Friday, July 27, 2007

The antimodernist

Nighthawks, 1942

It's hard to believe, but there's currently a reason to go to the MFA (at least through August 19) - "Edward Hopper," a near-retrospective of one of America's favorite, and most frigid, artists (think of him as Norman Rockwell's dark twin). Of course this show alone, even if it were brilliant, couldn't rehabilitate the museum's reputation - Malcolm Rogers may have made his baby the darling of Beantown's new money, but among the cognoscenti it's been almost a laughingstock since the "boat show," otherwise known as "Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch." And at any rate, "Edward Hopper" isn't brilliant - indeed, the curating is a little lackluster; the show is hung competently, but without inspiration, at least three key paintings are missing (House by the Railroad, Gas, and Rooms by the Sea), there's no new, overarching thesis, and the wall text and audio, in typical MFA fashion, hype tourist-friendly details ("Can you believe that old house is still in Gloucester?") while papering over thorny issues in the artist's life and work.

Nevertheless, Hopper himself was brilliant, so there's your reason to go. Don't be put off by the reviews - which, like the curating, have been somewhat lackluster. In the New York Times, the oft-vapid Holland Cutter suddenly turned vicious: "To some of us, Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes." Meanwhile, in the Globe, Ken Johnson (late of the Times, dontchaknow) was more enthusiastic and a little more perceptive, despite a hilarious headline: "As if from afar, Hopper looks into American soul."

Neither writer, however, got very close to evoking Hopper's distinctive chill - a spooky vibe that's not so much American as modern in general. Even in the early watercolors from Gloucester, when Hopper is reveling in his command of architectural angles and sheets of sun, there's a hint of something brooding beneath the clapboards - the awnings of The Mansard Roof (1923, at left) are rippling over a jet-black shadow, and Hopper isn't above using the trick (at least as old as Bosch) of turning a window into an unsettling, unblinking "eye."

This undercurrent rose to the surface in the artist's first masterpiece (not, alas, in the Boston show), House by the Railroad(1925, left). In this tight little visual poem, a gaunt "painted lady" is not only plainly haunted, she's staring grimly at the modern railroad which has passed her by.

Somehow, though, you get the sense she'll get her revenge - and she does nearly forty years later, when we find her lurking by the highway in Hitchcock's Psycho (also at left). You don't need much more evidence than this of how deeply Hopper's vision penetrated pop culture - if Norman Rockwell begat Frank Capra, then Hopper inspired half of film noir.

And he did so via an intriguing strategy: the artist concentrated consistently, even obsessively, on everything the new era of mobile self-expression - what pop culture inherently celebrates - left behind. The forgotten storefronts (Early Sunday Morning, at left), the lonely street, the shuttered hotel - not to mention the lost souls wandering among them - these became Hopper's great subject (even in Gloucester he shunned the popular ocean views to ponder empty neighborhoods). When he did deign to consider a modern structure - a bridge or tower, say - Hopper didn't glamourize it, but instead portrayed it as deserted; when he painted a movie theatre (New York Movie, below), he left the screen almost off the canvas, and focused on the dejected usherette.

New York Movie, 1939

"Life" is elsewhere in Hopper - or at least, modernity is; culture is. So what's left? This is when things get interesting - unlike almost any other painter, Hopper was obsessed with the invisible. Ponder that paradox, for a moment (particularly as a problem in the visual arts). True, other (often greater) artists have conjured the unseen - Velazquez tackles the problem of depicting consciousness itself in Las Meninas - but Hopper was after something more elemental: the stubbornly cold surface of unadorned existence, for lack of a better description: the edge between being and nothingness. Mystery, melancholy, and menace cling to this vision in about equal portions, as well as a mournful sense of stasis. The drifters of Nighthawks (at top) are hardly caught at the crux of some drama, as many have argued; nothing is happening to them, and nothing is going to happen. Sealed in their glass coffin (there seems to be no door) just outside the storefronts of Early Sunday Morning (compare with above), they have nothing to say to each other, or to us; they are utterly mobile, modern types, who, perversely, are unable to move.

There's a certain vulgarity to that diner's denizens, too - indeed, to almost all of Hopper's city dwellers. Many critics have commented on this crudity as a technical limit of the artist (Johnson calls him "a good enough painter"), but Hopper's watercolor technique (not quite Sargent's or Homer's, but still pretty damn impressive) belies this judgment: his awkward modeling in oil was clearly a conscious decision, part of the metaphor he was attempting to construct. Cut off from any organic relation to the world, and perceived from a state of constant motion, the modern figure was, Hopper insists, by its very nature garish. And its interiority hardly exists; when a flapper ponders her tea (as in Automat, at left), the darkness behind her tells us her mind is an unknown even to herself. All is surface, essentially, and without connection to any inner dimension, the world's charms (as personified in various Hopper ingenues) are stripped of their allure and presented as pure advertisement. Always cold, Hopper's eye grew even crueller as he aged, and his brushwork became blunter; by the end of his career, he was positing naked, sexually-used women - who look like corpses - abandoned in hotel rooms to stare blankly into the sun. It's a despairing - perhaps even disgusted - vision; but at least there's still that sunlight (which we first saw bouncing off The Mansard Roof some four decades ago). The artist pondered this alone in his last great picture, Sun in an Empty Room (below, 1963), in which the actual passes into the metaphysical, where everything - and everyone - passes away.

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