Edward Hopper and the American Imagination

Edward Hopper. Night Windows, 1928


Commentary on the artistic career of the American painter

the catalog Edward Hopper and the American Imagination presents a vision, as the title already announces, iconological and nationalist of the work of Hopper (1882-1967). The catalog (with 59 reproductions) also intends to establish a later lineage of works of this type. For this, Gail Levin's essay weaves without further examination a string of iconographic kinships between recent works and Hopper's. And, putting the pop art as Hopper's direct successor, sends abstract expressionism to an interregnum without national legitimacy

Thirteen recent literary texts of local color, united by the ideas of immediate colloquiality and “hopperesque” situations, make up the rest of the volume. The iconological bias, with some fantasy, also sets the tone here. In a free brochure, associate curator Beth Venn similarly establishes Hopper's style in film and other mass media, asserting that he "provided the ('timeless') lens with which we view America."

There is therefore a desire to nationalize Hopper's work – and such an effort is evident when contrasted with the US catalog at the 1967 Bienal de São Paulo; two exhibitions, one by Hopper and the other by exponents of the pop composed the remarkable US collection at the time. The essays by Lloyd Goodrich and William Seitz then highlighted Hopper's three long stays in France between 1906 and 1910, as well as the Impressionist heritage and universalism of his work. Goodrich, a friend and scholar of the work, said nothing about ties with the pop; Seitz compared, among the present pop, only the work of George Segal to that of Hopper and concluded: “the similarities are accidental”. For Seitz, Hopper should "be seen against the broad backdrop of Western art".

Hopper, unlike Man Ray (1890-1976) and Calder (1898-1976), from the next generation and affiliated with the European avant-garde, returned to the US – which does not make him any less universalist and modern, but even more politically autonomous, given the founding challenge of its action [1]. The modernity of his work would only break with difficulty the academic or normative pattern of idealized painting of the native scene. In this direction, he faced with his own weapons the dominant schools in the 1930s (the regionalism of the “American Scene” and social realism), without giving in and without taking advantage of the landmarks of the European debate of those years.

But how was this autonomy elaborated, in fact, on the aesthetic level? The works, more than the author's history, show the critical rupture. Against pathos nativist and the canons of naturalism, Hopper adopts the impressionist lesson. The visual field of the scenes, cut from a horizon presumably larger and pertinent to consciousness, indicates, as in Monet (1840-1926) or Degas (1834-1927) and Lautrec (1864-1901), the specificity of the gaze and its purpose of emancipation. In the use of colors, the rejection of the volume effects of the chiaroscuro sustains the affirmation of painting and the two-dimensionality of the canvas as in Manet and the impressionists.

In other items, the autonomous and modern cut is even more incisive. Hopper soon comes to deny the naturalistic aspect of impressionism, linked to scientism and positivism. It operates from the activity of imagination and memory, diverging from the impressionists' preference for observational data. His sober art is based on synthetic acts of conscience. He prefers human “constructs” to picturesque and natural motifs inherited from the XNUMXth century. Walls, doors, windows and showcases, denoting the reflective orientation, are central themes. The landscapes are crisscrossed by rails, posts, pathways or marine lighthouses; the sky is a residue… And light, in the fight against naturalism, loses the value it had in impressionism. It is stylized with austerity, in a summary and abstract way, in Hopper's system of composition, based on chromatic planes.

In criticizing geometric perspective, Hopper joins Cézanne, rejecting the impressionist annotation and assuming consciousness as a premise. Verticals and horizontals, in parallel with the edges of the canvas and opposed to the diagonals essential to the infinity of perspective, direct the composition, showing the limits of the canvas and a relative depth. The insistence on frontal views and abrupt corners regulates the rhythm of the reception, organizing a delimited view.

The concentration of pictorial significance or the effect of finitude, which questions the representation, however comes from perversions to the grammar of geometric perspective: the use of warm colors in the background; scale and cut without sharp contrast for figures behind and in front; the division of the screen into planes of color, according to a grid structure typical of modern ideas, which denies the idea of ​​a continuum and the expectation of depth. The compression of the scene is enhanced in the background by the traces of the media used: brush and variable amounts of paint.

The emancipatory dialogue of the look and the pictorial discourse does not lead to the absolutization of art, but it establishes a humorous dialectic. In Night Windows (1928), the ideal of the canvas as a window to infinity is ironized: the diagonals do not head towards the center as in the usual representation of infinity, but towards the sides, and bounce off the center (prosaically occupied by a towel over an ass and a heater) in the direction of gaze. Also in an antithetical way, Hopper resorts, at other times, to frontal lines and planes; for example, in the case of facades that include advertising panels or logos. if not pop, the frontal plane, more often than not, implies a stratified acceptance of the two-dimensionality of the screen, whereas in Hopper such a frontal resource intercepts the diagonal lines of depth and dialectizes the reception through visual paradoxes.

Is it up to art to enhance tensions or resolve them? Given the first alternative, the human figures, like the other forms represented in Hopper's work, presuppose oppositions and have a questioning function. Thus, the human figures are opposed – by the curves of their half-naked bodies, by the opacity stamped on their faces, by a lost and centrifugal look, by inaction, etc. – to ascetic and geometrized environments. As dissonant stains or indices – signs of eccentricity and essential dissonance between man and environment – ​​these figures have the value and even the curved shape of a question mark.

Do they question the rigid formalization of the social order – expressed in Hopper's work by the capital and severe forms superimposed on nature? As operators of a question or maps of cracks in the social order, these anonymous bodies and physiognomies, in the prosaic environment, generate, one after the other, a doubt about the order. Even metaphysics, such a question is still political.

How to extrapolate a national identity from works structured by oppositions? The prerequisite, as you can see, is to forget the aesthetic tensions of the works, the conflicts of production and its history. In the present case, forgetting certainly does not involve a lapse, but a strategy, since Levin is the author of the catalog raisonné and an “intimate biography” of Hopper, in press [in 1995]. Furthermore, since the Whitney Museum (New York) is the main guardian of the work [2], it is characterized as a chain act, in short, the data of a cultural policy. And that implies – in the general idea of ​​national affirmation or symbolic rescue of particularisms (swept away by globalization) –, in addition to the meaning of Hopper's work, a normative or pre-modern review of the history of modernism and the role of art. In the end, a return to the old make-believe.

*Luiz Renato Martins he is professor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Chicago, Haymarket/ HMBS, 2019).

Originally published under the title “Behind the American Scene” in Journal of Reviews / Folha de São Paulo, No. 08, on 08.11.1995.


Vv. Ah, Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, catalog of the show of the same name (22/6-15/10, 1995), Deborah Lyons et. al. (org.), New York, Whitney Museum of American Art/ WW Norton & Company, 256 pages.


[1] In 1913, Hopper participated in the Armory Show, the first event in the US linked to modern art. Rejected by official salons until 1920, he almost stopped painting. For ten years he did not sell a single painting. His first individual exhibition took place only in 1924.

[2] After Hopper's death in 1967, the museum received a collection of 2.500 works by the artist from his widow, Jo Hopper, who died shortly afterwards.

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