An American In Paris: Edward Hopper Retrospective
Grand Palais, Galeries Nationales, Paris
10 October 2012–28 January 2013
by MICHAEL SPENS
This major exhibition at the Grand Palais is a timely successor to that mounted by Tate Modern (27 May–5 September 2004), which transferred to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne (9 October 2004–9 January 2005). It is useful firstly because the painter Edward Hopper (1882–1967) is viewed here essentially from a French cultural perspective, having both advantages and disadvantages.
Curator Didier Ottinger, who is in fact the Assistant Director of MNAM, Centre Pompidou, holds a particularly Francophile agenda, as might be expected. Accordingly, the exhibition, which is divided into two main sections, divides chronologically into two principle parts.
The first section focuses on Hopper's formative years, until 1924 and seeks to reveal the extent to which he was influenced by precedent and by contemporaries in Europe, and particularly France itself. Given the above agenda, this has an essential need of corroboration. Certainly he was inspired by most of all by Degas from whose work he absorbed the value of asymmetrical composition (which was to stay with him all his life): and then it is certainly arguable that Sickert's weekend figures displaying ennui struck a chord which he would recall and apply to his own listless, impersonal figures later. But Hopper not only spent a year and two shorter visits in Paris, he also got to Berlin for six weeks in 1907 and absorbed the work of an earlier German artist, Adolph Menzel, c1848, recently then promoted in the city which perhaps commended itself to Hopper with the painting Stairway Landing, a precursor to his own painting actually done in Paris, before Berlin, Stairway at 48 Rue de Lille (1906). This was by comparison somewhat clearer in depicting the fall of light on the nine stairway treaders as they curved upwards, anticipating Hopper's future development.
Secondly the exhibition is particularly useful in the extent to which in Paris, there is dedication of a whole room to Hopper's etchings, which do anticipate his later work valuably. Most notably here in Hopper's oeuvre is the Whitney's example, Night Shadows (1921), but numerous etchings in this room bear out the good sense of Ottinger's curatorial decision.
But indeed now standing back from the first section of the exhibition one can recall Hopper's statement: “It took me twenty years to recover from Paris.” As if to balance this, one room is dedicated to works by Hopper's New York teacher Robert Henri and other American figures such as Thomas Eakins and George Bellows. Such precedent might indeed have been traced back further to Winslow Homer, in the interests of the show's American provenance.
The second section of the exhibition reveals inevitably the extent to which Hopper's own identity, combined with his broader affinity within American popular culture, came wholly to epitomise his own remarkable contribution. The artist himself was very clear that he should not ever be reconciled with the theme of “The American Scene”, which critics sought to apply to his work. For comparison it was as inappropriate as if in England Stanley Spencer and Alfred Munnings might be placed together within a soft English comfort zone.
So not for Hopper, a placement with say, Norman Rockwell, all the more a threat since the latter had commercial magazine work, but then so once had Hopper. As this exhibition shows, Hopper's painting rapidly developed its own identifiable style and character. Even from the early 1930s, critical acclaim in New York had begun to celebrate “a steadfast American artist, with the sturdy independence, which Thomas Eakins gave us, but which for a time was lost”. And this show was not even at the Whitney, but the Museum of Modern Art.1 It is hard in actuality to identify much precedent cross-over there, except Eakins' A Woman's Back: Study (1879) offers in its languid pose and yet sharp definition of shadow and light an affinity with certain of Hopper's feminine poses, as in, Morning in a City (1944). Usually it was his wife Jo (Josephine) who modelled all his works where females were portrayed, and the figures are mostly notably unerotic in their nudity, however evident their disengagement in space.
In this second main section the exhibition reveals, with the remainder of the 128 Hopper paintings (apart from 38 related works by others) the extent to which the artist, already middle-aged, develops his inimitable technique and method of depiction. It can be said that such is the effect of his awareness of the dramatic combination of light and shadow that the scenography is secondary, although in architectural place-making, both vernacular and urban-modern, here are applied such methods as separately fascinated the art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich.
In a revealing discourse for London's National Gallery entitled Shadows2 he explored the advancing techniques and methods for accurately depicting the fall of light, cast shadows, and the laws of optics. In particular Gombrich chooses two examples, firstly a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a man sleeping below a wall in Ahmedabad (1967), sheltering in the shadow of an ornate architectural shrine. The second example is a painting by a follower of Rembrandt, A Man seated reading at a Table in a Lofty Room (c1628-30), the “tenebroso” style illustrates this effect to perfection. The light streaming through the glass panes and the open window, as Gombrich says, “almost dazzles the beholder, making it hard to discover the figure and objects”.
