I’ve always loved the paintings of Edward Hopper. I remember seeing a major retrospective of his work at the MoMA a number of years ago. When I sat before Night Hawks, for perhaps twenty minutes, my daughter asked me, “What are you seeing?”
What a terrific question! For a long time, I’ve wondered if my answer made any sense. Even today, I’m not convinced that it satisfied either of us. Of course, I saw the subject matter, the composition and the “flat” colour. But something else had captured and riveted my attention.
Not until I bought the book “Edward Hopper” and read the article in it entitled “Night Hawks: Transcending Reality,” by Judith A. Barter did I realize how important the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung were to this artist.
All artists have many influences on them and their work. The French Impressionists and particularly the Surrealist painters, such as Dali and De Chirico, created hundreds of marvellous dream-scapes. Although he brought a sense of his own country, America, to his art, Hopper was greatly influenced by their creation of European dream-like worlds.
Personally, I’ve never been that fond of Dali probably because some of his paintings are a bit too “creepy” and rather bizarre for my taste. But some are great like the Dali clocks sliding down over rocks! As an aside, apparently, Dali painted Freud’s portrait and was delighted to be termed a fanatic by the good doctor.
De Chirico’s work is far more attractive to me. He certainly is good at creating a vague [or not so vague] sense of menace. A copy of this painting of a young girl, with a hoop, hung on a den wall in my childhood home. Fascinated by a sense of doom, I spent hours pondering the fate of that little girl. I think that’s when I began looking for meaning [hidden or otherwise] in all art.
The beginning of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time especially in terms of discoveries about science and the psyche. Freud and Jung expounded their theories and grappled with art to understand the creative process. Physicist were discovering that the world was not as solid as previously thought and that time [Yes! Think of Dali] might only be a concept not a tangible fact. Amidst all these revelations, the Surrealists were expressing, in visual terms, all they could about the psyche. And–Hopper was greatly influenced by the new trends of thought especially those of Jung about the unconscious.
“Art is… constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is more lacking.” Carl Gustav Jung.
So…it’s the artist’s job to find the images in his own unconscious psyche which society needs in order to compensate for values which it lacks. Somehow, he or she must descend into a very dark cellar [likely bottomless and crammed with “stuff”] without a flashlight, all to find what society [or better still what humankind] most needs! Don’t you think that’s a rather tall order Dr. Jung?
In the two paintings above, Hopper captured a sense of America’s spirit in its industrialized urban settings and rural landscapes.I think there is something haunted about them especially the gas station. How many ghosts can you count in these paintings?
Here, the woman seated in the cafeteria seems concentrated on something not in the picture. Is she thinking of a home and husband she has left–for whatever reason? The surrounding darkness speaks of her total isolation. And look at the usher in the theatre. How sad, lonely and isolated she seems! Have you ever seen a more introspective person? In the darkened movie theatre, her concentrated gaze is definitely deeply turned inward. If you were to approach her, she would likely jump out of her skin!
This is not the America of Norman Rockwell! If you’d like to read a comparison of those two artists it’s right here. The American Dream [written by Alexander Wainwright]. Although Hopper and Rockwell painted at approximately the same time, their worlds are portrayed entirely differently. Rockwell presents his view of American society as an idealized vision–what everyone wants to believe. In his art, people seem happy and contented living in a community.
Hopper’s paintings bear little resemblance in either style, technique or subject matter to these other artists. My guess is that all these artists are all creating other kinds of “worlds”. Dali and De Chirico create fanciful dreamscapes, In contrast, Rockwell idealizes. Hopper is more subtle. You just know or sense he has created beneath or beyond his scene another dimension which could well be dream.
Hopper said, “So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious…the important qualities [of the work] are put there unconsciously.”
In his art I’ll bet you can see the shadows and the skewed perspectives creating the sense of some other world which does not exist in waking life. His strong horizontal lines in his compositions push the eye to the very edges of the canvas to drop off into another place.
My answer to my daughter at the time was “I’m looking at whatever is behind or beyond the painting.” After years of enjoying Hopper’s work, I probably still have this same answer. The composition, the use of colour and the subject matter create a sense of something lying beyond of behind the work. I expect that Hopper intended this effect given his thoughts on the relationship of art to the subconscious. I think he somehow depicted the visual reality of the subconscious which must be extremely hard to do.
Night Hawks was instantly a big hit because, I think, it intimately touched a part of the viewer and he or she did not know why or how. They just instantly knew that it did. Maybe it’s like music which enters directly into the spirit. We don’t have to stop to analyze it. We are just instantly and powerfully affected by it. It’s like an amazingly beautiful dream created by the highly inventive subconscious.
In his musings about art and the creative process, Hopper seemed to envision a two way street. The artist took in all his surroundings—everything contained in it—and chose from it what he wanted. That material entered him and he reacted to it with all that resided in his interior being. Then he expressed that culmination of exterior and interior on the canvas. Fair to say that the unconscious produced the art? Likely so.
In so doing, Hopper froze a moment in time which combined his interior and exterior worlds. In freezing a moment. the challenge for the artist might be to avoid “killing” or draining the life out of the art just by expressing it. All too easy to choose something to represent another thing and thereby kill that original thing.
Example? The artist wants to convey a feeling of seasonal love and happiness and and so paints half a dozen Christmas trees as symbolizing that feeling. But as a result, he only succeeds in creating a bunch of static representations of what he wanted to convey–a time of love and compassion. His imagination and unconscious could have helped him out.
In his musings on art, Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist spoke of this problem.
“What the artist must render is a living moment somehow, a living moment actually in action or an inward experience.”
But Hopper, I think, accomplishes this by taking the people in Night Hawks or the woman in the theatre or diner and invests them with his own being—that is whatever came from his subconscious. The beauty of the subconscious is that it contributes its own life to the work and saves it from being deadened.
On a personal note, Hopper’s paintings led me to the creation of a character—a landscape artist, Alexander Wainwright—who entranced his viewers with his visions of the beyond. Throughout The Trilogy of Remembrance, Alexander Wainwright is in constant search of his muse, his light and whatever his beyond might contain. In writing those novels [shown below] I found great satisfaction in exploring these sorts of questions about art, life and love.
What do you think? Has art—any art ever affected you so deeply that it moved you to some action in your own life?
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Presently, The Drawing Lesson is a Wattpad Featured novel which you can read in its entirety right here Wattpad.com