Friday, September 2, 2011

Edward Hopper Paintings

i know very very little about art. so this i's a classic 'i know what i like--duh' post. or maybe more of an 'i know what i love post. edward hopper's paintings are something i love.  i am inspired to write about these works because i just read a post on another blog by a savvier art viewer than i.[he's baysage, and his blog is 'what powderfinger said.]  he posted some modern art paintings and talked with great passion and eloquence about how they make him feel. and yet, though i was moved by his writing, i was as usual left cold by the paintings themselves. my response is classic philistine; if i don't know what it's a picture of, i just don't get it.

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.


Jim said...

Good post. Again.

Like you, I am oblivious to most art, but I know what I like. For me, another example is poetry. Most of it leaves me untouched, but there are a few poets who speak to me.

I've always thought something slightly different about the "Nighthawks" painting. I don't think those people are isolated from each other at all. To me, it looks like the guy running the cafe is in the middle of talking, perhaps taking a pause. I bet he's talking about the latest game ("Didja see...") The guy in the couple is looking at him, perhaps interested, perhaps not. Sports talk is something guys do when they have nothing else to say (which is why I don't fit in - I can't talk about it at all). The woman is looking at her fingers because she's bored with it.

The location of the other man, the one we see with his back to us, is critical. If he wanted to be alone, he'd sit on the same side of the counter as the couple, shoulder to shoulder, so to speak. Instead, he sits across the corner from them. So there can be eye contact, and if the conversation gets interesting, he can interject. I know that seat well. I used to pick it all the time when I was a "road warrior" consultant. I would eat at the bar in a restaurant (to avoid eating alone at a table), and would try to pick a similar location, to be able to converse with the bartender, or people catty-cornered across the corner of the bar. If you really want to be alone, you either sit at the other end or sit on the same side, so you're not facing anyone.

Anyway, that's how I see it. :)

karen lindsey said...

your take on nighthawks is interesting. it makes sense--the cafe guy is clearly looking in the couple's direction, and they could well be chatting. really cool about the guy that's 'you'--never would have thought of that, positioning oneself so as to see but not necessarily get involved with the others' conversation. interesting that though different from my take, it too doesn't see isolation inherent in the painting.....

there's another painting of his i love, i can't remember the name, but 2 women sitting on separate porches in identical buildings, in the summer. one old, one young. fascinating, and there's somewhere in my head a poem, or prose poem, waiting to get written about it. i've been reading lately about 'ephrasitic' poetry, a new term to me, poetry based on another work of art. seems like an interesting genre, and without knowing the word, i've done some in the past. the blog has opened me to prose-poetry, and that may be the key....anyway, you know the paintin g i mean?

Jim said...

You'll notice, too, that the cafe guy isn't looking directly at the man (I think) he's talking to, but just past him. Guys "talk past" each other all the time - if you've never noticed, watch for it.

I don't know the painting you're talking of (which isn't surprising), and three googles for it didn't turn up anything.

karen lindsey said...

hi jim--

the painting is called 'second story sunlight' will try to attach it.