By Mike Gonzalez
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Edward Hopper: All The Lonely People

This article is over 17 years, 7 months old
There is compassion and hope in the art of Edward Hopper, says Mike Gonzalez.
Issue 286

‘bring on your fireworks… very well
provided an instant may be fixed’

(e e cummings)

It is always hard to remember where or when you saw your first Edward Hopper. Or perhaps the places and the people that he paints are so familiar that they were somewhere in your memory already – and Hopper simply brought them back to mind.

In many ways, America – at least the America of the imagination – is Edward Hopper. The late night diner, the train on its journey across a wide and open prairie, the office in a skyscraper, the looming dark shapes of industrial New York, the hotel rooms. These are all part of the mythical landscape of the American dream as we recall it. And yet Hopper came first. In a sense he provided a language that could allow us to describe, to visualise, the world of a burgeoning, powerful new order. His work, after all, spans the great time of transition.

Hopper trained in New York beside a group of young artists who later would become known as the Ashcan painters. They were angry and political – so challenging at first that the art establishment refused to exhibit their work. They then set up their own exhibition and called it, for obvious reasons, ‘The Eight’. Later, between 1906 and 1910, Hopper was in Paris. This was the era when Cubism was in its birth throes, when Picasso and Braque were embarking on an artistic revolution. It was a time of experiment and daring.

And yet Edward Hopper neither joined the Ashcan group nor expressed any interest in the work of the young European iconoclasts. He seemed far more excited by Monet’s experiments with light. It is as if, even now, Hopper is most absorbed not in what we see, but how we look at and respond to things. His paintings don’t invite you in – they are full of shadows and dark places as well as patches of harsh, bright light. But they are very rarely hospitable or welcoming – instead they seem to throw you back, to reject your gaze and ask you instead to examine what it is that you are feeling about what is in front of you.

Take ‘Gas’. The petrol station on the empty road seems about to close down. The lights from the hut are almost fluorescent. The petrol pumps are garish splashes of red against a dense, dark background. The trees are solid and impenetrable – only the road continues, but it quickly disappears behind the building and there is no sign at all of where it might lead, if indeed it leads anywhere. And then there is the solitary, half-hidden figure. Is he turning off the pump, or hiding?It is impossible to tell.

The only thing that is certain is that he is alone. And though by definition he is unaware of it, it is a loneliness he shares with nearly all the people who populate Hopper’s world. In ‘Hotel Room’ (1931) a woman sits alone with a piece of paper in her hand, the furniture around her is basic and utilitarian, the suitcases closed. Her hunched shoulders suggest resignation or despair. Has she been abandoned by a lover or has she just arrived to find a note that tells her he will not come? It is a moment in which she is enclosed within herself – the only action in the painting is her gaze. And that is infuriatingly just beyond our reach.

That same gaze is there in so many of Hopper’s paintings. In ‘Sunday’ a man sits alone on a boardwalk. Behind him the shops are closed and the shutters down. He may have come from the houses or simply be passing them by. But we are not given the slightest sign of where this moment belongs in a sequence of moments. This gesture, this person, has no history that we can know. Yet look at the face again.

The outer world offers little to comfort or explain, but these people, these ordinary, unremarkable people, so clearly do have inner lives. It is so clear in what, for me, is Hopper’s most moving work – ‘New York Movie’ (1939).

To the right of the picture, we can glimpse a film. Only some mountains are visible – it’s as if we can only see as much as the usherette standing by a curtain, half-hidden from the screen. Like the road in ‘Gas’, the stairs disappear into some invisible upper storey. The usherette is absorbed in her own thoughts – gazing not at the screen, but in some other direction.

Hopper’s world is urban – though sometimes there are hills somewhere beyond the frame. Nature is built – angular, closed and massive like the warehouses and factories of the ‘Manhattan Bridge Loop’ (1928). Yet his early paintings were often landscapes, depicting isolated houses amid sweeping hills – as in ‘Road in Maine’ (1908). The ‘Railroad Train’ of 1908 has a sense of speed and an open country just beyond the frame as it careers off one side of the canvas. Yet that nature has largely disappeared by the 1920s. Though he returns to the tidy, tamed seaside of ‘Cape Cod’, it is no longer the open space that suggests a world of nature beyond the human.

Instead he moves towards a new frontier – what Robert Hughes calls ‘the frontier within the self’. The cities of the new industrial landscape are lonely and forbidding places. The great novelist John Dos Passos had already provided its first narrative. His novel Manhattan Transfer, written in 1926, offered a vision of a city full of isolated, fragmented lives – each unaware of the other, like individual parts of a huge machine.

The muralists of the 1930s, painting for Roosevelt’s New Deal, had a more optimistic view of this new, technological world – and represented the machine as beautiful, moved by armies of workers for whom these machines could one day be an instrument of liberation.

There is none of this in Hopper. There is little sense of the past in his work – nor of the future. ‘Nighthawks’ (1942), probably his most familiar work, shows four people in a late night diner – three customers and the bus boy. Their presence in that place is accidental – their relationship a coincidence in space. They neither look at one another nor acknowledge in face or gesture any relationship with one another. The space around them, the shadows and the rectangles of light, are as impenetrable as all of Hopper’s other backgrounds.

Here then are these lonely figures caught in a moment of ‘not belonging’, of displacement. Over time, these figures are more and more enclosed – like the self absorbed late night diners of ‘Nighthawks’. The backgrounds are pared down and blocked out – when light floods in, or illuminates a building or a space, it doesn’t beckon. Its harshness suggests exposure – and the figures remain somewhere between light and darkness.

They seem so like those disillusioned survivors of film noir, the characters in Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler who survive in an irredeemably hostile and corrupted world. There is no longer nature to look back to – the skyscrapers and streets between are the mountains and valleys of this new reality. When Hopper was lumped together by some critics with the group of American regionalist painters, he reacted angrily. He did not want to be associated with their nostalgia or what he called their ‘caricatures of American life’.

As to the future, there is nothing in his paintings that might identify a dynamic of change and transformation. These isolated figures form part of no army of labour or grand collective. Even when they shared a confined space, as in ‘Office at Night’ (1940, see page 2), the two figures look away from each other – separated by that half-glimpsed piece of paper on the floor beside the desk, which suggests some secret they dare not share. His models are white, clearly middle class, and lonely.

And yet when I look at these paintings I see something else. It is in that gaze. Edward Hopper was a shy, meticulous Republican. He rarely explained what he painted and chose not to make the links with the Depression or with the alienated life of growing cities that others saw in his work. But this is not some standard conservative vision of the world – there is no sign of any interest in the ideology of the powerful classes, nor indeed any other ideology.

But there is compassion – and a kind of hope. These frozen moments in a series of anonymous lives are fragments in a kind of mosaic mural of contemporary America. There is sadness and pain here. Yet none of his figures are victims. All of them are looking for something – looking out through windows, into themselves, probing the darkness, examining the world in their coffee cup. And you know that, like the young woman gazing out of her front door at ‘High Noon’ (1950), each one of them has a dream, a yearning, a sense that this moment will sooner or later pass – and that something, something unnamed and unpredictable but something different will claim their gaze. And in the meantime each has an inner life, with neither past nor future ‘but dreaming of both’.

The ‘Edward Hopper’ exhibition is at the Tate Modern from 27 May to 5 September. Mike Gonzalez will be conducting a tour of the exhibition during Marxism 2004. Details available during the event.

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