« Maybe I am not very human – what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house. »Edward Hopper
No artist has captured the mood of 20th century modern American life better than Edward Hopper. His brooding urban and rural oil paintings produced between the 1920s and 1960s, charged with human solitude and desolation, are some of the most recognisable images throughout the world. Until 17th May, sixty-five of the American painter’s works dating from 1909 to 1965 are presented in the Fondation Beyeler’s Spring exhibition.
The collection of oils, watercolours and drawings has been put together from Hopper’s modest oeuvre. He created 366 works in oil throughout his career, all accurately recorded in notebooks by the artist and his wife Josephine Nivison. “With the exception of a couple of paintings in Madrid, Hopper’s entire oeuvre is held in the US”, says the Beyeler’s director Sam Keller.
For this Basel show, the first in German-speaking Switzerland, the foundation has worked in close cooperation with New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art where most of Hopper’s works are held. It is not an attempt to parade every epic Hopper masterpiece. Nighthawks, for example, his iconic late-night diner scene is in absentia. According to Keller, it works to the show’s advantage. “Not having Nighthawks here is lucky. With Edward Hopper’s ‘Mona Lisa’ missing, these other works can really come out from the shadows”.
Instead, less familiar landscapes, many of which have been rarely shown outside of the US give stirring insights into Hopper’s Realist approach to American landscape painting.
The idea for the exhibition – curated by Art Historian Ulf Küster – arose when Hopper’s 1928 landscape Cape Ann Granite arrived on permanent loan at the foundation. For several decades, the painting of a rocky cape in Massachusetts belonged to the Rockefeller collection and dates from a time when Hopper, having struggled to sell his work, was enjoying increasing critical success. (In 1929, he took part in the Museum of Modern Art’s second exhibition Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans).
“It’s not a typical view of the sea, like in the Hudson River School tradition” says Keller of the coastal landscape. “Hopper blocks the view”.
Born in 1882 in Nyack, New York, Hopper trained as an illustrator. Despite disliking the profession, it was a jobbing necessity which dominated his working life (the film posters and office interiors he designed would be the latent origins of future paintings). In 1899, he began studying at the New York School of Art where he met Josephine, his future wife and muse. Bar a stay in Paris in 1906, and again visiting the French capital in 1909 and 1910, Hopper lived in a house in Greenwich Village where he and his wife remained for the rest of their lives. The couple took many road trips cross-country in their Buick, visiting Colorado, Santa Fe, Portland, the West Coast, even reaching Mexico. From 1930, they favoured the rocky regions of the East coastline and frequently visited Cape Cod where, in 1934, they built a summer studio house in South Truro.
The works in oil that Hopper went on to produce exploring colour, light and shadow established a personal aesthetic which he resolutely pursued, despite the abstractionist tendencies followed by his contemporaries. In a steadfast way, Hopper expressed his personal vision of the world, painting not just for the eyes but for the soul.
Cape Ann Granite is a striking study of light and shadow. On the surface, it is beautiful and simple. It’s composition is dominated by hulking, brown boulders. From behind one of these, set apart in the foreground, the viewer is able to observe the scene ahead, allowed only a glimpse of the sea in the upper corner. There are no pensive, human figures, but it is quintessential Hopper, hinting at a deeper, psychological state.
Like his city scenes, Hopper’s landscapes are not extensive panoramas. They are deliberate limited views, resembling film noir stills which call forth the viewer’s imagination to develop the story beyond the pictorial space. A small work in chalk on paper entitled Road and Rocks (1962) typifies the uneasy, Hitchcockian tension which seeps through the Hopper visual.
The exhibition opens with a series of oils featuring classic motifs. Railtracks or a bridge not only extend the canvas but cut horizontally across the picture. Railroad Sunset from 1929 is an expressive evening scene at Cape Elizabeth, New England where railway tracks mark the divide between civilisation and a natural realm extending into the distance. Hopper’s use of light, both in the sky and in the glinting metal tracks is accentuated by an undulating green contour along the crest of the hills and is suggestive of a better, hopeful world beyond. Alongside, other small early works from 1916 to 1919 depict rocks and sea at Monhegan, Maine.
