Edward Hopper

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By AFRANIO CATANI*

Silence Setting the Tone: Edward Hopper's Painting

Commentary on the life and some works of the American painter

The first time I became aware of Edward Hopper's (1882-1967) painting was in 1968 in Piracicaba, in the interior of the State of São Paulo, where I lived and attended high school. In fact, many boys courted Marcela, who was beautiful, friendly, liked to draw and copied artistic cards with perfection. A little before the July holidays she showed me the wonderful copy she had executed of night birds (1942) [see here] , the painter’s well-known oil on canvas – I only came to know this much later.

She focused on the edges of the window, showing the man in a suit and hat at the counter, the back turned, the couple sitting without speaking, in front of the cups, salt shakers, pepper shakers, paper napkin holders, coffee machines, as well as the waiter himself, playing your activity. The impression it gives is of being in front of an aquarium, with the huge glass revealing/separating those who look at the painting. It was only at the end of the 1970s that I realized that Marcela had not copied what was on the left of the screen, with another store closed, almost in obscurity.

To get an overview of Hopper's work, I used the work of the German critic Ivo Kranzfelder (1958), author of several writings about the history of art and about the artist. Flipping through the 200 pages of the beautiful book edited by Bags, but which lacks a better revision in this translation, containing around 160 paintings by the artist, in addition to sketches, it is possible to see how the painter born in the State of New York evokes urban and rural desert landscapes of the United States and its isolated, solitary characters , bored and, not infrequently, alienated [1].

It should be noted that he finished secondary school in 1899 and decided, in agreement with his parents, to become a professional draftsman; however, he studied graphic arts, more precisely illustration, which could better ensure his financial health (Kranzfelder, p. 7). Thus, he went to several schools, perfecting himself in graphics, after spending a few months in Paris and London, attending exhibitions and painting outdoors. In 1919 he won a prize in a poster contest about the war and, years before, in 1913, at the age of 31, he sold his first painting, walk to the sea (1911), oil on canvas, for $250. “It will be the only one for years to come” (p. 13), although his etchings and other prints also sold well at the time. In July 1924 he married the painter Josephine Nivisou, who would accompany him until the end of his life, in addition to being his eternal model. The women he will paint grow old with him.

His first individual exhibition took place in 1923, at the Frank KM Gallery, when he sold all the works on display – eleven watercolors and another five that were not even part of that show. The financial success of the exhibition allowed him to abandon his career as an illustrator, which included commercial work for Sunday Magazine, Magazine of Business, Scribner's Magazine, among others. Hopper always despised the craft, never working more than three days a week at it, devoting the rest of his time to painting. He even stated that he understood illustration as “a depressing job, being poorly paid, because he rarely did what was expected of him” (p. 15).

In December 1946 Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), then one of the most important art critics in the USA, wrote, on the occasion of the annual exhibition at the Whitney Museum, that “it is necessary to imagine a new category to define what Hopper does. His technical means lack originality, are impersonal and of great mediocrity. But his sense of composition is enough, deep down, to give an idea of ​​American life, something that our literature does not do (…) Hopper is, quite simply, bad, but if he were a better painter, he would probably not be such a good artist ” (p. 177).

That is, Hopper's work was not always praised. And he, as highlighted in previous lines, was only over 40 years old when he managed to become a professional painter, definitively leaving the activity of illustrator.

Not a few critics point out that the typically North American character of his paintings resides in their themes, their origins and their pictorial writing (p. 55), “presenting scenes from the USA as they are offered to the eyes, in an archetypal and sequential“ (p. 75). Marcel Duchamp, for his part, goes so far as to write that “the only works of art that the Americans have created are sanitary installations and bridges” (p. 77-78).

Hopper's pictorial process consists of “mythologizing the banal”: a couple that ignores each other, urban landscapes showing buildings and squares, deserted streets and isolated characters, storefronts, the empty countryside and geographical features, lighthouses on the coastline, but without you can see the sea, the resigned gas station attendant waiting on a deserted road for a customer who doesn't arrive, as well as interior urban scenes. Several of these paintings are practically inconceivable without taking into account the spectator, who is often transformed into voyeur. The characters are restricted to the limits of the frames, although the works can only be understood if they are connected with actions or people that are found “outside”, beyond our visual range.

Em Dusk on Cape Cod (1939) [see here], for example, the viewer's angle is undetermined. There is a total lack of communication between the two people and even between the man and the dog, who “perhaps pricked up his ears because he heard a bird or some other noise. In this painting, it is the forest that invades the man's territory, one tree in front of the others sweeps the ground floor windows of the house (...) The woman looks into the void, the man tries to call the dog's attention, who turns opposite direction” (p. 98).

Yes, room in new york (1932) [see here] allows us to peek, like a voyeur, through a window. “Inside, we see a man sitting in an armchair reading the newspaper. On the right, a woman taps a piano key dreamily (…) The theme is no longer discord, but boredom” (p. 129).

In “Office at Night” (1940) [see here] “the exaggeratedly accentuated female forms create a sexual tension reinforced by the rectangle of light on the wall that touches the two characters“ (p. 163).

I do not intend to delve into this space about the influence of impressionism on Hopper in numerous paintings, but just remember that the theme of solitude in restaurants or cafes is inspired by Degas and Monet transposed by the painter to North American society.

Hotels appear frequently in Hopper, representing an “intermediate state of both work and leisure” (p. 161). There are train carriages and hotel rooms, with bored guests and passengers, who don't look out the window or appreciate the scenery. Needless to say, the couples ignore each other, a man or a woman are alone in their rooms – usually the women are naked or with little clothing –, an office worker, in a break from his boring and repetitive activity, stares at the outside, without getting up from your chair. However, there is a glass separating it, which Richard Sennett will characterize as a “transparent wall”, the “paradox of isolation in transparency”. Free time is as desolate as work and other activities, it is a "modern allegory of profound boredom". Kranzfelder adds: “The more recent his pictures are, the sadder they are” (p. 155).

Hopper painted incessantly, experienced a number of solo exhibitions, received several awards, medals and honorary titles for his work, until in 1964 illness took him away from painting. In a final effort, in 1965, he produced his last painting, two comedians [see here].

On March 23rd, already in full social isolation in which I find myself, trying not to be contaminated by Covid-19, Aldo Hey Neto had the happy idea of ​​sending me a brief thought by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), namely: “A great human being is the one who, in the midst of a crowd, maintains with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” – I understand that this maxim applies, without any need for an outline, to the works of Edward Hopper: the set of oils on canvas, oils on wood, oils on cardboard, etchings, watercolors, Chinese inks...

*Afranio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.

This text would not have been written without the generous exchange established with Aldo Hey Neto and Luciana Domschke, whom I thank.

References

KRANZFELDER, Ivo. Edward Hopper: 1882-1967 – Vision of Reality. Translation: José Luís Luna. Lisbon, Taschen, 2006.

PORT, Walter. Plague Blues. “Illustrated”, Folha de S. Paul, Saturday, 04.04.2020, p. B12.

 

 

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