Edward Hopper, Melancholy Realist, Whitney Museum of American Art (1970's)



 While most artists of our time have kept their eyes peeled for the latest shift in artistic fad or fashion so that they can move smoothly into their next "period," Edward Hopper (1882-1967) continued throughout his life his steadfast pursuit of reality.


 This is not to say that Hopper was the greatest painter of all time; that his work was always at a consistently high level. But he was good, and compared to the artistic pygmies who surrounded him, he was a major painter.


 His exhibition at the Whitney, consisting primarily of early works, contains a series of landscapes done in France in the first decade of the century in a sketchy, impasto style full of fresh Impressionist color and light, as well as later oils, watercolors, etchings and drawings of the 20's and 30's. Competent as these early oils are, they reveal little of the painterly structure or emotional insight and tension of his mature works.


 But that is what art is all about. It is a slow, painful process in the development of an artist's character and understanding as he sloughs off old influences and discovers his personal needs as an artist and human being (and the means to express them), continuing to become more receptive to life until death takes him from the scene.


 Consider the difference between this organic process of growth and the instant "stardom" of young painters today who leap from the college campus to become "mature" Madison Avenue stylists created by the publicity machine at the age of twenty-five.


 This is Edward Hopper's lesson to the painters of our time and to anyone else interested enough to learn from him. He had the courage to sit down and open himself to reality, to respond freely to it without the protective, stultifying psychic armor of theories and preconceived formulas of seeing. He was uncluttered by the passing aesthetics of the day.


 Hopper moved from a relatively objective, almost impersonal way of viewing the world, to a very emotional one. This emotionalism did not manifest itself in his brushwork as it did, for example, in Van Gogh. Hopper's application of paint in his mature works became at times almost ascetic in its thinness, while his drawing of forms was sharp and controlled.


 But Hopper had a way of communicating his inner life...feelings of despair and desolation, as well as his sense of beauty...finding them in the buildings and objects he painted. He filled empty rooms with the mystery of existence and his own spirit. In essence, he, like Van Gogh, was painting not just the objects themselves, but turning them literally into self-portraits.


 We have only to think of the unique intensity and character Van Gogh revealed in trees, shoes, flowers, fruit and chairs to realize how much feeling, how much of himself he put into those objects.


 Hopper did much the same thing with his houses that crouch like despairing creatures, windows eyelike, doors gaping like anguished mouths (see "Railroad Crossing," 1922-23, a richly delicate work). Or, "Stairway," where a door, viewed from up red stairs, opens onto mysterious, dark-green trees and evening sky, which is related in feeling, though not in style, to his much later "Room by the Sea" and "Sun in an Empty Room."


 To invest inanimate structures with this sense of haunted life suggests that the artist had much these same feelings within himself that were perhaps expressible in no other way than through his paintings. These buildings are as much self-portraits, perhaps more revealing of Hopper, than the actual self-portrait in the exhibition.


 His self-portrait wearing a hat is an extremely capable piece of painting. The paint itself is sumptuous and alive, the forms and planes of the face are extremely solidly modeled, but there is almost no revelation of character. The viewer feels fended off by the implacable eyes that look and question but hide Hopper's inner feelings. We know that Hopper did not like to talk about his art or reveal his intimate thoughts and feelings. His appearance in life was one of reserve, almost melancholy.


 Man in Hopper's work is a subordinate creature, a flea, a bit of living spark caught in the innards of an architectural or industrial trap, much like Van Gogh's weavers encased in their looms.


 This theme is well developed in his mature works, "Night Hawks," "Second Story Sunlight," Gas," "New York Movie," as well as a beautiful etching, "Night in the Park," 1921, where a solitary figure on a bench with legs stretched before him reads a newspaper under a light pole. All is darkness as foliage and shadow threaten to engulf the tiny man. A lighter tree in the upper right of the work takes the shape of a beak-nosed old monster eyeing its oblivious, seated prey.


 The theme is further developed in "Night Shadows," 1921, another etching where a tiny man, viewed from above, hurries along a city street while a threatening building hangs menacingly above. "Train and Bathers," 1920, and "The Lonely House," 1922, are two more etchings that establish his preoccupation with the contrast of vulnerable human flesh immeshed in society's restrictive web.


 Despite his often melancholy view of life, Edward Hopper is an artist to give hope to a time that seems bent on fleeing from reality into the fairyland of gadgetry and corporate hypocrisy. He was a man irreversibly connected to the world, despite its harshness and paradoxes, who felt its pains but continued to believe it beautiful and a worthy subject for art. How many artists today can make that statement?


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms