His subjects ranged from glum to glummer — but look beyond the wistful views and Edward Hopper’s work has a glorious strength. By Waldemar Januszczak
A stroll through the Hopper display that has now arrived at the unimpeachably progressive Tate Modern certainly brings you face to face with the sullen architectural moods that continue to dominate New York today. Go for an amble up Third Avenue on a sunny Sunday morning and you will encounter exactly the sights that Hopper immortalised in 1930, in his fabulous architectural lament upon a row of deserted Sunday stores. Nobody around. The sun turning the brownstones red. The fire hydrant. The blue sky. They will all be there for you.
This is easy to spot, because the Tate has set out to make Hopper a painter of archi- tecture. Nominally, the first big Hopper show in Britain for 20 years is a retrospective, and it contains examples of all his largely interchangeable phases. There’s early work, middle work, late work and so on. But no exhibition, least of all a retrospective, is merely a parade of pictures, chronologically sorted. The shaping mind of the curator is always seeking a rat run through the bigger mass. And this show’s shaping mind is after Hopper’s relationship with buildings.
The first painting in the display is an empty staircase, observed in Paris in 1906; the last is an empty room in Massachusetts through which the seaside sun is flooding in 1963. In between, we encounter plenty of unhappy Americans imprisoned in Hopper’s melancholy architecture. Yet remove these silent witnesses from their glum rooms and their empty theatres, and the paintings’ meanings could survive without them.
Or so the show would have us believe. It is certainly true that Hopper was fascinated from the beginning by the sensations of places: unhappy places. That exquisitely skilful first picture he painted in Paris in 1906 shows the top of a stair, beyond which stands a closed door. It’s dark. There’s some weak light on the bannister. And that’s it. Yet far from being uninteresting or empty, the tiny picture involves you so forcefully in its acute urban loneliness that looking at it becomes exciting. A trespass. An experience. The creak of the floorboards. The smell of the communal hallway. The mood of living alone. Hopper’s Parisian staircase evokes all of them instantly.
How typical of Hopper to travel all the way from New York to Paris in order to find the same utterly tangible urban glumness he always found everywhere. In Paris, he was at the epicentre of the progressive art world at a moment of fabulous historical glamour — Picasso was about to invent cubism; Matisse had just invented fauvism — yet all this son of a store-owner from Nyack, NY, seeks to do is to skulk about on dark staircases, gorging himself on imported twilight.
The fact is that Hopper had only one mood, and this glum mood is the one he always travelled with, as others travel with a favourite hairbrush. His Parisian staircase could have been painted in Brooklyn with little noticeable difference. And my guess is that if you stuck this guy in front of the Taj Mahal on a sunny Indian afternoon, he would still manage to conjure a dingy Manhattan loneliness out of the sights before him, with shadows streaking across it and some alienated American loser at the centre, remembering a hope that got away.
Hopper is abroad only for a few paintings. Then Paris is out of the way and we are in among the instantly familiar offices at night, the underpopulated diners, the seedy hotel rooms and the miserable off-Broadway front rows of Hopperland, NY. The fact that these sights are so fantastically familiar is partly Hopper’s doing — but it is also the result of all that relentless movie melodrama that 20th-century New York was involved in and submitted itself to. The point is that it is a fantasy, a projection, a state of mind. Just as Hopper turns Paris into Brooklyn, so he turns Brooklyn into Hopperland. The lone- liness, the noirish moods, the erotic charge, the doomy way the light falls, are Hopper’s inventions. And the central paradox of his achievement is that the sights we assume to be so realistic are so damned made-up.
To prove it, this unusually intelligent exhibition singles out a couple of Hopper’s best-known images for special attention. Office at Night, the one of the secretary in a tight skirt filing some stuff before her boss, is accompanied by a set of preparatory drawings in which Hopper fiddles this way and that with the space, going outside the window and then back in again, seeking exactly the right pregnancy for the occasion. He is trying to imply that the relationship between the secretary and her boss has an erotic charge. But where best to place her in the room to achieve this? Where best to put him? What angle to look at them from? The same process of fiddling with the props and playing with the camera angles went into the creation of Hopper’s out-landishly famous Nighthawks, that overlit diner with four people in it and nobody saying a word. Hopper did drawings of the correct salt and pepper pots to have on the bar. He worked on the coffee urns, the hand placements. He calculated the correct angle for the diner’s window to intersect with the street. He planned this painting as accurately as an architect might design an extension. And, cleverly, the next picture you encounter is a view of an empty station at night that is based on an identical geo- metry to Nighthawks. The point that Hopper was a spawner of melodramas and not a realist is excellently made.
Hopper was a late developer. Working for 15 years as a commercial illustrator, he did not commit himself to the life of an artist until he was in his forties. So he arrived at the artistic coalface with all his readings and prejudices in place. I think this explains why there was so little sense of actual progress in his work. How he starts is pretty much how he finishes up. The show tries to instil some light and shade into this non-journey by coming up with clusters of favoured locales, but essentially, the only real development that occurs in a tight-assed 60-year career is when Hopper and his wife begin taking summer vacations in Cape Cod, and a seaside sadness emerges to partner Hopper’s Manhattan miserableness. Being glum by the sea and being glum on Lexington Avenue are his only alternatives.
Being hard on him, we need to recognise this as a shortcoming. Plenty of good artists have had only one mode, but all the truly great ones have managed more than that. Hopper found his manner and stuck with it, as if making art were an attack of lockjaw. His other serious shortcoming was his clumsiness with figures. How strange that some artists who are able to capture the most elusive outdoor atmospheres cannot do people. Turner was another one. There are clunkily painted people throughout this show. Wooden. Unsmiling. Small wonder that the exhibition seeks to foreground Hopper the painter of moody architecture.
Still, this strikes me as an important display. It isn’t just a catchy urban America that is being invented here. What is also being proposed is a new type of pictorial heroism: the heroism of failure. At some point in its cultural stalling, the world began to confuse inertia, impotence, poky hotel rooms and losers with things to look up to. It’s a world-view imported from America. And Edward Hopper, as we see throughout this superbly judged journey, was an iconic creator of that world-view.