Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Happy Birthday, Edward Hopper

Yesterday was Edward Hopper's birthday. He lived from 1882 to 1967.

"Self Portrait" 1925-1930

Hopper was an artist most renowned for this iconic painting, one of the most familiar and most parodied works of twentieth century American art.

"Nighthawks" 1942

Because of this one work many think of him as an artist of lonely city scenes. He knew the city, but for many years his studio was in Maine, and he could do a straightforward landscape with the best of them. I love these, and if I were an art critic I might say something about how the heavy brushstrokes bring the subject and the medium into an organic whole, and that to see the painting is to experience the essence of the place.

 "Blackhead, Monhegan" 1916-1919

 "Rocks and Sea" 1916-1919

 "Blackhead, Monhegan" 1916-1919

Hopper once famously said, "Maybe I am slightly inhuman...All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house." He could do that.

"Second Story Sunlight" 1960

But look what else he was doing in this and in so many of his other paintings. There is often a sunlit foreground contrasted with a shadowy background. The foreground is composed of human structures and spaces, and the background is composed of an uncompromised natural world.

Look at the trees in these paintings. They were not set out in the lawn by landscapers. No, they pre-date the buildings. They are deep and dark and mysterious, the representation of pure wilderness. Hopper seems to imply that the wild is there waiting for when it can once again reclaim the space that has been usurped by human existence.

"Gas Station" 1940

 "Seven A.M." 1948

This borderline between the wild and the civilized could seem threatening, I suppose, though I don't see it that way, and neither, I suspect, did Hopper. It's the borderline between old and new, convention and creativity, despair and hope, death and life, damnation and salvation. The woods are dark and deep, and you could grant Hopper some ambiguity there: it could  be a dangerous place. But it could also be the great green womb from which one is reborn. And, come to think of it, that could be dangerous.

In "Rooms by the Sea" Hopper gets humorous about it. Using the trackless sea instead of a forest the painting seems to say, "You can't stay inside forever. Take the plunge!"

"Rooms by the Sea" 1951

In "Sun In An Empty Room" Hopper is poignant. There is a way out of the emptiness of artificial existence. There is a place--he gives us just a tantalizing glimpse--where the sun doesn't simply light bare walls, but is the source of all life.

"Sun In An Empty Room" 1963

I found this painting reproduced in a magazine a long time ago. I cut it out, framed it, and hung it on my wall. Through many times in my life when I was "stuck inside" it gave me hope.

"Stairway" 1949

Hopper could have named this painting "Stair Steps" or "Staircase" but he named it "Stairway."  He gives us many encouragements in the composition of the painting: the foreshortened stairs looking almost flat--and easily climbed down; the door as wide open as it could possibly be; and the lush hill outside rising up over our point of view making us wonder what lies on the other side. It's as though that hill is the stairway of the title.

But a stairway to what? Well, that's up to you. But I can say that in many aspects of my life whatever growth and maturity I've achieved over the years can be measured by how well I have learned to not just stand there, but to go down the steps, out the door, and over that hill.

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