Friday, April 26, 2013

           Edward Hopper At the Movies
            [Scenes Without Scenarios]


Edward Hopper...perhaps twentieth-century America's most uniquely urban and desolate realist...wasn't a sociable man...even his wife, Jo, said so. She said when she
tried to introduce "Eddie" to her friends,
he just wouldn't "make nice", and he simply had no interest in meeting and interacting with "new" people.

Edward's real passions in life were painting and reading(especially Ralph Waldo Emerson)...two of the most "unsociable" activities known to humankind. As Hopper's much younger fellow-realist artist, Andrew Wyeth, remarked..."I would never let anybody watch me would be like somebody watching you have sex - painting is that personal to me".Painting was that "personal" to Edward Hopper,too.And he took painting... this most unsociable of personal engagements...very seriously throughout his entire artistic oeuvre.
He also told those who persistently asked (like art critics and reviewers) that everything there was to know about him was in his paintings..."The whole answer is there on the canvas".Once even when he was asked by an interviewer what he was after in one of his starkest paintings,he simply answered,"I'm after me".

However, Hopper did give us one simply
written "Statement" about his approach to his painting in 1953 when he submitted a "handwritten note" to the journal, Reality. His remarks provide telling insight into his artistic "modus operandi":

             Great art is the outward 
             expression of an inner life
             in the artist, and this inner
             life will result in his personal
             vision of the world. No amount
             of skillful invention can replace
             the essential element of 
             imagination. One of the weak-
             nesses of much abstract 
             painting is the attempt to 
             substitute the inventions of
             the human intellect for a 
             private imaginative conception.

              The inner life of a human
              being is a vast and varied
              realm and does not concern
              itself alone with stimulating
              arrangements of color, form
              and design.

Even earlier in 1939, Hopper revealed
a deeper "way into"much of his highly personal,  individualized,and characteristically "unsociable" paintings..."So much of 
every art is an expression of the subconscious that it seems to me most of all the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect". 

As unsociable and "uncommunicative"
to strangers as Edward Hopper was throughout his life, he also loved going to "the movies". He once said:"When I don't feel in the mood for painting, I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge!"Hopper, we can imagine, was "a solitary figure" in the movie theater... just "looking"...probably without any social interaction with "the others" in the theater.

An early grisaille painting of Hopper's done when he was in his early twenties and evolving his painting style and thematics..."Solitary Figure in a Theatre",c.1903...already captures much of Hopper's later cinematic painting scenes of lone figures "looking"...looking in and looking out...reading,engaged in inner ruminations,looking out windows in hotel rooms,offices and trains...all existentially isolated in their own introspection, and engaged in "transcendental silence". 

Edward Hopper,Solitary Figure in a Theatre,c.1902-4,oil on board,Whitney Museum of American Art,New York

This smallish monochromatic oil painting "on board" may just be Hopper's first visual "meditation" on the engrossing introspective silence of the early "black and white" silent movies of the time...the first full-length movie with integrated sound did not appear until 1927.Also,as Antonia Lant notes in her essay,"The Film Crowd",Moving Pictures American Art and Early Film 1880-1910,Hopper as an artist was undoubtedly "drawn to the dawn of cinema for its intrigue of a new sensory culture".
Later in the 1930s,Hopper became fascinated with "film noir",and he was influenced by its cinematography and the most essential aspect of filmmaking..."the frame".In addition to "framing",his paintings and cinematic approach to them,share many formal dimensions with film noir such as lighting,the play of light and shadow,color saturation,tonal texture,scale,angles of view and vision and...preeminently...the human form and figure.

Edward Hopper,The Balcony,or The Movies,1928 (Drypoint etching,13x17 inches)Whitney Museum of American Art,New York

Diane Arbus,photograph,In The Balcony Empire Theater,42nd Street,New York City, 1958

It is revealing to contrast Edward Hopper's early "film noir" focus in his etching,The Balcony, on the introspective woman on the right with her hand on the side of her face,and on the nuanced play of light and shadow,especially on the light coming from the three-pronged light sconce across from this woman,and on the "high-angle,mildly vertiginous" perspective from the uppermost gallery ... with the much later photographer Diane Arbus's In The Balcony Empire Theater,42nd Street,New York City, 1958.Arbus's Balcony photograph creates an entirely different "communal" focus,with a very different lighting,angle of vision and sense of the goings-on of the"hoi polloi"...of the activity of "the boys" in the balcony.

