Always on the verge of telling the story of America


No painter has better captured the modern US than Edward Hopper, and the crowds at his current retrospective in Paris are testament to the enduring popularity of his work

Edward Hopper’s work continues to draw the crowds. Ten thousand people saw the Paris exhibition in its first two days, and the queues continued to coil around the Champs-Élysées for weeks, with people waiting up to six hours to see some of the greatest masterpieces of modernity.

Hopper is the American realist, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, with a mythology all his own. This is the first retrospective of Hopper in Paris and it features 160 works, including a series of etchings that demonstrate his powerful draughtsmanship, and those stunning graphic works from the early 1920s when Hopper lived as a commercial illustrator. It also offers several unexpected couplings: Hopper and Robert Henri, Hopper and Mathew Brady, Hopper and Edward Atget.

We are used to seeing Hopper in reproduction – and his work lends itself to reproduction – but his craftsmanship and painterly qualities reveal an art that is more powerful and subtle than reproduction allows. His paintings resonate, and he has the uncanny quality of appearing to present our experiences back to us. According to the critic Robert Hughes, “Hopper saw an America that no other painter had got right. Now we can’t see it without seeing him.”

Hopper was brought up in Nyack, on the Hudson river, north of New York City. He studied at the New York School of Illustrating, and the New York School of Art under American realist Robert Henri of the Ashcan School. He then went on to study in Paris, in 1906 (followed by shorter visits in 1909 and 1910) – the tipping point in the development of modern art.

Here, Hopper was drawn to Manet and Impressionism; he admired Albert Marquet and Charles Méryon; and Walter Sickert provided an iconography for his theatre scenes and paintings of the flesh. His enduring interest in Degas is evident in his highly original perspectives, his understanding of the power of the void, and his absorption in the physical and emotional relationships between people.

Back in the US, he identified with the realism of George Bellows and John Sloan, whose gritty, dystopic vision he took to a new level. We catch intimate but fleeting glimpses of people, from unexpected vantage points, frozen in time, as if the narrative is just beyond our grasp. John Updike argued that “Hopper is always on the verge of telling a story”, but it is a visual drama not an anecdotal one. Illuminated by hot sunlight, or plunged in dark shadow, the drama of everyday life may be the background, but the visual itself is the subject matter of his art.

None more realist

Clement Greenberg, dogmatist of Abstract Expressionism, grudgingly declared that “if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist”. Notwithstanding the battle lines drawn by Greenberg, Hopper operated above and beyond such strictures. There was none more realist than Hopper, yet he reconciled realism and many strands of avant-garde art, pursuing coterminous modernity of subject and form.

He distilled realism to the point of abstraction, so much so that both the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York, bastions of realism and formalism respectively, exhibited his work. At his first retrospective in 1933, the then director of Moma, Alfred Barr, praised compositions that were interesting “from a strictly formal point of view”, placing him squarely in the forefront of modern art, while Lloyd Goodrich, the then director of the Whitney, compared him to Piet Mondrian.

Intrigued by emptiness, Hopper recalled debating at school “what a room looked like when there was nobody to see it, nobody looking in, even”. The trope of absence/presence recurs throughout his work. Sun in an Empty Room (1963), one of his greatest paintings, shows a room not yet occupied, or perhaps just vacated. It is hard to imagine anything more abstract.

Momentary snatches of a world transformed by modernity, the rooftops and brownstones of New York, figures seen through the windows of offices or motels, what he called “the sweltering, tawdry life of the American small town, this sad desolation of our suburban landscape”, produced many haunting and even erotic nocturnal scenes that seem to cast us as voyeur, so that we are tempted to flesh out the story.

But there is no story, as such. His focus on single figures suggests a preoccupation with isolation. Even those that feature more than one person suggest alienation, but he refused to be drawn on such interpretations. “The whole answer is there on the canvas,” was his response to questions about the content of his art.

Lloyd Goodrich noted that he “was famous for his monumental silences; but like the spaces in his pictures, they were not empty. When he did speak . . . he had perceptive things to say, expressed tersely but with weight and exactness.”

Influential across the visual spectrum, he left his mark on graphic design, illustration and photography. He loved the world of film and theatre. So many of his heterotopian images have entered the vernacular (think Norman Bates’s house in Hitchcock’s Psycho). His friend, the critic Brian O’Doherty, noted “that slanting, film-noir light” in Nighthawks (1942).

Hopper denied that he infused his paintings with symbols of emptiness. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that in Nighthawks: “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” Drug Store (1927), eerily illuminated by electric light in contrast to the shadowy doorways and blank facades, also conjures urban nocturnal anxiety.

Nevertheless, the orthodoxy that Hopper was the melancholy painter of dystopian 20th-century America is not the whole story. His landscapes of east-coast America, beguiling images of boats gliding across the water, saturated in light, display a huge attachment to the sea. His lighthouses, with their simple, well-defined shapes, lend themselves to infinite visual explorations, and are nothing less than wonderful.

When the artist Raphael Soyer visited the Hoppers in their summer home in south Truro, he found Hopper staring at the hills, and his wife Josephine gazing in the opposite direction.

“That’s what we do,” she said. “He sits in his spot and looks at the hills all day, and I look at the ocean, and when we meet there’s controversy, controversy, controversy.”

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is at the Grand Palais, Paris, until January 28th, 2013

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