Calm among the chaos; Edward Hopper's paintings excel at composition
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 November 2007)

WASHINGTON - There are people destined to live out of joint with their times, and for Edward Hopper (1882-1967) that was a very good thing indeed.

Hopper, whose paintings are now being saluted with a major show at the National Gallery (until Jan. 21) and a chamber opera commissioned by the nearby University of Maryland, showed no enthusiasm for the bustling, expansive United States in which he lived. Skyscrapers didn't impress him and he never cared for abstract painting. He ignored the 20thcentury's environment and turned his intense gaze onto 19th-century structures, solid and honest old buildings whose architects were seldom even named, much less celebrated. He wrapped New York's taken-for-granted streets in their own kind of solemn nobility, making the ordinary look extraordinary and making otherwise forgettable cityscapes memorable.

Within the chaos and confusion of the modern U.S., he created his own enclaves of ambiguous calm. Peering through the windows of those old buildings, he glimpsed rooms populated by people much like himself -- apparently defeated and depressed, pretty glum at the best of times.

What made his paintings more than simply emblems of isolation was his pitch-perfect sense of composition. That talent helped him create his own tone, a Hopperian sense of heightened reality. His paint-handling would never have got him to the National Gallery; nor would his often clumsy treatment of the figure. But he was a virtuoso of layout.

He knew just when to chop off the end of a building, how much window to show, how to pull the elements in a picture together so logically that the finished work looked inevitable. He was also a master of painted light. Even when he eliminated people and cities, showing nothing but sunlight hitting the various planes of a single building, he projected his own patented sense of delicacy.

If Hopper was rarely pleased by the art world of his day it may have been because he didn't sell a single painting till he was 31 (at the famous Armory Show of 1913) and then didn't make another sale for 10 long years.

He was 51 before his reputation solidified with a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Since then, his admirers have woven his images into the visual fabric of American society. Among all great American artists, he's the one who most appeals to people who usually don't pay much attention to art. He's a favourite of the postcard industry, a staple of the reproduction business, an endless source of ideas for advertising designers, and in his own way something of a movie star. In the Hollywood/Steve Martin version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, the director, Herbert Ross, recreates the diner from Hopper's most famous painting, Nighthawks (1952). An echo of the same darkly poetic restaurant shows up in a Wim Wenders movie, The End of Violence.

Alfred Hitchcock borrowed Hopper's sinister, brooding House by the Railroad (1925) for the home of Norman Bates and his mom in Psycho; Terrence Malick made the same house the focus of murderous longing as Sam Shepard's home in Days of Heaven. We who watch Turner Classic Movies are never far from Hopper; his work provides the stylistic basis for the surprisingly lovely commercial with which the network advertises itself.

To celebrate the Gallery show, the University of Maryland's music program commissioned a chamber opera, Later the Same Evening, from John Musto, the composer, and Mark Campbell, the librettist. They built their work around five Hopper paintings, including Automat (1927) and Hotel Room (1931), both studies of women alone and apparently lonely.

We see the characters in the paintings projected onto the stage but we also see them as living singers, dressed like their equivalents in the pictures. Hopper's vision, imaginatively interpreted, launches the narrative. The opera (brisk, forceful, rich in 1930s flavour) depicts the characters as they're implied by the paintings. Eventually we learn about them all, as Campbell imagines they might be. At the climax they come together as members of the audience at a Broadway musical.

In that context, their isolation dissolves and the charm of the show they watch briefly unites them. There's a lovely aria about strangers coming together in the theatre, then vanishing separately into the city's darkness.

Given the nature of Hopper's art, the creation of a chamber opera inspired by his characters was a daring idea. It brings abruptly to life a painter who was known for the stillness of his pictures. Hopper's people, rather like Vermeer's, are usually seen waiting--and we never know for what. Audaciously, the opera ends the waiting, breathes life into Hopper's subjects, and lets them connect. We watch them shatter Hopper's compositions, replacing confident and carefully organized art with the messiness of life.

In the New York of 1932, as Musto and Campbell recreate it, people call coffee either "java" or "joe" and eat at the Automat, the women wearing bell-shaped cloche hats. But if Later the Same Evening leans on a sense of nostalgia, that's fair enough. Hopper himself, when making his art, was already nostalgic for the city built by his grandfather's generation.

Under the shrewd and loving direction of Leon Major, who was for decades a leading figure in the Canadian theatre and now teaches and directs opera in the U.S., Later the Same Evening plunges into a Hopper version of New York. One character, a dancer, retreats to Indianapolis, confessing she's defeated by New York. Another, a gay schoolteacher accustomed to small-town sneers in Lynchburg, Va., discovers that no one can be called a freak in New York because everyone turns out to be strange in some way. When we last see him, he's planning a move to the big city.

It's not clear whether Hopper saw his New York as especially lovable, but in this operatic rendering of his times, it's a city for poets and lovers, a world of mystery that now seems as distant as a dream. Musto and Campbell call their opera a love letter to New York and the "almost religious belief" of New Yorkers in the power of good fortune in their lives. Their printed text quotes a line from E.B. White: "No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky."

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