Solitude, light, and harbingers of death.
Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By MARTHA BAYLES
Painter of Light. Over the centuries this phrase has been applied to many artists, from Pontormo to Monet, Fra Angelico to Turner. (It has even been copyrighted by Thomas Kinkade, Purveyor of Kitsch.) But at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts this summer, the only Painter of Light who mattered was Edward Hopper. This exhibition will doubtless be a hit at the National Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago; but it was in Boston that Hopper's stunning watercolors and oils of sun-washed Victorian mansions, seaside cottages, and lighthouses in Gloucester, Cape Cod, and Maine seemed most at home.
I didn't take a poll, but I'd bet an Essex fried clam dinner that the majority of mellow, sunburnt patrons crowding into the MFA gift shop were hoping to find a Hopper reproduction that, along with being Great Art, would remind them of a picturesque spot they visited on their summer vacation. At the same time, though, no sensible observer of this exhibition could think of Edward Hopper as Edward Happy. Even his loveliest New England watercolors have an eerie, ineffable emotional tone that, for lack of a better word, we call "Hopperesque."
It took a while for Hopper to become Hopperesque. Like many of his American peers, he made a youthful pilgrimage to France, between 1906 and 1910, studying Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Monet, and the Impressionists. The experience was so daunting, reports the catalogue, his "career floundered for a decade . . . while he painted lukewarm renditions of Parisian themes." But he persisted, and in the 1920s gained traction with his New England watercolors, which follow the Impressionists in capturing the play of light in the moment, as opposed to the steady, stagy--some would say Olympian--illumination of French academic painting.
In 19th-century America the masters of this spontaneous style were Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Yet there is a big difference between Hopper's watercolors and theirs: Hopper's contain no people. This is odd, given the artist's fondness for buildings and other places of human habitation and activity. He painted not only grand houses (Haskell's House, 1924) but also ordinary ones (Anderson's House and House by 'Squam River, Gloucester, 1926) and unlovely vistas on the working end of town (Box Factory, Gloucester, and Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928).
In Maine he focused on lighthouses which, curiously, were not considered worthy subjects of art at the time: One contemporary critic included them on a list of "buildings which ordinarily seem to be of the ugliest varieties." Hopper made lighthouses beautiful, and the calendar industry will be eternally grateful. But with one exception (Pemaquid Light, 1929), none of his New England paintings contains a human figure.
It's easy to miss this rather striking fact, because the exhibition opens with a self-portrait, painted between 1935 and 1940, that puts a vivid human face on both the artist and his work. And scattered throughout the exhibition are a number of drawings, done in the fluid pen-and-ink style Hopper acquired as a commercial illustrator, that display skill if not genius in rendering human figures walking, working, even sailing a boat. But already we can detect a certain avoidance of human expression. While their postures are natural and not forced, neither the clump of men in Pemaquid Light nor the people in the drawings have visible faces. Indeed, the only closely rendered, fully expressive face in the entire exhibition is that initial self-portrait, the product of five years' work.
This is not to deny the presence of people in Hopper's mature oils. His masterpiece, Nighthawks (1942), places four figures at its powerfully illuminated center: a red-headed woman and three men, patrons and counterman in a late-night city diner. But compared with Homer and Sargent, to say nothing of those French artists who intimidated Hopper in his youth, these figures are impossible to read. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? For heaven's sake, what are they doing? The questions pile up in works such as Room in New York (1932), Cape Cod Evening (1939), and Office at Night (1940), whose male and female subjects appear immobilized, their bodies encased in a chrysalis of brush strokes and their features congealed into masks.
This immobility doesn't always work. Consider Ground Swell (1939), a sailing picture popular with undiscerning tourists but really quite weird. Compared with sailing scenes by Homer, this one gives us an ocean with all the vivacity of a blue carpet draped over three logs, an effect made worse by the bell buoy and sailboat, which seem to have tipped over after having been balanced on top of the logs. As for the sailors, they are little more than marionettes arranged in a tableau.
