If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.
In general it can be said that a nation’s art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people.
—- Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967)
Edward Hopper’s words point to the power of the visual. I always find Hopper’s realist paintings hauntingly retrospective, convey indescribable feelings, a sense of loneliness, a touch of alienation, yet, it’s hard to say exactly what it is.
Some use the phrase ‘urban loneliness’ to pinpoint the sentiment, as most readily expressed in his famous painting Nighthawks. But others find the term too parochial even, opting for the more universal description of the human condition, ‘existential loneliness’.
In this visually-driven age, where pictures are instantly produced by a click, eliminating the wait for film processing, and where digitally created images can elicit unimaginable possibilities, has the value of words diminished, both in function and significance? In a time when ‘reading skills’ refer not only to the comprehension of the written language but the deciphering of graphics and visual symbols, has the power of words been eroded?
Does the recent passing of William Safire, called ‘the oracle of language’ by the NY Times, represent the passing of an era? How many are left to champion the traditional form of communication, to point out word origin, to extol proper grammar usage? While these gatekeepers are frowning on the split infinitive, the rest of the world has already jumped on board the newer vessel to boldly go where no person has gone before. The reign of literal communication has gradually (or quickly, or___ you fill in the blank) been replaced by the more accessible instant imaging, flickring, youtubing…
Let’s hope too that the traditional art form of painting will not be soon replaced by iPhone sketching. If the New Yorker’s cover artist is using an iPhone app to touch-produce its cover pages, will the demise of oils and paints be far away?
Of course, I come to praise Hopper, not to bury words, or paints. Rather than saying his paintings defy literal descriptions, let’s just take up this bemusing challenge and do a role reversal: What words conjure up in your mind when you look at these Hopper paintings? Let’s celebrate words, and paints, while we still have them.
Of all the subjects in his works, I particularly like the solitary figure, or the non-figure, like the room devoid of human presence. Here are some of them:
Automat (1927): Layered with subtext, what are the stories behind this lone female customer at the automat in such hour? What is a good description of her predicament?
New York Movie (1939): Here’s the reason why I love Hopper’s works. The contrast, the darker side, the quiet undercurrent beneath the glamorous, the sombre reminder of complexity.
Rooms by the Sea (1951): A touch of Magritte I feel. An example of what I call the non-figure. The philosophical quest of knowing: If nobody’s around to see it, does it still exist?
Cape Cod Morning (1950): Unlike his other works, this solitary female figure is positive, eager, enthused, and achingly expectant. Is she a symbol of the optimism of a new age, or will she be disillusioned as reality sets in? 1950 or 2009, is there so much difference anyway?
Gas (1940): I’m sure it’s not all about gas… does it allude to the lone traveling salesman like Willy Loman, or the lone gas station owner like that in the Fitzgerald novel.
Nighthawks (1942): Perhaps the most famous of Hopper’s paintings. As some call it, the depiction of ‘existential loneliness’. Is that Sartre sitting there all alone at 2:00 am, contemplating in a diner with no exit?