Learning to Love Edward Hopper

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning (1950), oil on canvas. © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, VG Bild Kunst]

Part of growing up is learning to identify and correct your errors. This is different from taste changing. It is easy to have a misapprehension and for it to go unchallenged due to laziness or preoccupation with subjects that fully hold one’s attention. One assumption I had as a young artist was that Edward Hopper was easy. He went for the obvious; he relied on movie iconography and cinematographic techniques; he dealt in clichés. Whilst these observations are true, they are not the whole truth. The obvious can sometimes be the iconic that we remember; Hopper’s use of the cinematographic brought some new imagery and references to his art; clichés can be moving. My painting tutor at college said “I’ve been painting sunsets recently. I know they are clichés but I find myself attracted to them because they are beautiful. Even clichés can be beautiful while still being clichés.”

There are tough criticisms to be made of the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). These weaknesses are apparent in two new books on his art, published to coincide with the current exhibition Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 26 January-17 May). Hopper is weak as a figure painter. There is no getting around it. His anatomies are creaky; his facial expressions are wooden; his skin tones are unpersuasive. There is no reason why should have been so. He could imbue his art with variety, energy and panache – see his drawings of trees and some very solid watercolours. Yet, for whatever reason, Hopper’s figures fail. This is not universal. Night on the El Train (1918) is an early etching which shows a couple in a subway carriage. The positions and attitudes of the couple are natural, telling and fluently depicted. The style is vigorous and fluent. Yet more often, Hopper’s figures are waxen mannequins.

A pertinent question is: do Hopper’s limitations as a figure painter make his paintings less effective? Many viewers note the poignancy of the situations, commenting on the emotional tenor of Hopper’s characters – muted, reserved and melancholy. Perhaps Hopper’s characters are more plangent for their lack of expressiveness. It is their very inexpressiveness which is expressive. On a point of principle, we can find Hopper’s shortcomings of an artist as an overall detriment, notwithstanding his achievements in spite of these limitations.

Edward Hopper A-Z is a collection of snippets collated by Ulf Küster, curator and author, during his work on the Swiss exhibition of Hopper’s art. It covers various aspects of Hopper’s life and art, including many illustrations, in a small hardback handbook. The miscellaneous facets include movies, cars, Paris, his wife Josephine Nivison and an expected fondness for German literature.

Hopper is not truly a realist. Some of his art is realist but even cursory study reveals compositions that include impossible juxtapositions, unfeasible perspectives and false horizons. Montage, viewpoint alteration, simplification and other techniques are used to create fictions that have the air – but not the substance – of reality. Doorways open directly on to oceans. Houses stand in fields without paths. Hopper’s realism is a distillation; it is a world pruned and tuned; streets are scrubbed, the posters and signage tamped down; pedestrians are reduced to sparse punctuation in the terse sentences of cityscapes. It is not especially different from the streets of Magritte, that other master deadpan painter of townscapes. Stairway (1949) is like a Magritte canvas from his 1926-9 era.

Once you understand that Hopper is not truly a realist – either a documenter of everyday life or a social realist – then you start to see him as the theatre director that he is. He is a poet who is mistaken for documentarian. Evidence of the early art (especially the watercolours executed en plein air) in Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (catalogue for the current exhibition) shows that Hopper was capable of capturing direct representations of his surroundings, sometimes with flair and feeling. Once you stop seeing his paintings as inadequate representations of real life but as artificial constructions expressive of states of meditation, loss, yearning and other intangible experiences. (“I am interested primarily in the vast field of experience and sensation which neither literature nor a purely plastic art deals with.”)

A problem which remains is Hopper’s handling of oil paint. Hopper was a talented draughtsman with pencil, pastel and etching needle. He used watercolour with accuracy, delicacy and care. He was a poor painter of oil paint. His canvases look better in reproduction than in life. The handling is dry, lifeless, a matter of filling in inside the lines, betraying their set qualities rather than emergent properties of a painting which comes about through the artist discerning new opportunities as the paint is put down. He worked as an illustrator when he was young and although this seems not to have hampered his drawing and painting in watercolour; his canvases betray all the failings of an illustrator. Despite his limitations, his canvases still work as images, scenes and evocations of place and time. If I had to own a Hopper, I would choose a work on paper.

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Houses on a Hill (1926 or 1928), watercolour on paper. Private Collection, VG Bild-Kunst]

The catalogue of the current exhibition includes many great images – Gas (1940) (a man at gasoline pumps at a country filling station, Lighthouse Hill (1927) (a lighthouse and house on a headland in afternoon sunlight), Railroad Sunset (1929) (a vivid sunset is seen over a silhouetted horizon, punctuated by a rail signal box). Coastal views feature in many pictures exhibited, most of New England. Although Hopper and Jo travelled widely, most of the imagery is local to New York State and the Massachusetts and Maine coasts.

An early, atypically finely-handled canvas Valley of the Seine (1909) shows aerial recession of a deep landscape. The position is high. It is notable that Hopper rarely showed distant land horizons; instead preferring the high close horizon of a hill or nearby wood. In Hopper’s scenes, distance would undercut the sense of intimacy and interiority. A vast panorama would work against his intentions of showing people contemplating themselves or the off-scene. His characters do not confront the infinite as the Rückenfiguren of Friedrich. That would lend them a Romantic majesty and isolation. For Hopper, it is the banal commonality of moments of reflection creeping up on one unawares that is truer of human life. None of Hopper’s characters are ever anywhere that would cause them to meditate upon the sublime. They are never dislocated – or at least never dislocated in a way that differs from everyday ennui and alienation.

Second Storey Sunlight (1960) shows two women on a balcony, the figures positioned under two gable ends of a classic wooden house. It is an allegory of the stages of life, with the grey-haired woman seated with a newspaper and a young woman in sunbathing clothing. The blinds of the windows on the young woman’s side are pulled lower than those of the old woman’s side – a metaphor of some kind.

Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Edward Hopper, Freight Cars, Gloucester (1928), oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, gift of Edward Wales Root in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.7 Foto: Bridgeman Images, VG Bild-Kunst]

Some paintings show Jo painting during their outings in search of scenery. The couple bought their first car (a Dodge) in 1927. From then until a few years before Hopper’s death, they travelled around America to collect motifs for their art. Their successive automobiles made fleeting appearances in Hopper’s paintings. Jo was also a model for Hopper. However, reading Hopper’s enticing yet inscrutable tableaux in an autobiographical manner is not straight forward and is best avoided. The best Hopper paintings allow us to daydream and inhabit these deceptively artless American landscapes.

Marine scenes, paintings of buildings, views of railways and roads, and studies of trees round out this selection of Hopper’s landscapes. The catalogue includes essays addressing various aspects of Hopper’s landscapes, a chronology and a good selection of large-format illustrations. American Landscapes is a very suitable introduction to one of America’s most significant artists. The smaller A-Z book is a handy supplement for anyone already familiar with Hopper.

 

Ulf Küster (ed.), Edward Hopper: American Landscapes, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 148pp, 88 col. illus., €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4654 0

Ulf Küster, Edward Hopper A-Z, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 120pp, 37 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 3 7757 4656 4

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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