Not the End of Solitude

I recently read a great blog article about solitude by artist Deborah Barlow, written in response to an article by critic William Deresiewicz (entitled “The End of Solitude”), who claims that the young people of today (i.e. my generation) are both solitude- and intimacy-phobic due to the prevalence of social media. Read Barlow’s article (and get the link to Deresiewicz’s article) here.

I think Deresiewicz would consider me one of those anomalies he briefly mentioned, as I’m in my mid-20s and require a large amount of actual solitude each day to be both happy and productive. Unlike the young people Deresiewicz referred to, I write alone and hardly keep my phone near enough to type 100 texts a day. My husband (a photographer, graphic designer and musician) and I aren’t afraid of turning off the computers, cell phones and TV, and we value the time we spend camping and hiking in the woods. And, like Thoreau, we tend to stand alone. But I don’t think we’re more anomalous in our generation than artists and writers of the past.

A large component of an artist’s or writer’s personality has always been the need to be heard; it’s why we exhibit and sell our work. Most of us don’t create in order to keep it to ourselves; even Thoreau wrote to be published. It’s just that the need to be heard takes a removed form for the creative person — that is, we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing or art than schmoozing at parties. Social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, provide that same opportunity: to connect indirectly, to communicate within solitude. I don’t think the general proliferation of voices via social networking sites makes us more vapidly social or less solitude-loving as artists and writers of this generation than in previous generations. And it’s always been the small-numbered strangers — spiritual ascetics, writers, artists — who have been the solitude-seekers. Even Deresiewicz admitted that solitude “has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.” So yes, we are few who seek out solitude, who don’t hide from “Thoreau’s darkness,” but I doubt that’s a new development owing to the general population’s greater access to venues where our voices can be heard.

But what do you think? Has social networking created a phobia of silence and solitude?

The Shared Loneliness of Edward Hopper

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.

Automat - 1927

Room in New York - 1932

Morning in a City - 1944

Summer Evening - 1947

For more information about Edward Hopper and his work, check out this great site by the National Gallery of Art.

Humility and Loneliness: The Art of Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German painter of the Romantic period, an era in which a growing disillusionment for industrialization and materialism turned people toward the search for a deeper sense of spirituality and greater connections with nature. Like his contemporary JMW Turner, Friedrich sought sublimity, but took a different path to reach it; while Turner aimed at astonishing through horror, Friedrich sought to engender spiritual contemplation, to draw man into the great mystery of existence, through misty, bleak, vast-seeming allegorical landscapes. In his paintings, man is often little more than a modest shadow within the swaths of forest or sea and sky.

As art scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn has noted, Friedrich’s paintings often make use of the Rückenfigur — a human figure, often in the foreground, seen from behind, contemplating the view. Because the Rückenfigur is faceless, anonymous, the viewer is encouraged to project him- or herself into that role. This not only strengthens the contemplative experience; it is also intended to suggest that the scene is not a representation of objective reality, but a version of it portrayed through a subjective lens. Thus there is an existential element in Friedrich’s paintings, which suggest that nature is not inherently emotive or meaningful; it becomes so through man’s efforts to discover meaning.

Friedrich believed that “the artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” A deep sense of loneliness and a preoccupation with death are prolific in Friedrich’s art and, by implication, were within Friedrich as well. Yet Friedrich seems to have found beauty and spiritual substance in these thoughts, and his paintings serve as gentle reminders that the loneliness of human existence and the ever-looming presence of Death don’t have to be received with misery or terror, but can in fact lead to peace and enlightenment.

Monk by the Sea - 1810

Seashore by Moonlight - 1836

The Abbey in the Oakwood - 1809

Two Men by the Sea - 1817

For more information about Caspar David Friedrich and his work, visit Caspar David Friedrich: The Complete Works.