In fact, in the last century, the science of sciagraphy (literally that branch of perspective that deals with the projection of shadows) was required practice for all architectural students, in order to project presentation drawings with a geometrically accurate enhancement of light and shade. The work of Edward Hopper was assiduous in projecting cast sunlight and accurate shadow. In fact it was to become the most definitive application of his painterly skill, yet for him it would seem to have been largely intuitive.
What however was different was the use by Hopper of such almost clinical effects to establish the mood both of the space occupied by the subject in the painting and its projection outward of the painting. Here entered the mood, whether of individual alienation. Another typical characteristic was his treatment of windows, invariably depicted as open voids, without apparent glazing intervention against light. Such essential openings defy the technical reality of plate glass for most of Hopper's own lifetime. Yet they enhance, in the urban context, the sense of innocent human vulnerability. The space enclosing the sitter whether interior or external, or both, might seem to be “freeze-dried”, void of activity other than the static being of the subject. Landscape is usually benign but neutral in effect, as is the sea where it occurs, even with the Atlantic swell of Cape Cod's shoreline. And here clearly the ramifications of an open truly democratic American culture are readily apparent. This was never exactly to be something imported from Europe.
The painting Morning Sun (1932) gives an openness in an urban space equally as does A Woman in the Sun (1961), an interior yet in a rural context and indicative of Hopper's natural ease whether in his own home grown rurality or in the chosen urban setting. There is no opacity although there can be mystery in the apparent self-defining depictions.
In exchanging sunlit daytime for street-lit night-time, if anything the mystique grows. In this exhibition too hangs perhaps the most famous of all Hopper paintings, Nighthawks (1942); there are offered no clues to the evident quiet discussion. But we know the individuals might probably be talking of the Japanese bombing of Hawaii just at that time. They are not just filling a void, although there is an air of melancholy, but not of alienation here. Much later, the film director Wim Wenders was so struck by this scene that a simulacrum was set up (1997) re-capturing the essence of the painting, for his work The End of the Violence. Wenders is also a useful interpreter of interstate USA with his film Paris, Texas.
Hopper himself was much travelled across America in his ageing Dodge, and readily absorbed the road culture of motels and diners, little changed between New York and Mexico or as far as California. There are there too elements of Raymond Chandler, who so well, although an Englishman, understood the bar culture. This was Hopper's own America. Nothing could be further from the 'bistro' culture of Paris. True allegory could be found off-road too, with railroad houses, flaking inland mansions in New York State, and there rests too for Hopper an innocence in mansions redolent with abandonment or the fruits of social and economic obsolescence.
But, for Hopper himself there came to be no failure, just regularity in his long marriage with Jo, and slow but steady productivity; New York city life, for half a century in living and painting in Washington Square, Manhattan, interspersed with uncrowded late summers, even November, or early spring on Cape Cod. This too is reflected in the epigramatic calmness of the relevant paintings, sealed silently in light and shadow. With the best of intentions, the Grand Palais in this noble gesture, perhaps could not ever truly capture the essence of America's great painter of the last century, or indeed the spirit of American life, all which he absorbed seamlessly, travelling light, but has projected timelessly. And so, to find Edward Hopper in Paris is a revelatory and rewarding experience.
In Paris too, one is most reminded again by location of Hopper's particular interest in urban and vernacular architecture. As he wrote in 1933:
Our native architecture with its hideous beauty, its fantastic roofs, pseudo-Gothic, French Mansard, Colonial, mongrel or what-not, with eye-searing color or delicate harmonies of faded paint, shouldering one another along interminable streets that taper off into swamps or dump heaps-these appear again and again as they should in any delineation of the American scene. The great realists of European painting have never been too fastidious to depict the architecture of their native lands in their pictures.3
1. See: Museum of Modern Art Catalogue (Ed. Alfred H. Barr) 1933 for the Exhibition Edward Hopper Retrospective: Article by Charles Burlfield, 'Edward Hopper – Classicist'.
2. E.H. Gombrich, Shadows: the depiction of cast shadows in Western Art, National Gallery Publications, London, 1995.
3. Edward Hopper quoted by Charles Burchfield, in The Arts, Vol.14, No.1, July 1928, p.7. Quoted in Edward Hopper, Ed. S. Wagstaff, Catalogue to Exhibition 'Edward Hopper', Tate Modern, 2004, p.65.