Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Edward Hopper: Shadowed by the light

Edward Hopper, “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Step back from an Edward Hopper painting, or just squint your eye, and it could almost be a color photograph. You also get the effect if you simply reduce the scale. Type "Edward Hopper" into Google's image search, and the small thumbnail images scroll down the screen like color slides.

It's tempting to think of Hopper as a photographer with a brush instead of a lens. But look more closely, and you'll see they're photographs of scenes that never were or never could be. Hopper never painted from photographs, and the "photographic" illusion produced by his paintings is just that -- an illusion. Their apparent realism is the realism of dreams, not photography's more literal realism. For example, in "Sun in an Empty Room," the crossbar in the window frame casts no shadow (contrast the real photograph of a real window, below).

Nevertheless, Hopper has always fascinated photographers and stimulated their imaginations. There are a number of Hopper groups on Flickr, filled with photographs by people like Yannick Vigouroux. Paris, avril 2007 by Vigouroux is posted in two of these groups and his photo page has links to them: HOPPEResque and WINDOWS (a tribute to Edward Hopper & Henri Matisse...) The photos by members of these groups are inspired by Hopper or are homages to him. Look closely, and you'll get a sense for what is painterly in Hopper's work and distinguishes it from photography and yet what, at the same time, continues to haunt the photographic imagination. So many Edward Hopper paintings look like stills from movies in his mind -- often establishing shots, just before the action starts.

It's all about the light -- a certain kind of light that we've come to think of as Hopperesque. Outdoors, it's the slanting light of early morning or late afternoon, raking across the picture plane. Indoors, it's the dreamlike, incandescent glow of urban alienation set against the encroaching darkness, the light of film noir. And where no light falls, the shadows are photographic in their opacity.

In his NYT review of the new Hopper retrospective at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Holland Cotter considers the light.
A certain slant of light was Edward Hopper’s thing. And he made it our thing, hard-wired it into our American brains: white late-morning light scraping across a storefront; twilight, plangent with heat and regret, settling over a city; slabs of late-night lamplight chilling the walls of Lonely Hearts Hotels everywhere.

Hopper once said that, as an artist, the only thing he ever aspired to do was to paint “sunlight on the side of a house,” and that, in essence, is all he did.
Carter writes of "light breaking the world into squares and rectangles, dark and bright, exposing it, hiding it, before moving on" as being central to Hopper's art.
This is the essence, the only drama, of “Sun in an Empty Room,” the last painting in the show. Done in 1963, four years before Hopper’s death, it is what it says: an image of contained space. There’s a window; the trees outside it look wind-whipped, but you can’t hear the wind. Inside is all blank walls and wheat-and-honey-colored sunlight, the two things Hopper loved best and felt comfortable with. He doesn’t strain for a story here, or a sentiment, or skill, or completion, which all but the best of his art tries too hard for. Maybe that’s why this is the least gimmicky painting in “Edward Hopper,” and the only happy one, and the most lucid.
Lucid, yes, but I'm not so sure about "happy," which seems to strip the painting of its emotional resonance. It's known that Hopper originally planned to paint a seated female figure, as in some of his other window paintings, but that he changed his mind. "Sunlight in an Empty Room" seems haunted by a sense of absence and the artist's sense that the light he loves will endure, but he will not.

Gail Levin commented on this touch of melancholy during a 1996 interview when she published her critically acclaimed biography, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.
One of my big discoveries is the meaning of light for Hopper. People love the way he makes so much of sunlight and of illumination at night. When a handyman the Hoppers had on Cape Cod died, Edward was quoted by Jo as saying, "Poor Tommy Gray. He can't see the sunlight anymore." And he would say this about different people. And I began to realize that the sunlight was the life force for Hopper and therefore when he paints sun in an empty room, it's very poignant. The depiction of light is fundamental to being alive for Hopper.
"Edward Hopper" is currently showing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts before moving on to the National Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago. The show runs through Aug. 19 in Boston, and then travels to Washington (Sept. 16 through Jan. 21, 2008) and Chicago (Feb. 16 through May 11, 2008).


Anonymous said...

The painting does not at all strike me as "happy", but rather "lonesome". Hopper's one of my favorite artists, but his work is almost always lonely and haunting. The Boston Globe review commented upon how frequently Hopper's work is the work of the outcast looking in from the outside.

Even here in this "happy" painting I am intensely conscious of the impression that I'm standing alone, watching the sun light the wall of an empty, silent room.

I think what I love about Hopper's work is this sensation which is akin to the one I feel when standing alone on the beach, watching the liquid, flat immensity before me -

the one that has neither consciousness of nor interest in my existence......

- oddjob (who came here via a link at Shakesville)

John said...

I'm not sure about "happy" either. The painting definitely has a warm feeling, because of the sunlight and the color of the walls. But the room is noticeably empty of either people of furniture. So the feeling ends up being sort of ambiguous.

Dr Diablo said...

I detect neither joy nor melancholy. What I see is a room emptied in preparation for a brand-new Shaw laminate floor. Its tongue-and-groove construction makes installation a snap. The owners will be showing off their brand-new stain-resistant Winter Oak floor by this weekend.

A shallow interpretation? Perhaps, but that's what the painting means to me. And I have no connection to the Shaw Corporation or its affiliates.

George Hesselberg said...

The light and the loneliness are soothing. Similar paintings: Ida Lorentzen.

George Hesselberg said...

Sorry, here's a good link to Ida Lorentzen:

Anonymous said...

even better link.


Andrew said...

Having just seen the MFA Hopper exhibit last week, I can say that I would not at all characterize that work as "happy", but instead as rather bleak and overpowering. I agree with the one commentor who said that in most paintings, you look in on a "lonely" scene, and instead in this one, you are the subject of the loneliness. I walked through most of the exhibit only casually looking at paintings and not sitting down to really take them in. This one had me seated for a good ten minutes just to take in every inch of it. It left an incredible impression, especially as the last piece in the exhibition hall.