Hopper was wise to stay away from nautical subjects, because in that realm, immobility seems not uncanny but incompetent. Only on dry land do frozen postures and lack of interaction pack an emotional wallop, as in the old myths about people being turned to stone.
It is tempting to define Hopperesque in social-political terms, because while he eschewed the skyscraper (the urban motif most beloved of modernists), he painted other up-to-date subjects, such as automats, diners, movie theaters, and gas stations. But social-political interpretations of Hopper tend not to stick. One early critic touted him as "the most inherently Anglo-Saxon painter of all time." Hopper briefly embraced this role as racial hero because it boosted his reputation with a cultural establishment still inclined, in the 1920s, to denounce modernist art as effete, alien, and downright un-American. This posture lost most of its appeal in the 1930s, when Stalin and Hitler began to persecute and murder modernists in the name of the New Communist Man and the German Volk, respectively.
So did Hopper side with modernism? Not in any simple way. Like all great painters, he was a master at manipulating the purely formal elements of color, line, shape, and pictorial space. He was also an abstractionist in the sense of heightening (abstracting) certain elements to suit his expressive purposes. But Hopper shared the public's dislike of the radically nonrepresentational art that emerged in the early 20th century, whether the ideologically driven geometric art of Malevich or the otherworldly hieroglyphics of Kandinsky. Nonrepresentational art was devoted to capturing the invisible dimension of human experience, but for Hopper that made little sense.
He was a man of few words. As one friend recalled, "He spoke in a flat monotone that falls across the conversation like a roadblock which had to be removed before further progress could be made." But Hopper waxed eloquent on the importance of recognizable images in visual art, writing in 1928: "The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm, and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design."
Thus did Hopper wind his way through the artistic landscape of the 20th century, sidestepping most of the ideological land mines and insisting on the uniqueness of his vision. But he was no "outsider artist," oblivious to the sophisticated culture of his time. He learned much from the modernists, especially the surrealists. From de Chirico he took the deserted cityscape divided between brilliant light and profound shadow. From Magritte he took the strangely altered ordinary scene. Consider the odd, disproportionately small scale of the figures in Sunday (1926) and Gas (1940), or, in Rooms by the Sea (1951), the unnerving sight of a door opening directly onto mid-ocean.
But Hopper's deepest achievement goes beyond surrealism. Co-curator Carol Troyen writes of "the inward, subjective, dreamlike nature of many of his pictures, which are dreamlike even when they take place in broad daylight." Typically, critics put a negative spin on this dreamlike aspect. "Call it loneliness," wrote Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe. To Troyen, it is unfulfilled yearning:
Many of Hopper's paintings featuring women bring together isolation, sensuality, and unease. Some evoke the pathos of solitude literally laid bare. Others crackle with erotic tension. But most create an environment in which the anticipation of meaningful connection is inevitably disappointed.
The obvious inference is that Hopper is all about sexual repression. This is America, after all, land of the Puritans, and according to one critic, Hopper had "the Anglo-Saxon's capacity for Puritanism." In Office at Night, a curvaceous woman stands at a file cabinet in an alluring pose, while her male coworker sits at a desk staring hard at a piece of paper. Neither looks at the other. The woman seems to be stealing a glance, but in fact her eyes are downcast. It is easy to imagine that these two people are gripped by desire but paralyzed by inhibition. But does this mean all of Hopper's brooding, detached figures are best seen as Puritans seething with lust? Of course not. As Troyen suggests, the connection yearned for by Hopper's people is "meaningful," even if "inevitably disappointed."
If Hopperesque means hopelessly cut off from others, even when they are present, then his reputation as a ruthless chronicler of a peculiarly American form of alienation, transience, and anomie is deserved. The trouble is, this view of Hopper makes him "depressing" rather than "uplifting," to borrow the nontechnical language of the average museumgoer. And that makes it hard to explain his success. In a perceptive essay about Nighthawks, co-curator Judith A. Barter reports that "Nighthawks was an instantly popular picture. It was requested so continuously and lent so often to art galleries, museum exhibitions, and even state fairs that by 1953 it required conservation."
