Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
This was a frustrating show. I was looking forward to seeing it – the first time most Britons will have seen some of Hopper’s work, sharing that with the National Portrait Gallery’s eye-opening Thomas Eakins exhibition a few years ago – and the first few rooms delivered.
Hopper’s well-known theme (obsession?) of aloneness in the city started early. As the commentary declares, he was absorbed by the glimpse through “the window, the stage or the screen” into “another world”, and he explored it endlessly. And the contradiction of the city, that great seething mass in which it is so easily possible to be lost, clearly exerted a similar pull, even when expressed as Grim Doré-like etchings.
Soon the two combined to yield images of people caught in hypnotically still entrapments, so painfully and pitiably alone that where, in Eleven AM, a woman looks out only at a courtyard, not the great outdoors, even that is worth it to her, it seems. In the enclosure of the theatre, Two on the aisle is the nominal subject but surely we’re more interested in the lone woman in the box? And on Sunday, with feet hanging over nothing, will he jump? Throughout, emptiness is emphasised through skilful cropping of the image; Hopper liked the emerging art of film, intimate yet open, and these works also conjure up O. Winston Link’s immersive, massive, deeply focused night-set photographs of the great post-war age of steam, passing trains and towns and cars and yards.
Sketches and notebooks were delightful – tight, detailed, urgent, and showing real talent. Good figurework was evinced by several self-portraits and a Pensylvania raker, caught in (raking) light, pensively.
Hopper learnt from Robert Henri, whose principles were contrast, colours and realism, and the pupil shows his learning with differing effects of daylight, whether late evenings in urban streets or morning ones upon Cape Cod. Interiors like Stairway at 48 rue de Lille and Room in Brooklyn with its evening sunlight orange on chimney stacks emit the light of Vermeer, had he lived in New York – which, given their shared Dutch heritage, is maybe not so odd a leap. The everyday surfaces in Girl at sewing machine become warm orange walls, a dark window frame, yellow brick outside. All these viewpoints merge in
House at Dusk as the lights come on around a greystone as the sun still lasts a few minutes more. Outside and inside, pale yellow rooms, greenish sky.
The random encounters that pass for companionship in such a place are caught in Hopper’s best-known piece, Nighthawks: although it’s true, it really is better as a reproduction, especially in reduced scale, which concentrates the image and the contrasts of colours. In real life, it’s flatter, somehow, less solid. And really that seems right – that a venue for imagined relations should stand best as a copy, a shadow of the real thing.
As with Office at Night’s phone and typewriter, all the objects are very precise. Hopper was a commercial illustrator before turning to painting, and in Nighthawks these objects have more conviction and inner life than many of the characters. He even sketched them out, including one just of the sugar shaker and the salt and pepper cellars.
It seems to me that this is crucial.
Instructively, the final large canvases became repetitive, repeating motifs with less conviction. The ultimate alienation, which Hopper may have found in himself, is achieved with Drug store: illuminated flasks of coloured water, golden brass detail. No people.
I’d reached the end of my interest, and felt that Hopper had reached the end of his.
Edward Hopper Tate Modern, Wednesday 2 June 2004
House at Dusk (1935) (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; The John Barton Payne Fund)
Light in darkness. Drug Store (1927), from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston