American painter, Edward Hopper, is among those very few artists who truly captured the soul of an era. His paintings --of lonely lighthouses, nude women staring into space from empty rooms, brick store fronts the color of dried blood --capture, as few captured, the spirit and alienation of an age.
It could be a still-frame from an Alfred Hitchcock movie –a stately lighthouse towering above eyelevel. Were not the blues so beautiful and rich it would be bleak.
Hopper's most famous painting is Night Hawks of 1942 --a depiction of a near empty diner in the wee, small hours of the morning. It is a tour-de-force of American "film noir". The man in the fedora could be Sam Spade; his female companion --a leggy client.
It is fitting that a parody of this painting is almost as famous as the original. In it, the diner is peopled by Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean. Like these personalities both Hopper and his satirists have captured the essence of American alienation --people in public, together, but alone, and at night. If the street outside is not wet, it should be and will be, soon. If not tonight, some night!
Hopper is relevant today in the same way that Casablanca --also a product of the war year 1942 is relevant. Both capture people in an uncaring world. The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in a crazy, mixed-up world on the brink of WWIII or another great depression. Here’s lookin’ at you kid.
Hopper himself claims none of the intentions that viewers and critics may have attributed to him. His purpose --he says --was merely to capture the play of light and shade. That he succeeded brilliantly is undeniable. However, Hopper himself acknowledged viewers’ interpretations even if he did not agree with them. Of one of his paintings, he wrote:
"The picture is an attempt to paint sunlight as white, with almost or no yellow pigment in the white. Any psychologic [Sic] idea will have to be supplied by the viewer."Unlike other American artists, Hopper never intended to develop an “American” style but did so in spite of himself. His goal was more modest. 'I guess I'm not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.'"
He succeeded admirably. His painting of 1925, House by the Railroad, is a study of sunlight on the side of a house, to be sure, but much more besides. The low vantage point, like that of his famous lighthouse, is as edgy as the Bates Motel. We are curious but not curious enough to want to go inside. Like his silent, lonely human observers, the façade that stares out –at you!
Hopper’s compositions are minimalist. But it would be uncharacteristic of Hopper to have done so out of belief in a doctrine like "less is more". No! Hopper was just being Hopper when in 1951, he returned to the open window to the sea theme. This time he left out the staring woman.
Stare at a Hopper long enough and you will find yourself in Hopper’s universe beside the young woman staring out the open window, among the anonymous souls together and alone in the diner, like the stately lighthouse which regards a vast but empty ocean. It was Friedrich Nietzche who said that if you stare into the abyss long enough, it will stare back at you. Is that what Hopper has captured? Is that what it means to be alone?
Music: Percy Faith's 'A Summer Place'; Paintings by Edward Hopper
Another side of Edward Hopper