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Edward Hopper Watches From A Distance

Words:

Edd Norval
September 6, 2018

Edward Hopper paints stills of American life as he saw it. He was a prominent realist during his lifetime, creating some of the most well-known and popular paintings in American history. He also battled with debilitating depression brought on by painter's block.

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His output is like a photographers in the way it documented the everyday things that aren't always associated with beauty - bars, cafe life, petrol stations, motels and railroads. His signature noirish style envelopes his work in a cloak of staged cinematography.


His most famous work, Nighthawks (1942) depicts a group in an all-night diner - keeping themselves to themselves. One can imagine the perspective being a jealous husband or wife, leaning on a lamppost under the veil of night searching for their spouse and stumbling across this establishment on the corner, electrically lit - bathing the streets in light.


As with a lot of Hopper's works, the people have a certain static about them, yet simultaneously the light depicts life emanating from them - they're choosing to drink away their evening in the buzzing false light of a bar rather than be at home - why? There's ample stories all being told in one simple image.

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His artistic process was painful - friends have commented that he'd sit infront of his easel for days at a time just waiting for a painting to grace his mind. Mirroring his process, the protagonists of his paintings were often lonely figures, appearing either entirely on their own or as part of a group that seems fractured and detached from one another.


Today, isolation is a common motif in art - our life in the city is becoming more disparate - more desperate. We yearn for the affection of others, for their touch - yet we are wary of offering our love to anyone, scared of life beyond the familiarity of our screens. Hopper's paintings are around 80 years old and yet, nothing has changed in our lives. The landscape might look different, the city might be more modernised, the way we move around and the outfits we prefer to wear might have evolved, but the fundamental psychological truths behind his works remain constant.


The life present in his works, the characters doing their everyday business, seems static. Not necessarily just defined by their lack of interaction or movement - but in the lack of emotion displayed which contradictorily portrays a great emotional profundity. The people seem to be numb and caught in a rut. We all feel like that sometimes too. An old man at a gas pump at dusk under the yellow-lights of his garage, a woman sat alone by a window sewing a piece of fabric - sometimes we loathe these moments of solitude in our lives. Other times we crave them. Either way, the paintings have the effect of provoking a reaction.

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Telling only part of a story is a powerful tool, because the viewers imagination is often limitless, filling in the untold with numerous scenarios of what it might have been - how the people ended up alone, if their life will bring any joy to them. Hopper also created paintings looking at rural life, still with the same ethos of separation that his urban scenes conjure.


His work created in the 1930's, the period between the two World War's, offer rare insights into a moment of time that seemed like purgatory on earth. The dust was still settling from all the evils of the first war, yet at the time it was unknown that another one was just on the horizon - bombs and bullets would reshape these landscapes once again.


Hopper embraced life as an onlooker and documenter of these everyday scenes, whether claustrophobic city life or solitary rural houses were the subject. In one painting, Office at Night (1940) he paints a man and a female work colleague, in an office alone at night. He suggested years later that the impetus to paint this probably came from a late-night train journey, glancing into the cubicles that divide office life. Hopper always seemed to be on the periphery, offering us the perspective of a jilted lover, a person travelling on open-roads, or sometimes, a fly on the wall.

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As a capturer of existential sentiments, Hopper uses his scenes to interrogate exactly what it means to belong. Seemingly always slightly detached, the voyeuristic nature of his paintings means that our look at the subjects is more objective - we never become emotionally involved with any of the characters.


Instead, we're prompted to finish the half-told stories ourselves. The places that feature aren't actually places, but composites of places that he studied to arrive at the correct composition. When this composition is reached, it includes several emotional profiles gleaned from his location-scouting to most faithfully produce a feeling.


It's best not to think of Hopper's paintings as one place or even as a place in time, but as layers of people and places, stacked on top of each other to create a dense, yet crisply executed examination of how it feels to be an outsider - a loner, just like everybody in his paintings, and just like all of us have at some point felt.

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