Human presence is scored into the often deserted compositions through houses in the distance, a car, barn roofs, partial façades, streets or a lighthouse on a hill. These architectural elements juxtapose man with the uncultivated environment, boring into nature as a reminder of the altering state of a country which was veering towards industrial modernity. Two paintings in the show – Cobb’s Barns, South Truro and Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro (1930-1933) – were loaned by the Whitney to the White House where they hung in the Oval Office during Barack Obama’s presidency. Hopper’s vision resonates with the American psyche more than most.
A group of ocean-themed compositions point to the artist’s youth growing up on the Hudson River and his penchant for sailing. Sailboat motifs and lighthouses evoke 19th century seafaring. In one, the famous Lighthouse Hill painted in 1927, Hopper’s play of light and shade suggests boundaries within the compositional space, expressed in the façade of the lighthouse which is vertically divided into two extremes of light and darkness. Again Hopper tricks. The presence of the sea is implied by the lighthouse, viewed from the sloping cliffs below. The water cannot be seen at all.
There are many remarkable hidden gems amongst the larger oils. Stairway from 1949 is a small painting on wood, recalling the open window scenes of European Romanticists. Through an open door, a sombre interior anticipates a darker world beyond the threshold. It is foreboding , unadorned, without people. Hopper endured long periods of depression when he would not paint, instead reading and frequenting cinemas for days and weeks on end to find inspiration. In this small, stifling scene, the viewer observes the artist in uncertain self-reflection.
The female figure, so central to Hopper’s paintings emerges halfway through the exhibition. Almost always modelled by his wife Jo, Hopper’s characters play on the fantasies and realities of artist and muse. The couple famously had a volatile relationship, at times violent, jealous and unfulfilled, but mutually dependent and enduring. High Noon (1949) suggests a deep ambivalence in the way the woman stands poised at the open door, exposed in her state of undress, but abandoned. She reappears in a different form in Cape Cod Morning (1950), this time standing behind the protection of a bay window, her body unavailable.
In these erotically tense compositions, the subjects remain suspended in expectation of their fate, bathed in Hopper’s morning, noon and evening light. They look out, wait, and yearn for something which only the viewer can imagine. Of Second Story Sunlight, (1960) Hopper described it as “an attempt to paint sunlight as white, with almost or no yellow pigment in the white” and that “any psychological idea will have to be supplied by the viewer”. This cognitive play is characterised in Portrait of Orleans from 1950. A car turns at speed into the road towards a solitary female figure standing on the pavement. It calls into question whether the scene was inspired by one of Hopper’s many trips to the movies, or in fact, was he painting a set for filmmakers of the future?
Throughout all these works, there is tension and a bleak sense of being alone. Beyond that, they demonstrate Hopper’s curious fascination with light. The artist said that “there is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house” and these lucent components give temporary breathing space to an oeuvre characterized by the tristesse of existence.
Hopper’s famous painting Gas 1940 hangs in the final room, flanked by several verdant landscapes (First Branch of the White River from 1938 is an absolute treat). The artist struggled to complete the painting of a fuel station at the end of a highway which stands like an outpost marking the frontier between civilisation and Nature. In it, Hopper accentuates the artificiality of the building’s lights at dusk by a mass of dark forest behind, leaving the viewer to decide which one will finally defeat the other.
The painting features later on in a 3D short film commissioned especially for the Beyeler by filmmaker Wim Wenders. A fan of Hopper since the early Seventies, Wender’s film Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper is a personal tribute to an artist who has profoundly informed his cinematic work. The film collates footage taken when Wenders travelled across the USA searching for Hopper’s spirit. Hopper famously said that “if you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint”. In the same vein, Wenders creates fervent, animated iterations of the artist’s works, addressing Hopper’s affinity for film and narrative storytelling which has influenced filmmakers ever since.
“And,” says Wenders “the light sometimes is the biggest happiness in his paintings”.
TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT EDWARD HOPPER
by Wim Wenders, 2020 © Road Movies
Edward Hopper at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel until 17 May 2020.
For further information go to www.fondationbeyeler.ch
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