1. The exhibition
On a rainy Saturday afternoon in September, during a weekend in Lausanne, I spot a notice for an Edward Hopper exhibition running at a local museum. I have never seen a Hopper original, and I soon start towards Fondation de l’Hermitage – a 19th century residence that houses temporary exhibitions, – looking forward to a quiet afternoon in the company of paintings I love.
My hopes for an undisturbed hour are dashed when I see the queue at the Hermitage, whose length and character compare with those I’ve seen at Uffizi in Florence and Brera in Milan – what are all these people doing at a Hopper exhibition in Switzerland? It turns out that this Saturday is ‘The Museum Night’ in Lausanne, when twenty-three local galleries are open until early hours of Sunday. A single ticket – priced 11 Euros – offers admission to all the galleries, and provides access to transport linking the galleries. For the common man, the occasional follower of art, this is a chance for a crash course: in one day you could make up for all the omissions of the past year, like a lazy believer who keeps his tryst with God once a year during Christmas. So they have all turned up, fathers and mothers with their children in tow, old ladies with their poodles on a leash, middle-aged men with a hat and a newspaper.
Unsurprisingly, the experience is a disappointment. The small rooms are crowded and noisy; there is no space and quiet for reflection. And yet, amidst this humdrum, I find some moments of delight and inspiration.
2. The eternal moment
I first learned about Hopper in The art of travel, a book by Alain De Botton. The book contained some some black & white reproductions of paintings showing the solitary traveller (Hotel Room; Compartment C, car 293), and these frames intrigued me, made me look for more. At the local library I found a work on Hopper; soon a Taschen book with larger prints of his works entered my collection. Along the way, as my interest in Hopper has grown, I’ve tried to understand the reasons behind this fascination.
Hopper’s paintings deal with the reality of day-to-day life, a world we still recognize today, more than half a century after they were painted. I can easily relate to that world: I’ve been in that hotel room, reading a book, alone; I’ve seen that woman sitting alone in a train compartment, reading. So here was 20th century art completely different from all that usually goes under the label of ‘modern art’ – mostly inaccessible to me – and yet modern in its pursuit of simplicity and minimalism.
Photography is another reason: Hopper’s paintings seem like carefully composed photographs. (Or like what photographs should be but seldom are.) They capture a quality that is the opposite of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive moment – in Hopper the moment is endless: the characters in Nighthawks are not going anywhere; the woman in Compartment C, car 293 is sitting in that car through the night; the woman in City Sunlight could sit facing the sun endlessly. Movement, even when it is suggested, seems like an endless repetition, something that could go on for eternity: the man in Night Shadows is part of the landscape – he may go away, but will return; the lady in Room in New York could go on playing that single note on the piano, while the man continues to sit there reading his newspaper. Like Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, Hopper’s works suggest a life of infinite recurrence; his characters lives are, as Schopenhauer put it, “like clockworks that are wound up and then go, without knowing why.”
3. On capturing a Hopperian moment
In portraying the American city of the mid-twentieth century, Hopper captured its impersonality through isolated individuals in common urban surroundings. This condition – of individual isolation in large, impersonal cities – persists even today, and I’ve wondered how one could explore it through photographs.
The above photograph was taken in Prague, on a weekend where I spent a lot of time in cafes. The young woman and the old man were engaged in a conversation that didn’t subside in the hour I spent at the cafe. What was the relationship here? Was the old man her grandpa? Papa? What were they talking so much about? Why in a cafe?
This heavily doctored – and poorly composed – photograph may have similarities with Chop Suey or New York Restaurant, but it also clearly shows what is missing. There isn’t any of the isolation you see in Hopper’s work. There is no distance or tension between the two characters: they appear well connected, “in sync”. And there’s too much fine detail in the background.
Further, in these days of mobile phones and iPods, how do you capture a moment of solitude or disconnectedness? When cities are polluted with details trying to grab your attention, how can you portray simplicity and minimalism? All this suggests the challenge in taking a Hopper-like photo, but there is more to the mystery than these obvious aspects.
Hopper’s paintings of isolated individuals have a dual character: the intimacy of the interior (hotel rooms, compartment cars, cafes, office rooms) and a hint of the impersonal exterior (an understated glimpse of that world through a window, or through the observer’s perspective, or merely through the suggestion of light from outside). It is this dual nature, this interplay of two worlds and the tension it brings, that is hard to capture in photographs.
4. Morning Sun
On the second floor of the Hermitage exhibition, at the end of a long room lined with paintings, the wall facing the entrance has just one frame showing a woman sitting on her bed, bathed in the sunlight reaching her from the window she is facing. The light is fresh, intense; the woman, though fully awake, appears lost in thought; the sheets show no traces of another person sharing her bed; the long, dark shadows present a stark contrast to the sunlight, which makes the overall effect dazzling, nothing like the poor reproductions I’ve seen in postcards and books. I stand there for a few minutes, while people squeeze past me to read the title next to the painting: Morning Sun, 1952.
Nearby, on an adjacent wall there hangs a study Hopper made for Morning Sun. The pencilled figure is surrounded by lines leading to remarks on light and colour:
– Warm reflection
– legs cooler than arms
– light against wall shadow
– cooler green
– cool halftone
– cool reflections from sheet
– cool shadow
– dark against wall
– pink toes
– reflected light
I go back to the painting and look for traces of “reflected light” or “cool shadow”, trying to connect the intention to the effect, but what strikes me again is the painting as a whole. The woman may be alone, but I think she likes it. She likes the morning sun on her, she does not wish to be anywhere else, she wishes she could sit there forever. It is yet another eternal moment.