Already in Hopper's 1928 drypoint,The Balcony,rather than a sense of the crowd's "energy and activity" in the movie theater,Hopper  again captures a solitary individual in a "brooding and silent interior" which conveys a "sense of being sealed off from the outside world".All of Hopper's interior movie theaters are "hushed realms...closer to museums or libraries" than to places filled with speech,music and sounds.

An artist contemporary with Hopper,and who Hopper admired, and even wrote about,and who also studied with Hopper's greatly admired painting teacher,Robert Henri... was John French Sloan.Robert Henri and John Sloan were both major figures among the so-called Ashcan school of realist artists.And Sloan,like Hopper,both of whom Henri advised as students at the New York School of Art, to "go to the theater",was drawn to the early silent "black and white" movies. But Sloan depicted in his 1907 oil painting,Movies,Five Cents, a markedly different movie theater "interior" from those characteristically "suspended moments" captured in Hopper's "silent theatrum mundi" paintings.

   John Sloan,Movies,Five Cents, 
                 oil on canvas,1907
In Sloan's painting,Movies,Five Cents, we see a "new urban phenomenon" and space...the cheap nickelodeon, or as one writer called it, "the nickel dump".
Sloan's emphasis in his movie theater painting is on the "unruly miscellany" of the audience in a cheap Greenwich Village venue...a democratic,integrated,diverse audience of moviegoers consisting of a range of classes,genders and races.

Sloan's movie theater is a small,crowded,warm,physically intimate communal "site of sociality", and of implicit eroticism and titilating sexuality...both on,and off,the movie screen.It is a place of shared pleasurable experience,and shared escape into the romantic idyll on the movie screen.

Sloan focuses on the individual activity and responses of the audience the lower half of the painting we see a man slumped over asleep,possibly intoxicated, next to him is a young black woman in a funky hat clasping her chest as if experiencing a cinematic frisson brought on by the  bench kissing scene on the movie screen,in front of them are two women in elegant immersed in the black-and-white kissing scene, the other turned away from the screen,perhaps looking in amusement at the slumped over man behind her,or at us...the viewers of the painting,a man and another  woman wearing an extravagantly plumed hat enter the theater on the right side of the painting "in media res" to be the early days of silent movies,moviegoers could enter into the movie theater at any time during the movie...hence the origin of the expression,"this is where I came in"!

Sloan's painting is a humorous,almost Hogarthian satirical depiction of the "human comedy" in all its faux finery and gaudy splendor, enjoying "cheap thrills" in the dark.His painting,Movies, Five Cents, is a far cry from the "suspended introspective" movie theater interior found in Edward Hopper's greatest movie theater painting,New York Movie.

Leading up to Hopper's 1939 "magnum opus" movie theater painting,New York Movie, were his two other impressive movie theater paintings:The Circle Theatre completed in 1936, and The Sheridan Theatre completed in 1937.

Edward Hopper,The Circle Theatre,                                                                                                    
     oil on canvas,27x36 in.,1936

Hopper's 1936 exterior painting of The Circle Theatre is almost like a sharper,less fluid 1960s Richard Diebenkorn abstracted architectural "cityscape"...while the "theater is the nominal subject of the painting and its central presence, is incorporated into an ensemble of forms" and muted colors punctuated by the bright red stop light on the lower right side of the painting.

Richard Diebenkorn,Cityscape I,1963,
                oil on canvas
As so often in Hopper's paintings,we are as observers of the painting...looking and seeing,but ultimately our vision is frustrated.In  The Circle Theatre,our vision into the theatre entrance is "blocked" by a solid black subway kiosk,and the dark lobby doors suggest that the theater is not open for business.Hopper has chosen a subject, The Circle Theatre, which he does not let us fully and satisfyingly "see".

