purely formal qualities in his work). I think Hopper “gets the balance right” enough times in his 366 fully realised paintings but it’s a complicated sort of balance between illustration and art, light and shadow, figures and landscape, real feeling and kitsch, utopia and dystopia, drama and melodrama.

Above all, it’s a balance that has nothing to do with harmony. In the age of exploration, the Old World saw the New as Arcadia, the fabled land where there was harmony between man and nature. The same vision hovers over Hudson River artists: even as America had changed and was frantically developing around them they clung to images of a glorious all-but-empty wilderness. By Hopper’s day, that game was up. There are no mighty mountains, great forests and rushing rivers in Hopper. Sometimes there’s a fragment of shining sea, as in Ground Swell, sometimes a sequence of mellow, homely buildings as in his series of watercolours done in Gloucester Mass but, however popular, these are Hopper at his least inspired, working in a vein that’s scarcely removed from illustration. In hardcore Hopper, the land that is our land has shrunk to the dimensions of a stone street and a bare room with a bed, and the sun and wind have to angle their way in through an open window. Perhaps the people in these pictures aren’t waiting for anything but, like Walter Benjamin’s angel, staring into the past while a storm from Paradise blows them into the future, to which their backs are turned, and history’s wreckage piles invisibly at their feet.

Invisibly, because Hopper is an artist whose best work gets its power from what he leaves out, what he doesn’t show, from the space and the emptiness that in Hopper function as objective correlates for the space and emptiness of America itself. The vacant rooms, the gaps between the frozen figures, the yawning windows, the dead-eyed buildings, the enveloping night in which a single refugee scuttles between the pools of light cast by the streetlamps, represent on his canvases that lonely void which is the dark side of the American Dream.

Already in Hopper’s time those artistic empty spaces were expanding to take over the entire canvas where they became the home and the receptacle for a new art, abstraction, one that Hopper ironically and resolutely opposed. It may seem strange to see Hopper as the godfather of Rothko and Jackson Pollock, but so he was, even as he was an odd man out among contemporary artists, like Charles Meyron, the only European genius whose influence Hopper acknowledged from his stays in Paris (he said he never heard of Picasso and wasn’t interested in cubism). Both Meyron and Hopper were in advance of their times- Meyron whose mid-19th century engravings of Paris showed the old European world in decline as it was replaced by the modern; and Hopper whose pictures record modernity’s stillbirth in the new American world, the chancre at its heart.

[1] Holland Cotter, ‘Hopper’s America, In Shadow and Light’ (review of Hopper show at Boston Museum of Fine Arts) New York Times, May 4 2007.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014