Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hopper at SAM

The Seattle Art Museum has a small but rewarding exhibition of Edward Hopper paintings on show November 13, 2008–March 1, 2009. It is called “Edward Hopper’s Women,” but it’s really not about women. Hopper often did feature women in his compositions but that doesn’t mean they are “about” women. The works are about spaces, inner and outer. I think curators make up such titles as marketing gimmicks.

The SAM show features only ten paintings, most of them familiar, as a lot of Hopper’s work is now. There are also a few etchings, maybe half a dozen or fewer, and some photographs he made early on.

I will need to go back to the exhibition to absorb it better. The day I was there the gallery was crowded, far too hot, and heavy with the smell of humanity. I could only take a quick look before my eyes dried out but what I saw reminded me that I still find Hopper mysterious.

The standard description of his work as sad, alienated, depressing, existential, etc., is overplayed. Often the pictures do show people alone, but I don’t think that makes them sad pictures. They don’t make me sad to look at them, and I don’t think the people portrayed are sad. They are simply alone with their private thoughts, in solitary psychological space, surrounded by a public physical space. Perhaps you can’t be literally alone in a public space, but you can be psychologically alone, and that’s what Hopper depicts.

Many of Hopper’s works have been described as voyeuristic, but I think that aspect has been over-interpreted. It is not a Manet picnic kind of voyeurism, but something more pragmatic. In Compartment C, Car 293, for example, we are not peeping. As the viewer of the scene, we have to be located somewhere.

Anytime you see a person taking a moment alone, in real life or in a picture, you are automatically a voyeur, because that person by definition, believes he or she is alone. If you were to walk up to the woman her countenance would change and she would engage you in some polite way. We are voyeurs of necessity, defined by the mechanics of portraying a person alone with their thoughts. It is a paradoxical voyeurism.
(Compartment C, Car 293)

That’s why Hopper often puts us at an odd viewing angle, to emphasize our psychological distance and benign intention.

Another recurring theme with Hopper is windows, looking into or out of them. Again I think that theme is commonly misinterpreted, either as straightforward voyeurism (looking in), or forlorn existential yearning (looking out).

Instead, the windows separate psychological spaces, not just physical spaces. On the subject’s side of the window is “here,” where the body is located. It is personal space, private space. On the other side of the window is public space, subjectivity's not-me alterity, the big world "out there."

Hopper is always careful to show us ingress and egress to the subject’s interiority. There is always a doorway, a stairway, a window; a route by which the subject arrived at his or her present location. The non-personal public space is often only implied, as it is by the roadway in Bicycle Rider, but a route is always there, even in Hopper’s later architectural and landscape works, because there is always a connection between private and public space.
(Bicycle Rider)

There is no representation or suggestion of sound in Hopper paintings, as there is, for example in Lautrec or Degas. Hopper paintings just seem silent. That’s because psychological space is as silent as the inside of your head.

In the Evening Wind etching, we are part of the woman’s physical space, actually in her bedroom, but we are not part of her mental space. We do not exist as far as she is concerned. We could even imagine that the dark bedroom is the inside of her skull, her naked body a homunculus peering out through the windows of her eyes to the public world.

(Evening Wind)

Even though we are in her bedroom, we are not part of the scene. If she were clothed and seated like the woman in Automat, looking out the bedroom window, we might feel we were having tea with her. But because she is so vulnerable, we know we are not really there with her. That isolates her and therefore it is her private mental space that is portrayed, not merely the physical space her body is in.

In Compartment C, Car 293, the window between mental privacy the the public world is the book. Through it, the woman experiences whatever world she reads about. She is psychologically not present in the same train compartment as us. Mentally, she is elsewhere. Compartment C was done in the 1930's, a decade later than most of the other ones. Maybe it took Hopper a while to realize that a psychological window did not have to be made of glass.
(Chop Suey)

Chop Suey is a beautiful picture for color and composition, but thematically, it is another variation. The women are immersed in the world of their conversation. They are mentally, not present in the physical restaurant.
(New York Movie)

I will have to go back to the exhibit to validate this insight about Hopper. He never said anything like this about his work, as far as I know, but artists often do not know from what wellspring their work arises.

But even if this idea is just me tripping, this is the kind of insight that makes me feel deeply connected to the artist, and by implication, to the rest of humanity.

No comments:

Post a Comment