Saturday, October 6, 2007

Edward Hopper at the National Galleries

I rode down to the mall this afternoon to see the just opened Edward Hopper exhibit at the National Galleries. I went in not especially familiar with his works, but did feel like I had a basic understand of his themes, etc., because we spoke about him at some length during my American Urban History class last year.

In that class, my professor put a picture up of Hopper's Chop Suey and we talked about how Chop Suey, that contrived sort of smorgasbord of cheap, quick stuff, related to the growth of cities in the WWI period, and blah blah blah.

In any case, it is possible to gain from Hopper's work a certain sense of the life of an early-20th century urbanite. Whether it's the isolation (like in Automat), or the sense of overwhelming smallness (like in Sunday), Hopper captures some of the characteristics of the dark side of American cities as they really became the center of the country's goings on.

But what I didn't know is Hopper's extensive repertoire of non-urban landscapes that he did. I guess it's basically logical, though, considering so many of his urban themed works are basically landscapes as well.

Well I found some of his landscapes nothing more than plain old landscapes but for many, I felt the same interest and fascination that his urban themed works create. There's something about the sharpness and intention of these landscapes, it's something that separates them and makes you actually interact with the figures on the canvas.

Take Haskell's House for example. It's a simple enough picture, sure, but Hopper manages to create a representation of the house that's grand beyond its already ornamental architecture. It's memorable.

It's sad (as I sit looking at that internet photo of the piece) how hard it is to get a clear internet version of the piece. I find it especially sad because a big part of what I liked in all of Hopper's paintings is the sharpness. I don't mean photo-realism, but sharpness--it's like everything in the work is exactly as it has to be. In Nighthawks, that classic, you get the feeling that Hopper pained over every millimeter of the figures' expressions, dispositions, attitudes, etc. The result is a considerable deeper image of the people: how many times have you found yourself making character judgments of the people in that piece, like, "I bet that guy just wants to get with that girl, but she's not having it. He should just leave her alone, what a jerk." The fact is, you can't help it!

But even though I do see commentary on how we live our lives in Hopper's works--especially the works that take us into the privacy and seclusion of apartment buildings and the like, such as Morning in a City--I don't see anything particularly existential in his work. There's no grandiose T.S. Eliot-type philosophizing going on in his work. There's no "Wasteland." Instead, it's more like William Carlos William's "Red Wheelbarrow", which says, so simply,

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

And that sort of imagism is far more apparent in Hopper. It's refreshingly simple, easy to relate to, and timeless. Hopper's a master at subtle representations of urban life and local architecture, and by not trying to say too much he provides a template I wish more artists would follow.


P.S. Here's a link to my most recent DCist article: "Revisiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."