Monday, November 12, 2012

Edward Hopper, Grand Palais, Paris

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929

For me and every other art lover in Paris, this is the event of the season. When the publicity around the Edward Hopper exhibition began, I was curious as to why it would be so anticipated in France. All mystery was resolved in the first few rooms of this massive exhibition. What feels like an inordinate amount of space and energy is expended in the first rooms on putting Hopper’s idiosyncratic style into context. And the context given in the Grand Palais is, of course, the influence of Paris and French painting on Hopper’s entire career, aesthetic and painting style. This is apparently the argument being made for the visitor: that Hopper’s Paris years (1906-1910) were formative, that he was profoundly influenced by everyone from Pissaro to Degas and Courbet. While the connections may be credible, the imperative to contextualize made the exhibition too long. Convinced that Hopper’s paintings and his development as an artist can speak for themselves, this was my one misgiving about the exhibition. That said, the abundance of key Hopper paintings, as well as many lesser known, but no less provocative works, makes the exhibition a treat. 

Edward Hopper, Apartment Houses, 1923
Although he was clearly influenced by contemporary painting, no mention was made of what, to me, is the most obvious and longstanding influence on this oeuvre: the photographic image. The task set for the viewer of Hopper’s paintings is always to solve the mystery of the highly enigmatic scenes before us. There are a number of factors that make them enigmatic, one of which is the often impossible angles, cropped compositions, and distorted perspectives of the image. From the beginning of his career, Hopper crops the image, as though photographing a detail in closeup, unconcerned with what lies outside the frame of the image. And from the beginning — though this will become accentuated as his oeuvre develops — he paints scenes from a perspective that could never be seen with the naked eye. A painting such as Apartment Houses, 1923 has the appearance of a cinematic close up taken from a crane. Certainly, there is no other way to see inside the window to watch the woman at work.

Edward Hopper, House at Dusk, 1935

Another characteristic that makes Hopper’s paintings special — again very telling of the general fascination with the photographic and cinematic possibilities of vision in Hopper’s contemporary world — is the representations of space as ungraspable. As my friend James observed, over and over again, both these works depict claustrophobic interior spaces and exteriors that are also closing in on the human figure or the built environment. This, despite the fact that the exteriors often replicate the principles of a cinematic horizontal tracking shot. In a painting such as House at Dusk (1930), only the top right hand corner of a multiple storey building is shown to force its way out of the frame towards us. And even though the majority of the canvas is given over to the green trees and the hint of a setting sun, our attention is fully focused on the woman in the window. This tiny detail overtakes as the mystery of an otherwise (for Hopper) large canvas. I was also interested to see how, again and again, exteriors are used as interiors and interiors become exteriors, usually through the activities that take place inside.
Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932
The familiar refrain about Hopper’s figures is that they are isolated and lonely.  It is true that they are often alone in a space, and if and when there are a number of people, they don’t speak to each other. However, I am not convinced that all these figures are lonely: the women especially are often reading books, or caught in a private moment of reflection, staring out to space, often in a state of half undress. Alone, yes. Lonely, no. The woman is also the lynchpin for the enigma of these paintings as her presence, posture and costume nearly always leaves us asking “who is she?” “what just happened?” “What is her relationship to the man in the image if there is one?” “An image such as Room in New York, 1932 is typical. The man reads a newspaper, the woman turned around, deep in her own thoughts, gently plays a single note on the piano, as though she is not concerned with the sound, but is preoccupied by a conversation they just had. Does he refuse to continue the conversation? Or perhaps she is composing her thoughts before opening up a meaningful discussion with him? The perspective of the painting contributes, once again, to the mystery: it is as though we are looking in on a very intimate moment — and yet the windows are wide open. Is it a hot New York summer night? But then why is the man so impeccably dressed, his collar and tie fastened? Perhaps they are about to go out? But then, why would he be reading the newspaper? The endless questions that we ask of every single image are what make Hopper’s world so enticing, his figures both performing within their everyday world, and simultaneously, shut down and shut off in their own worlds, completely at peace and serenity. 
Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952
There are copious images of theatres, but curiously, there is never a performance on the fragment of stage. And yet, everyday life is filled with the drama of what takes place between people, or what might have just take place, or might be about to take place. Even where there is one soul person, such as the gas attendant who is deeply etched on our imaginations, the paintings are about what takes place between people — the ones who might just have left the station, or the ones for whom he prepares. In the theatrical spaces, figures wait for a performance, or they read books at what might be the intermission — we are reminded of the Vermeer influence every time we see a woman reading, and especially when she is reading in the throw of light that forces its way through often non existent windows onto walls that are like screens for the throw of a cinematic image. Hopper is not interested in what happens on stages, not only because the drama is around him in daily life, but also because these are paintings whose real subject is not depicted within the frame. The something that has just happened or maybe is about to happen, the questions surrounding the state of dress or undress, the secrets we think we are privy to, none of this is shown in the paintings we see.
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
And all of this uncertainty, all of this ambiguity and avoidance of what is really taking place, the solitary figure weighed on by an impending sky, or a house on a hill on the verge of disrepair (but not quite there yet), all of these characteristics, repeated over and over again throughout his career, are the precursor for the horror movie in Technicolor. So even though Hopper is preoccupied by the same issues, and is exploring the same technique from the very beginning of his career, the expansiveness of his painting and the never ending questions, makes it a great oeuvre. And to its credit, the Grand Palais has very convincingly demonstrated the greatness with this huge exhibition.

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