Edward Hopper’s paintings have a special emotional resonance for me. They capture moods and people and scenes that remind of the time in my life when I lived in a declining industrial city in the Midwest. I worked on a night shift, and with my body clock flipped from almost everyone else’s, I was awake and about when the city was empty, dark, lonely and yet also peaceful. I saw the other world of the city, the one populated by the night people who come out when the day people are asleep. Hopper always brings me back to that experience in a powerful way.
I was therefore glad to receive as a Christmas gift this year a book about his art, which included many excellent paintings which were unfamiliar to me. But the text of the book reminded me how much I detest most art criticism. Apparently, Hopper was exploring the tension between being and becoming in a world in which the primordial angst in humanity’s soul struggles against the bleak weltanschaung of modernity, perennially in tension with a Rousseausque subversion of the tropes of quotidian existence. Or something like that.
Perhaps I am too “low church”, but when I read art critics, I usually think three things:
1) I have doctoral level education, and I can barely understand what you are saying
2) I suspect that you are writing more about yourself than the artist in question
3) You are making it harder rather than easier for people to get something out of the experience of art
Many people are intimidated by art and thus shy away from it. Jargon laden art criticism makes this problem more rather than less acute, and that makes me mad both on my own behalf and on behalf of other people who miss out on the richness of art because high-end criticism makes it seem over their head. In contrast, although it probably gets derided as mere “art appreciation class” instead of serious criticism, I am quite grateful when an expert relates plain-spoken observations about a painting that help me understand it better. Something as simple as “Did you ever notice that there are no cars in Hopper’s street scenes and that makes the cities look even more empty?” or “He painted this just after a big exhibition at which he saw for the first time some new styles that he wanted to try himself” have helped me see new things in Hopper’s work.
There was a nun on public television some years ago who did just this sort of thing. I literally saw 10 minutes of her series by chance when I was sitting in a hotel lobby, but it was the kind of commentary for which I was grateful, and it focused on a great Hopper painting, Nighthawks (which I have a copy of hanging in my office today). Her name is Sister Wendy and I was fortunate to just now find on line her take on this painting:
Apparently, there was a period when every college dormitory in the country had on its walls a poster of Hopper’s Nighthawks; it had become an icon. It is easy to understand its appeal. This is not just an image of big-city loneliness, but of existential loneliness: the sense that we have (perhaps overwhelmingly in late adolescence) of being on our own in the human condition. When we look at that dark New York street, we would expect the fluorescent-lit cafe to be welcoming, but it is not. There is no way to enter it, no door. The extreme brightness means that the people inside are held, exposed and vulnerable. They hunch their shoulders defensively. Hopper did not actually observe them, because he used himself as a model for both the seated men, as if he perceived men in this situation as clones. He modeled the woman, as he did all of his female characters, on his wife Jo. He was a difficult man, and Jo was far more emotionally involved with him than he with her; one of her methods of keeping him with her was to insist that only she would be his model.
“From Jo’s diaries we learn that Hopper described this work as a painting of “three characters.” The man behind the counter, though imprisoned in the triangle, is in fact free. He has a job, a home, he can come and go; he can look at the customers with a half-smile. It is the customers who are the nighthawks. Nighthawks are predators – but are the men there to prey on the woman, or has she come in to prey on the men? To my mind, the man and woman are a couple, as the position of their hands suggests, but they are a couple so lost in misery that they cannot communicate; they have nothing to give each other. I see the nighthawks of the picture not so much as birds of prey, but simply as birds: great winged creatures that should be free in the sky, but instead are shut in, dazed and miserable, with their heads constantly banging against the glass of the world’s callousness. In his Last Poems, A. E. Housman (1859-1936) speaks of being “a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.” That was what Hopper felt – and what he conveys so bitterly.”
Interesting thoughts, useful information, perceptive observations all communicated in unpretentious and clear language. How I wish more art critics would follow Sister Wendy’s example.