Rather than all of the "energy and activity" the artist, John Sloan associates with "the social role of moviegoing and movie theaters in modern urban life", Edward Hopper depicts a deserted,immobilized,and almost dehumanized surrogate urban "church without a congregation".

"Minimally" foreshadowing his most complex and powerful movie theater painting,New York Movie,Hopper places one lone,diminutive, solitary female figure standing static and immobilized on the sidewalk in front of an ornate theater she lost in her own personal reverie about the movie currently showing at The Circle she passing time waiting for someone to join she too broke to even buy a ticket when the theatre opens?

The bright white and soft blue sky above the The Circle Theatre suggest that it is early morning(a favorite time of day for Hopper) before the Theatre, and the Drugs and Soda shop, and other shops next to the theater have opened for business.

Hopper's solitary "early morning" woman stopped before the movie theater marquee also evokes this passage from a poem,Morning Sea, by the Greek modernist poet of Alexandria,Constantine P. Cavafy:

                Here let me stop.Let me
                pretend that these are what
                I see (I really saw them for a      
               moment when I first stopped)
                instead of seeing, even here, 
                my fantasies, my
                recollections, the icons of

Typically, in The Circle Theatre, a quintessential Hopper painting,as in so many others by Hopper,there is no explicit narrative...but there is an enormous emotional and imaginative suggestion of a "hidden story".

By the 1930s, especially in New York City, there was a thriving American movie culture, and to satisfy the throngs of moviegoers who went to the movies every week,there were,in addition to the cheap,small and cramped nickelodeon venues, numerous spacious, exotic, ornate "palaces of cinematic pleasure" like the Sheridan Theatre in Greenwich Village.The Sheridan Theatre on West 12th Street,just blocks from Hopper's studio apartment at 3 Washington Square North, epitomized the luxurious movie palace of the early twentieth century.

This "temple of the cinema art" was "a neighborhood theatre with a metropolitan, cosmopolitan and suburban patronage" that attracted all classes of people.

The Exhibitors Trade Review observed that the "the Sheridan's Sunday audiences embrace the commuter from Morristown, New Jersey, the Bronxvillan, the Harlemite and the downtowner; the artist, the collector, the fancier, in his limousine, the folk of the stage, idle on the Sabbath, and the worker from lower New York".

 Edward Hopper, The Sheridan Theatre,
              1937,oil on canvas
Hopper had a meticulous preparatory process for his paintings, and his 1937 painting, The Sheridan Theatre, was no exception. He made eleven drawings for this painting using his wife and fellow artist, Josephine (Jo) Nivison Hopper as a model for the primary female figure in his painting.These drawings clearly show how Hopper's initial ideas for this painting evolved:the most important female figure starting off as a skinny flapper wearing a long coat and cloche hat.

Hopper creates in his painting of The Sheridan movie palace,which he frequented with his wife, a Piranesian layered view of the swooping, curving balcony and the ornate lighting fixtures(one writer calls "weird glowing excrescences") and ornate railing.

Resting with her arms leaning on the top of the ornate railing, stands a Rubenesque blonde woman with chunky hips in a red skirt(red usually indicative of sexual energy in Hopper).She is standing in a rather languorous pose with her left knee bent forward and her breast resting against the top portion of the railing.She is wearing what appears to be a black fur collar and a matching large black fur hat which tilts forward.Her head and hat are illuminated by an upsweeping pillar of light giving her head a "radiant aura".It's as if Hopper has given us a transcendental vision of a  "Madonna" of the cinematic dark...with his alluring,"world of the flesh" interior in  his surrogate "church"...the modern day movie palace of pleasure.

Hopper visually creates in The Sheridan Theatre a sense of exotic strangeness and mystery, as well as a sense of suspended animation,sublime stillness and quietude,and social isolation. This is a sybaritic church conspicuous by its lack of a communal congregation,and a lack of social activity and interaction.Hopper himself, it seems, found "the shadowy darkness of a movie theater a revitalizing reprieve from the social demands of life in the crowded metropolis".

