December 17, 2010

YET AMERICANS ARE UNPUZZLED:

The Hopper Question: Why the American painter puzzles. (Morgan Meis

Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper. On the face of it, the current show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time," doesn't help answer the question. The show gives us paintings like “Soir Bleu” from 1914. We're at a café in France somewhere. Patrons sit at the tables. Right there in the middle, facing us, is a clown. He is wearing a white, frilly get-up and his face is painted white, too, with red lips and a couple of red stripes down the eyes. He is smoking a cigarette. This may, in fact, be the sad clown we've all heard so much about. I've toyed with the idea that “Soir Bleu” is making fun of itself. Or maybe it is making fun of us, the viewer? But, no. Hopper is a painter without any sense of humor, which is a troubling fact. He paints without wit, without self-awareness. We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene. He was so moved by the depressed clown that he went and painted one of the silliest paintings of the era.

Hopper spent time in Europe during the 1920s. He was living in Paris on and off when the ex-pat scene was at its very height. Impressively, it doesn't seem to have affected him much at all. That's what you want to admire about Hopper. His Americanness was so real, and so deeply rooted, that continental trends and ideas bounced right off him. He was still trying to find his way as a painter in the '20s. He had every reason to dabble in the trends. But he didn't. He didn't want to be an abstract painter. His mind was not blown by Cubism. He did not succumb to the excitement of any avant-garde. How many of us have ever shown that kind of resolution? It is not that Hopper lacked ambition. He wanted to be a great painter. He wanted to be relevant. And yet he stuck to his realism, to his representational style, to everything that was being rejected by so many of the celebrated painters of his day. Admirable.

Still, we wonder. Did Hopper stick to his guns for all the right reasons? Or was it all he could do? Was he an ugly American, so wedded to simplistic imagery that the finer points of Cubism or abstract painting would have been over his head? Did Hopper rely on cliché because that was all he understood?


All great art is cliched because what makes it great is the proximity the artist achieves towards representing the beauty of Creation. The modernism that Hopper rejected quits on this task, which is why it is ugly.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2010 6:35 AM
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