16 Feb 2013

More thoughts about Edward Hopper

I published, about 10 days ago, an article on Edward Hopper and promised to return to this subject shortly, so here we are. 

As a form of alternative to Hopper's painting of city life and cityscapes, with those clearly defined lines and forms, the highly contrasting tones with bright, diagonal, often very theatrical lighting and deep, menacing shade, as well as the paradoxical loneliness of the scenes shown (yes, we are so alone but yet with so many people all around in the big city!), there is also his equally realistic and demanding take on landscapes and seafronts along the windblown north-eastern coast of the USA. But, despite the feeling of rural tranquillity that so often pervades these works, Hopper was never afraid of introducing the 20th century and its mechanical inventions into that rural scenery, almost as a way of using strong contrasts, just as he did with his works showing both the inside and outside of buildings, light and shade, intense against subdued colurs, and so on. These contasts I tried to show, to some extent, in the previous article. The watercolour below is a good example of this organic/mechanical antithesis and it does not shirk the fact that there is something ominous in the encroachement of man and his objects into the natural world.

As indeed is shown in the above engraving, where nature is literally cut in two by the railroad. Hopper is, to me, a master of engraving, and perhaps even more so than that of oil painting or watercolours.

The above engraving, which I find admirable, is not of the rural category as to its subject matter. But it perfectly illustrates Hopper's skills as a draughtsman and engraver. The composition leans on the dynamics provided by diagonals, held in check and balance by vertical lines and the rythm inherent to the framework of the subject (a subway train at night) whilst adding intensity to the central subject (a man and a woman engaged in conversation). The use of black and white, and the nuances of shading that bridge the gap of these contrasts, are also very finely handled. Drama and intimacy are latent in both subject matter and the composition that serves this.

This one, which is clearly part of the meticulous build-up of preparatory studies that led Hopper to his Nighthawks masterpiece, uses the diagonal element in composition almost to an extreme and to the point of imbalance. What finally holds it together is the solitary human figure in the foreground.

If we take a closer look at certain of his engravings, the influence of the great masters of the past, such as Rembrandt, become very clear. And to what extent the use of strong side-lighting produces both contrasts and dynamics in the whole composition.

Strong lighting is a regular feature of Hoppers paintings as well and this can have an artificial as well as a natural source. In this sense, Hopper shows very clearly the interactions between his painting and contemporary cinematography. I mentioned Lang and Hitchcock in my previous article, but they are not the only examples. And the way the subject matter is treated has an obvious cinematogaphic feel to it. In the above painting, one can image the scene before, just as well as the one to follow.

In this painting too, one is intensely aware of possible scenarios into which it slots. In fact someone once said of this painting that you can imagine in that the bank robbers have just left to commit their hold-up, having filled up with gas served by the man at the pump who barely looked at them as he cleaned the car's windshield before closing down his station.

Another painting that also shows just how daring Hopper could be in his compositions is this one, which again clearly illustrates the apparent antagonism between the city and the country, the man-built and the natural, the well-lit and conforting against the dark and menacing. His way of cutting off part of the building, both horizontally and laterally, is reminiscent of the use of a zoom on a camera.

As I started this article by talking about Hopper's vision of rurality, I should perhaps finish with one of his paintings in which neither man nor man-made objects (apart from a suggested track) play any part. Hopper is a painter of apparent tranquillity who manages, somehow, and quite subtly, to distill in most of his work a subterranean dose of anguish that is perhaps part and parcel of the 20th century.