The sanctuaries and meditative spaces that Hopper found in the Greenwich Village and downtown movie palaces which he frequented were fertile realms of imaginative and creative inspiration for him. And his many visits to these New York City movie palaces, especially to the Palace Theater in Times Square,over a period of several months in late 1938 slowly evolved through 53 preparatory sketches and studies into the greatest cinema interior ever painted...his New York Movie.

He sketched the foyers, stairways and auditoriums of his favorite movie palaces, and he sketched his wife,Jo, in various poses standing under a lamp in the hall of their Greenwich Village apartment, and finally in January, 1939 Hopper completed his most complex and powerful cinematic painting.

Edward Hopper, New York Movie,1939
 oil on canvas,Museum of Modern Art,
 New York City

New York Movie is Hopper's most "cinematic" of his movie theater compositions, and its structure uses an emotionally evocative dual "montage"
effect which juxtaposes a close-up on the right side of the painting with a shot into deep space on the left side of the painting.

Hopper establishes a complex interrelationship between the two contrasting sides of the painting with the ornate orange lighting of the darkened theater interior on the left, and the orange lighting of the three-pronged sconce over the head of the female usherette on the right.

Hopper also creates a powerfully resonant emotional duality in his New York Movie montage between the two isolated figures sitting in two different rows in the darkened theater who are looking at and engrossed by the unreal reality of the blurry gray-and-white, barely visible movie image,escaping into the fantasy world of the movie, and the absorptive ,personal immersion of the attractive blonde usherette who is lost in her own personal reverie and fantasy.

As is often the case in Hopper's interior paintings with female figures in them, the slender,young,attractive usherette exudes a certain latent sexuality especially in her sexy,strappy black high heels and red-striped pants.This rather slinky-looking young woman resting against the wall under the orange light of the three-pronged sconce, and absorbed in her own inner thoughts, and perhaps even fantasies, disinterested and detached from the two figures and the movie fantasy inside the darkened theater, embodies
the "erotico-metaphysics" of desire which is both the effect of movies and of  
paintings(Leonard Michaels,"The Nothing That Is Not There").Leonard Michaels in his wildly imaginative interpretation of New York Movie,sees Hopper's painting as an exploration of "the relation between desire and what isn't there".

Hopper's "magnum opus", New York Movie, as so many other of his paintings, evokes myriad interpretations because he never gives us,the viewers, a narrative resolution in his scenes.Movie director, Sam Mendes(American Beauty) is one of the many moviemakers including Hitchcock, Terrence Malick, and Wim Wenders,who have found poetic and cinematic inspiration in Hopper's paintings.

Mendes finds New York Movie especially evocative because of Hopper's skillful lighting of his scene. He says the "fact that her face is partially obscured creates a sense of loneliness and desolation.You begin to invent your own story from the imagination in the world of the painting".

Viewers of New York Movie are inspired to imagine what the usherette is thinking or feeling..."compositionally, Hopper constantly ensures that your imaginary eye is guided off the frame of the picture"(Mendes).

Artistically, Edward Hopper stands alone among American artists of the 20th- century as a bold individualist..he reflectively said of himself, "I probably am a lonely one".

He died in his Greenwich Village studio on May 15, 1967..."a solitary figure" in American art with an unwavering, independent vision of the isolated introspection of the human soul.      


 Edward Hopper in Robert Henri's Life Drawing class at the New York School 
of Art, 1903-4

Edward Hopper in his Greenwich Village studio,1938 during the time he was painting his series of movie theater paintings.

    Edward Hopper, Studies for New York Movie, 1938 or 1939, chalk on paper,Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Edward Hopper at his home in Truro,Cape Cod towards the end of his life,in his early eighties,his wife,Jo,is in the background - as she was in life.

For Further Reading:

1.Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper,Walter Wells, the definitive monograph.

2.On the Edge of Your Seat,Popular Theater and Film in Early Twentieth-Century American Art,Patricia McDonnell.

3.Moving Pictures,American Art and Early Film 1880-1910, Nancy Mowll Mathews.

4.Edward Hopper and the American Imagination,Deborah Lyons,et all,editors.              

5.Edward Hopper THE ART AND THE ARTIST,Gail Levin,Whitney Museum of American Art,1980.