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July 10, 2007

Christie Davies goes to Boston to see the work of a man known as an American artist and a realist painter and finds not a boring latter-day Thomas Eakins but an artist of great talent well versed in European art and well able to grapple with modernity

Posted by Christie Davies

Edward Hopper
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
6th May - 19th August 2007

Edward Hopper was sold to the American public and prized by them as a very American painter and very much a realist. He was seen as a down to earth, salt of the earth, no foreign nonsense, Anglo-Saxon Yankee whose realism was American truth; one who painted America's landscapes and cities as "they really were". Up to a point this is fair enough and it is easy to see why lovers of realism, who quite rightly detested the invasion of an alien abstract expressionism that reduced American art to Jackson bollocks, should revere him.

Yet it is clear from the major exhibition of his work in Boston that this is only half the truth. Among the French-speaking Hopper's favourite reading was Marcel Proust's Du Côté de chez Swann, a taste that does not exactly fit well with his home-spun image as a rugged puritan Yankee. As befits a man some of whose formative years were spent in Europe and particularly in Paris, Hopper was steeped in European artistic traditions and was a visually literate painter. Art historians claim they find throughout the exhibition echoes of Cézanne and Degas, Manet and Monet, Ruskin and Rembrandt, Sargent and Sickert, Van Gogh and Vermeer and some of them are loud enough to hear as in: Summer Interior 1909, New York Corner 1913, Evening Wind 1921, Cape Ann Pasture 1928, and Blackwell's Island 1928.

Nor was Hopper in any simple sense a realist; his work abstracts from and changes reality; it does not reproduce it. There are hints of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and a proto-pop art that would horrify a Victorian academician. The scenes he paints are distinctively American, yet they exist both everywhere and nowhere. When there are people in them, you are at first deceived into thinking there is a narrative but there is not. Hopper's work is enigmatic. You won't find an awakening chord here, nor would he tell you that that is what it is.

Self-conscious American "modernists" were angry that galleries of modern art not only bought Hopper but held major exhibitions celebrating his work. But why should abstract expressionism be the sole trajectory of modernity? Modernity is a slippery and contested concept as "Dave" Cameron, for whom it is a shibboleth, is about to discover. Cameron's policies have a lot in common with Pollocks' paintings - obscure, frenzied and drippy and guaranteed to appeal only to rich and privileged liberals Hopper was likewise attacked by the "modernisers" because he did not concentrate his attention on the soaring skyscrapers and parabolic bridges of New York, but sought out its local, faded, quiet, ageing neighbourhoods that other artists had neglected, as in Early Sunday Morning 1930.

Even when Hopper was close to the new, bustling, exciting New York as in Manhattan Bridge Loop 1928 he chose a very ordinary section at a quiet time of day. Manhattan Bridge is not simple realism; it is a sine wave of carefully chosen or placed buildings and structures behind a long blank horizontal wall and beneath a long horizontal sky; it is a picture far longer than it is tall. A lone figure shuffles through the shadow towards the edge, all that is required to give it a human scale. Who needs crowds? A little further reduction of the scene to pure shapes and it would be an abstract arrangement, but why bother? It is near perfect as it is, as is Cars and Rocks 1927, or Sun in an Empty Room 1963.

My assessment of their quality might have to be made in largely formal terms but that merely shows that our language is more constrained than Hopper's art. The modernity in Hopper's work lies in his grip on the alienation that is the dominant quality of American cities, an alienation that is a product of their "diversity", the alienation of a rootless place in which everyone else is an alien. Cities of the alien, by the alien for the alien - Livingstone's dream.

We can see this quality in Sunday 1926. A desolate book-keeper or store clerk sits on the sidewalk with cigar outside the faded facade of a nondescript shop in Hoboken. It is his day off and he has discarded his jacket and collar and his waistcoat is unbuttoned, but his sleeve garters still hold his cuffs up and away from the workaday dirt of a desk. The New York Times critic called him:

the little man sitting on the curbstone…helpless in the face of an endless day with nothing to do.
The catalogue speaks solemnly of economic conditions in 1928, but this is misleading. Hopper doesn't do social comment. Indeed he was a conservative who was later to reject Roosevelt and all his works, including the New Deal handouts for needy-seedy-mediocre-ochre artists.

Anyone who has worked in an American city knows what Sunday is about. You work six days a week and on the seventh you almost wish you could work seven. In the small towns Americans cram into their churches to praise and holler for the Lord and to rejoice with their families, but in the city each sits alone on the sidewalk until it gets too hot and you go indoors to lie on the bed and watch the fan go round. It sure beats American television. This man is not a hobo, nor an alcoholic, but just an ordinary unremarkable, unbroken, lower middle class failure, like most Americans.

We can see it again in Automat 1927. A working flapper in cloche hat, short skirt, fur collared coat sits in a new, modern, streamlined, self-service automat where you put a nickel in a slot and a piece of mass produced, tasteless carbohydrate from which all nutrition has been carefully removed pops out. It is a more modern, though chronologically earlier, version of McDonald's. The food is just as tasteless but the décor less so and the automatic serving machine is more intelligent and communicative than the morons in uniform employed doing McJobs today. The flapper has chosen an American cup of weakly- coffee-flavoured hot water and is nursing it to make it last. She is alone in a brightly lit bubble whose own reflected lights are all that can be seen through the window onto the night. Degas would have made her a French floozy with absinthe in a seedy bar, but this is a respectable American woman in a respectable American diner, drinking the American drink that neither cheers nor inebriates. It is a thoroughly modern scene that captured the essence of urban America. It is a scene constructed in a way that Hopper was to return to in Chop Suey 1929, and in his masterpiece, that was also his own acknowledged favourite, Nighthawks 1942.

In Nighthawks three uncommunicating characters sit in a coffee bar that is half shiny advertisement and half tense detective film. They too live in a bubble of light in an empty world as does the gas station and its attendant in Gas 1940, or the little pharmacy in Drug Store 1927.

Around the chemist's shop there is an emptiness of drab, wan, faded colours but the brightly lit window has red and blue bunting and the traditional chemist's big jars of coloured liquid made to resemble port and crème de menthe, an ideal hiding place for a bootlegger. At the top of the window is advertised Ex Lax, an utterly necessary product for an America in which a roughage free diet was combined with a hygienic obsession with being "regular". Hopper's dealer's wife, with her American fear of indelicacy, told Hopper to change the advertisement to read Ex Lac, but a more sophisticated buyer was happy to have the original spelling restored.

There is much else in the exhibition, notably Hopper's devotion to the light, houses and light-houses of New England, his naked or half-naked women as in Eleven A.M 1926, and notably Evening Wind 1921, and Summer Interior 1909.

Hopper even shows at times a cartoonist's sense of humour as with the married couple ignoring each other in Room in New York 1931, a humour that can almost become an ironic, restrained version of Donald McGill as in Office at Night 1940. In either case sexily dressed secretaries tempt but where McGill's boss makes advances, Hopper's is utterly absorbed in his work and has failed to notice what the bummybusty behind is projecting at him.

Hopper was indeed a complex and many talented artist. It is worth enduring Boston to see him. Go stare at a ceiling and sit on a sidewalk and then limp through the heat and rattle on the trolley cum subway to the glories of the MFA, in all senses an escape.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, a study of the pathology of modernity.

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