but the emotions he expressed instantly translated to my mind into the few painters whose works trigger similar emotions in me. most of these are either renaissance portraits or, sometimes, impressionists. and hopper.
though i had been aware of the famous 'nighthawks' painting and felt vaguely positive about it, it wasn't until a friend with free tickets talked me into going to the hopper exhibit at the boston Museum of Fine arts a couple of years ago that i fell in love with hopper. the stuff was amazing, mesmerizing, and it pulled me utterly into its world. but--and this is the weird thing--its world as i experienced it had nothing to do with what i'd read about hopper's paintings--nor does it have anything to do with what i've read since.
hopper is famous for his evocation of loneliness and alienation. but in only a very few works do i see that. mostly, what i see is comfortable solitude on the one hand, and comfortable companionship on the other. i like those people in nighthawks, and i think they like each other. it's late night, and they, plus the guy working the bar, are joined in their anonymity, in the rare sensations of new yorkers in a nearly empty diner. darkness doesn't bother them, nor does separateness. they are warm and safe and at peace; they don't need to know each other or talk to each other to experience companionship. if the couple speak to each other, it's in hushed voices, because the silence of the place is palpable, and cherished. whenever i spend time looking at the painting, i feel myself in it--another quiet, separated presence, linked to these people by the separateness itself. i sip cocoa, probably, at that hour, and i read my book without apology or self-consciousness. we are the perfect combination of solitude and companionship. and yet this painting is supposed to be great because it captures their loneliness. but they aren't lonely. they aren't alienated. there's a sort of intimacy about them that would not emerge in a different, more peopled setting.
the other painting i've been able to get on here is one i love even more than the nighthawks. here too, i read about the alienation of the 'two on the aisle.' the woman, i read, is involved in the process of getting settled in, ignoring her husband, who is bored and confused. ah, but he's not. they're clearly early for the play or the opera, and he's looking toward the back. i can almost hear him: 'hey honey, isn't that bob who used to live down the street?' in a moment she'll look up, and recognize bob, or say, 'i don't think so, but he certainly looks like him.' the couple isn't bored with each other; they're just not settling in simultaneously. [i see this in many of the couples in hopper paintings: they're comfortable with each other, enough that they don't need to act like a dance team in perfect synch: he's reading the newspaper while she reads her book; or she's finishing the last bits of her toilette while he's got his jacket on and about to leave. and everything i read about any of these couples is about how isolated they are from each other.
in this particular painting, there's another person--not central, like they are, but larger in the painting's perspective. she's settled into a box seat, alone, at least for the moment, and reading the program. probably just because she's clearly already settled in and they've just arrived, she seems somehow more sophisticated...this may be a big night on the town for them, but she does this a lot, and happily. she's into the work they're going to see shortly--absorbed in the program notes. she may or may not have a companion, but if she does, he [or she] doesn't need to be there for her to feel totally at ease. is there a more delicious feeling in the world than the sense of anticipation for a play or opera soon to begin? for the moment, the couple and the woman, separately, are in the early stages of that pleasure. soon there will be more and more people, and then the lights will start to dim, the chatter will slowly stop, the curtain will rise, and the work will envelope each of them separately, and all of them collectively. again there is the anonymous intimacy of people doing the same thing at the same time, caught up in the same world they have chosen to be in together.
many of hopper's figures are alone, and here too the idea seems to be that they are perforce lonely. sometimes i see that, in the body positions, the relation to the surroundings. but mostly, i see solitude, not loneliness. in 'night shadows,' a dark charcoal sketch, a man is walking alone in the city, a tiny creature dwarfed by the huge buildings around him. he seems not at all intimidated by the contrast between himself and the buildings: his stride is comfortable, neither hesitant nor rushed; he is as much a part of the city as the buildings are. another comfortable loner is at the other end of the city experience: called 'morning in the city', it shows a nude woman in a small hotel room, staring out the window. she is far enough from the window to be invisible to anyone glancing up. she is standing, i think, somewhat pensively; like the man in the charcoal drawing, she's at one with her environment: there is no sense of shame in her nudity. it fits her at the moment as comfortably as his jacket and hat fit the man in 'night shadows.'. each embodies a cozy solitude. i love the total difference between these works--even the titles are opposites. the medium of oil paint vs black and white harsh charcoal; the vastness of the city vs. the cramped enclosure of the hotel room with the city outside; the genders, of course. at still, at core, the same quiet solitude.
anyway, that's the way i see these works. i must be missing something--but if so, i'm sort of glad--not to be ignorant, but to have the voices of the figures speaking so intimately to me. maybe it's not so bad that i'm hearing something different in them.