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Thread: Edward Hopper and American Solitude

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    Edward Hopper and American Solitude

    Edward Hopper and American Solitude


    Pandemic or not, the artist’s masterly paintings explore conditions of aloneness as proof of belonging.





    I've been thinking a lot about Edward Hopper. So have other stay-at-homes, I notice online. The visual bard of American solitude—not loneliness, a maudlin projection—speaks to our isolated states these days with fortuitous poignance. But he is always doing that, pandemic or no pandemic. Aloneness is his great theme, symbolizing America: insecure selfhoods in a country that is only abstractly a nation. “E pluribus unum,” a magnificent ideal, thuds on “unum” every day throughout the land. Only law—we’re a polity of lawyers—confers unity on the United States, which might sensibly be a Balkans of regional sovereignties had the Civil War not been so awful as to remove that option, come what may. Hopper’s region is the Northeast, from New York to parts of New England, but his perceptions apply from coast to coast. Born in Nyack in 1882, and dying in 1967 after living for half a century in an apartment on Washington Square, he couldn’t conceivably have developed as he did in any other culture. His subjects—atomized persons, inauspicious places—are specific to his time. But his mature art, which took two decades to gestate before consolidating in the nineteen-twenties, is timeless, or perhaps time-free: a series of freeze-dried, uncannily telling moments.

    Though termed a realist, Hopper is more properly a Symbolist, investing objective appearance with clenched, melancholy subjectivity. He was an able draftsman and masterly as a painter of light and shadow, but he ruthlessly subordinated aesthetic pleasure to the compacted description—as dense as uranium—of things that answered to his feelings without exposing them. Nearly every house that he painted strikes me as a self-portrait, with brooding windows and almost never a visible or, should one be indicated, inviting door. If his pictures sometimes seem awkwardly forced, that’s not a flaw; it’s a guarantee that he has pushed the communicative capacities of painting to their limits, then a little bit beyond. He leaves us alone with our own solitude, taking our breath away and not giving it back. Regarding his human subjects as “lonely” evades their truth. We might freak out if we had to be those people, but—look!—they’re doing O.K., however grim their lot. Think of Samuel Beckett’s famous tag “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Now delete the first sentence. With Hopper, the going-on is not a choice.

    I haven’t seen “Edward Hopper: A Fresh Look at Landscape,” a large show at the lately reopened Beyeler Foundation, Switzerland’s premier museum of modern art, outside Basel. I take its fine catalogue, edited by the exhibition’s curator, Ulf Küster, as occasion enough for reflecting anew on the artist’s stubborn force. I rely as well on memories that we likely share of encountering “Nighthawks” (1942) and “Early Sunday Morning” (1930), but also, really, anything from his hand. Once you’ve seen a Hopper, it stays seen, lodged in your mind’s eye. The reason, beyond exacting observation and authentic feeling, is an exceptional stylistic cleverness. Hopper was explicit on this score, saying, in 1933, “I have tried to present my sensations in what is the most congenial and impressive form possible to me.” Exasperated by questions of what his works meant, he squelched one interviewer by exclaiming, “I’m after ME.” The remark reflects his debts to European Romanticism and Symbolism, which he absorbed in depth while stripping away any stylistic resemblances. Highly literate, he read and reread nineteenth-century German and French poetry all his life. His poetic liberties in a realist mode point back to one of his favorite predecessors, Gustave Courbet. And a certain smoldering vehemence in Hopper puts me in mind of Théodore Géricault, except tamped down to static views of drab actualities. Hopper imported, or smuggled, some emotive powers of European traditions to unforgiving American soil.

    Having studied in New York with Robert Henri and other preceptors of the Ashcan School, who addressed modernity with vernacular realism, he had three sojourns in Paris. There he emulated minor Post-Impressionists with restless variations of tonal contrasts and off-kilter compositions. Back home, while supporting himself as a commercial illustrator, he found a way forward by way of etching. Heavily inked cows, railroad tracks, and a banal house in “American Landscape” (1920) presaged a direction unlike that of any of his contemporaries. The closest was his mystically inclined acquaintance Charles Burchfield, whose rapturous treatments of unprepossessing sites in western New York State have aged very well, informing a trend today among young painters toward potent representation. Less imitable, Hopper has never ceased to influence the thinking, at the very least, of subsequent artists. Willem de Kooning, as Küster recounts in the catalogue, praised him to an interviewer in 1959. De Kooning noted a startling effect of the summarily brushed woods in the background of “Cape Cod Morning” (1950), in which a woman is seen from the side leaning forward at a bay window and staring at something beyond the picture’s right edge: “The forest looks real, like a forest, like you turn on it and there it is, like you turn and actually see it.” That’s on the mark with Hopper: thereness that becomes hereness, in a viewer’s eye and mind.
    "Everything wrong with America is manifested in Trump. The hunger for power, the vile derision of people who don’t look like you, the cruelty, the privilege, the gleeful ignorance, and mendacious narcissism. Our revulsion at Trump is causing Americans to ask: How did we get to this place? And how do we get out? That will take time and hard work by well-intentioned people from every corner of American society."

    ~ Col. Curtis Milam

  2. #2
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    I have always liked that painting, but I can’t explain why.
    I will show you de way....

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