In postwar America, depressing art did not typically find a big welcome at state fairs. So maybe Hopper is not so depressing after all?
Let us return to Hopper's love of light, and his use of it first as a unifying device and later as a consoling and inspiring presence. To appreciate the unifying aspect, look again at the New England watercolors. Walk into any gallery in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, or Ogunquit, Maine, and you will see dozens of pretty pictures full of bright, warm colors. But look again, and you will see that most of them contain no light. What they do contain, and what someone like Thomas Kinkade turns out by the truckload, is lighting: -Theatrical, fake, formulaic, predictable. It takes true artistry to paint real light--firelight, lamplight, most of all sunlight--splashing, stroking, and saturating the surface of things in the living moment. Hopper achieved this artistry early, and while his oils lack the spontaneity of his watercolors and can be theatrical at times (Nighthawks being the salient example), the light in them is never fake, formulaic, or predictable.
Consider how Hopper's world looks in the absence of light. One of his early New York canvases, The City (1927), offers a distorted view of Washington Square seen from the fifth or sixth floor of an unseen building. Edmund Wilson, who lived on the square at the time, was so appalled by this distortion he denounced the painting in a newspaper column entitled "The Crushing of Washington Square." But The City is ugly, even if you've never laid eyes on Washington Square, because it has no sun. Under a dull overcast sky, a motley collection of buildings stand around like strangers at a bus stop, not clashing but not connecting either. The contrast could not be greater with another masterpiece, Early Sunday Morning (1930), in which a normally unassuming row of Seventh Avenue storefronts is gloriously transformed by strong, directional sunlight.
Hopper's human figures seem so sunk into themselves, so oblivious to their surroundings, one could imagine the artist taking a Manichean view of matter as an evil swamp within which the light of the spirit is trapped. But this is not Hopper's vision. To the contrary, he finds redemption in the play of visible light on visible objects, especially human bodies. Sometimes the light caresses, as in Room in Brooklyn (1932), where a spot of sun warms the back of a woman's neck. Sometimes it guards, as in New York Movie (1939), where a wall sconce casts a benevolent glow on the head of a lonely usherette. And sometimes it ravishes, as in Summertime (1943), where the sun burns brazenly through the sheer fabric of a woman's dress.
The traditional term for compositions in light and dark is chiaroscuro (or, when taken to extremes, tenebrism). Hopper uses chiaroscuro to create a spectrum of emotion, from despair to hope, and to situate a human figure at the appropriate point along it. Chiaroscuro operates differently in each painting, more or less darkening the feeling of being trapped and more or less illuminating the path of release. Immobility is necessary for it to work, because Hopper's human figures are not just the objects of this treatment, they are also its subjects.
John Updike once wrote that Hopper's people appear to be listening, but not to each other. This seems about right. As Judith A. Barter expresses it, "They are not accessible to us or to each other, as they are absorbed in something beyond their physical surroundings."
Most visitors pass quickly through the final room of the exhibition, but this is a mistake, because it contains what amounts to a full confession by the artist. Hopper's last major work, completed in 1963, four years before his death, is Sun in an Empty Room. I write this on a New England fall day, when the sunshine is clear and beautiful but no longer warm. Hopper once explained to a friend that he preferred Cape Cod to Maine because the winter came too quickly in Maine. I know just what he means. To New Englanders (and to everyone who lives in a similar climate), there is no more poignant harbinger of death than the autumn sun, which does its best to reach us with its old force but cannot, because of inexorably increasing distance.
The trees outside the window of Hopper's empty room are still green, but the painting's autumnal mood is accentuated by the quality of the light. The sun pouring into the room makes oblongs of light and dark, but the real darkness is, paradoxically, outside, under the trees. There's not a lot of it, but it is exceedingly black. Spend a few minutes in front of this painting (which will be easy, because no one else does) and ask yourself: Is this depressing or uplifting?
Hopper's answer is the same one we get from life: It is both.
Martha Bayles teaches in the honors program at Boston College.