On May 16th, the Inkwell will be hosting a tour of the Edward Hopper exhibit at the MFA. Read The Boston Globe's take on the artist and exhibition below.
As if from afar, Edward Hopper looks into the American soul
Edward Hopper was not a great painter. He wielded his brushes with a heavy hand, his colors range from muddy to sour, his human figures are laughably clumsy. Trained as an illustrator, he knew how to exaggerate contrasts of light and shadow to good effect, and he had solid compositional instincts, but he was not an innovative formalist. He was what you may call a good enough painter.
But Hopper was a great artist. Some of his paintings remain indelibly fixed in the American collective consciousness. "Early Sunday Morning," the long, horizontal image of humble storefronts in a two-story brick building raked by the light of a rising sun; "Nighthawks," the nocturnal view into a diner where three customers and a busboy pass the time in the acidic glare of electric lights like characters in a Raymond Chandler novel: These and certain other Hopper paintings exude an uncanny fusion of the mundane and the transcendental, of cold-eyed realism and bottled-up feelings of loneliness, grief, love, and hope. Few artists have ever tapped so deeply into the 20th-century American soul.
"Edward Hopper," an exhibition opening on Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, affords an excellent opportunity to ponder just what it is that makes his paintings so spellbinding. Co-curated by Carol Troyen of the MFA; Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where the show will travel in September; and Judith A. Barter of the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will appear next February, the show encompasses Hopper's whole, seven-decade career. It ranges from a self-portrait made in 1903-06 under the influence of his teacher Robert Henri to "Sun in an Empty Room," a dreamlike image made in 1963, four years before he died, that seems like a farewell to this earthly world.
The exhibition does not try to represent everything Hopper did. As a wall label points out, Hopper was a late bloomer. He made hundreds of less-than-wonderful paintings before he found his voice in the 1920s, by which time he was in his 40s. So the present show errs on the side of selectivity. It presents just 100 works, including oil paintings, watercolors, and prints, and it concentrates on the middle 25 years of his career -- from the mid-'20s to about 1950 -- when he made his most memorable pictures.
Scholars might wish for drawings, studies, and other less important works that would reveal more about Hopper's methods and his evolution, and there are certain iconic paintings such as "Gas," the nighttime scene of a man tending the red fuel pumps of a rural gas station, that will be included at the show's other two venues but not in Boston. But many of his most recognizable pictures are here (including "Early Sunday Morning" and "Nighthawks"). As a presentation of the essential Hopper, it's hard to imagine a better show.
So what exactly is it that makes a Hopper so Hopperesque? He was, in one sense, a plain-spoken poet of the ordinary. Whether painting in New York City, where he lived all his adult life, or around summer homes in Gloucester, Maine, and Cape Cod, he was consistently drawn to the most commonplace, least picturesque scenes. Unlike such modernists as Georgia O'Keeffe and Joseph Stella who celebrated the great skyscrapers, bridges, and other engineering wonders of New York, Hopper focused on the neglected 19th-century buildings and streets that made up most of the city's fabric.
In his summertime works, he avoided the postcard-pretty maritime views and sought out then-unfashionable old Victorian houses and weathered cottages and farmhouses set on nondescript roads or in the midst of scrubby fields. He painted lighthouses before they became scenic tourist attractions.
When he painted people, they were ordinary people -- shopgirls, maids, clerks, solitary pedestrians, the movie theater usherette lost in thought. He was not a socialist idealizer of the common man, but he had an achingly tender sympathy for people who appear passed by, outcast, or abandoned by life.
There is a down-to-earth matter-of-factness about his paintings of nude or partly unclothed women in bare, anonymous rooms. They are quickened by sexual interest, but they are not prurient. Typically his women are looking out the windows of their rooms as though dreaming of other lives they might have led.
Hopper could produce a remarkably vivid realism. His watercolors are especially attentive to the facts of the visible world -- of light, space, and topography. Looking at them, one gets that rare, oddly thrilling feeling that this is what the world is really like. Yet for all his concentration on surface impressions, there is also in his most compelling works a sense of some mysterious interiority. Often in Hopper it feels as though we are seeing through the eyes of a detective or a spy. Viewed from across a paved gray road, the neat white farmhouse and barn in "Route 6, Eastham" seems eerily still and silent, as if it has been the scene of some terrible crime. It would make a good cover illustration for a new paperback edition of "In Cold Blood."
His city pictures are frequently driven by voyeuristic curiosity. In "Room in New York," we peer in through the wide window of a brownstone apartment building where a man reads a newspaper while his wife, in a sexy red dress, idly plinks the keys of an upright piano. In "Office at Night," one of Hopper's best-known and most erotically provocative paintings, we look down as if through the lens of a surveillance camera on the scene of a man working at his desk and a voluptuously curvy secretary standing at a filing cabinet.
But however far past the public facade Hopper's eye penetrates, something enigmatic always remains. The woman standing at the window holding a white bath towel in "Morning in the City" is totally naked, and yet psychologically she remains unfathomably distant. Often one feels a longing to be let in, to be admitted to a warmer life inside, as in "Rooms for Tourists," the nighttime view of a Cape Cod inn that is invitingly lighted from within.
That sense of being on the outside looking in is part of what accounts for the sad and lonely mood that so distinctively marks Hopper's paintings. A famously reticent man, he relied almost exclusively on his gregarious wife, Jo, for company. No doubt, the recurrent sense of being shut out in his paintings has something to do with his particular psychological constitution -- an inability, perhaps, to fully connect with other people or with some locked- up complex of feeling deep within himself.
But there is, too, a more universal aspect to the mysteriousness in Hopper. It is one of the oldest of philosophical questions to ask: What if anything lies beyond the world that we register through our five senses? Hopper doesn't offer an answer, but over and over he painted an experience in which some unknown and perhaps unknowable dimension -- elusive yet tantalizingly present -- animates what is there to be seen with naked eyes. He was a tough-minded realist and a searching, tender-hearted mystic.
For more information about the Inkwell Bookstore's tour and how you can join us, click here.