At times he attracts us; at others he repels. From one point of view he is a genius; from another he may appear a sham or even a poor fool. Such is the feeling, always ambivalent, aroused by Edward Hopper, now in an extensive exhibition at the Thyssen Museum, which is well worth a visit, until September 16.
But what is so wrong with this painting that for some of us it seems so equivocal? The immediate, perhaps the right answer is that it seems so predetermined as to border on falsity, so affected that we fear a trick. Indeed, at times his card-sharp artifice takes us in; at others his prim exactitude distances us, as from something hollow. Painting of solitude? Canvases of desolation? Might they not be just prefabricated emotions? Are they not, in fact, nothing but careful simulacra?
No one, of course, would venture to speak of vulgar or photographic simulacra, or doubt his meticulous professionalism, so assimilated as to be second nature. Yet we are not, as he claims in his writings on paintings, looking at intimate "impressions" made on the artist, but at effects actuated by the desire to cause an impression on the sight. Hence, surely, the fact that his handling of light is more numerical than pictorial: in short, more luminotechnical than spontaneous or humanistic.
Hopper brings desperation and pain to the screen; draws out the nocturnal darkness of the human wound and, in short, renders us the service of suffering in simulacrum"
Hopper's ardent defenders fall into this facile paradox: they are thrilled by the very frigidity of his representations, which give you the sort of thrill that ice itself gives when held a few seconds against the skin.
For this reason, the more or less sustained viewing of a Hopper painting becomes practically impossible. Suddenly everything is completely seen and you have to flee. The surface contains everything to be seen, as if instead of being induced into some more attractive and interesting depth, the senses bounced off the surface and the matter represented were no more than a cartoon. This hypothesis would explain why every analysis of his work, whoever the exegetist, is so repeatedly the same.
Almost all Hopper's paintings, or at least those which in the 1920s brought him fame, are like photos of a human theme minutely prepared for portrayal. Or, from another angle, they are portraits of a reality previously mannered. A reality mannered in line with an idea that craves effect, rather than the communication of creative drive. And, from this point of view, they suffer from a lack of naturalness, as much as do the performances of some dramatic actors who, craving for further conquest of the spectator's emotions, descend to unbearably grotesque scenes.
Hopper is more elegant and never approaches the ridiculous, but is not thereby any more true. Indeed there would be no more direct way of judging his later production than by putting his success down to the enthused reactions of the wider public.
From his easel paintings to the cinema super-poster there are only a couple of steps, and the commentators' agreement that his paintings are like stills from a great urban movie only corroborates this view.
This said, Hopper is a fine pleasure to the senses. And the more pain the finer. Hopper brings desperation and pain to the screen; draws out the nocturnal darkness of the human wound and, in short, renders us the service of suffering in simulacrum.
To see Hopper's figures suffer, always alone and in silence, comforts us. It comforts us so much that from the Thyssen exhibition we emerge delivered as from a chronic ailment, and even sensibly strengthened.
Here, then, is the best of this American artist. In his canvases he simplifies the wrinkled crannies of love or pain, leaving us presentations emotionally as flat as the surfaces of his stage-scene architecture.