It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I’ve spent the past month preparing for my last residency and then attending the residency, and now I can say with pride that I have received my MFA in Creative Writing (not without literal blood, sweat and tears, mind). After a chaotic week of traveling, writing, revising, and holding/attending seminars and readings, this first post — written in my lingering post-MFA stupor — will return to an old series on visual art and look at the work of Edward Hopper.
In the past, I’ve written about other favorites of mine (Munch, Friedrich, Bacon, and Turner) and showcased particular paintings that inspire and inform my own work in fiction — not (just) their subject matter, but the ways in which they treat their subjects. Visual art (in attempting it myself and in viewing actual artists’ work) helps me to see and — more importantly — feel the world in new ways. What one learns in studying paintings is that two-dimensional color and form are not stationary things — they move and breathe. They pulse, even in stillness.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is one of the best known artists of the Ashcan School, a group of painters that sought, above all, not to romanticize their subjects, but to paint life as they knew it (gritty, rough, chaotic) in New York City in the early 19th century. As Robert Henri said, “Forget about art!…and paint pictures of what interests you in life.” The goal wasn’t to strive for perfection or beauty, but to get at the heart of the bleak, gritty spirit of city life they felt all around them.
Hopper’s work diverges slightly from the others in that it focuses on quiet, ordinary, usually solitary moments (as opposed to other Ashcan painters’ scenes of rushing street traffic, portraits and boxing matches). His most famous piece, Automat, is of a woman at a cafe table with a cup of coffee. It’s something that could (and, with a change of clothing, still can) be seen anywhere. But the way in which Hopper paints his subjects — heavily, darkly and in some form of isolation — expresses a somber, resigned solitude. Even when there are two or more human subjects, there’s a palpable loneliness. His paintings are so saturated and smoothly stroked that they look almost flat, but upon closer inspection — especially of the human subject’s skin — one finds a subtle, visual rippling (as in Morning in a City). It’s that sense of isolation and the juxtaposition of flat heaviness and richly undulating sensuality that gives the paintings a strange, voyeuristic intimacy. It’s as if the viewer is peering through a window at night, watching people in their houses and apartments or in public places, catching them in their most private, most vulnerable, and most true moments.
That’s what I love about Hopper’s work: the heavy vulnerability, the shared loneliness. Those characteristics are defining quirks of humanity, I think, and to see them displayed so honestly, without the polite softening of the averted gaze, is to be pulled outward, to find core aspects of oneself in others and yet to recognize that, in spite of that sympathy and sensitivity, there are barriers that can never be crossed; we are essentially alone in our experience of life, but together in it.
At least, that’s the truth I find in his work. Take a good, long look at each of the following Hopper images and, in the comment box below, tell me what you see.
For more information about Edward Hopper and his work, check out this great site by the National Gallery of Art.