The news that Edward Hopper’s 1929 piece, “Chop Suey” had been auctioned for $91.9 million, got me thinking about his work.
Like most people, I’ve been aware of Hopper’s work as the sort of iconic representation of America that is nodded at in arty movies and finds its way on to the covers of long-in-print books that want to lay a claim to being literature. I thought of his paintings as stylish, moody and American but I also rather took them for granted.
In 2010, I finally had the opportunity to see Hopper’s work up close. The Fondation de l’Herimatgein Lausanne hosted a major Hopper exhibition, showing paintings from throughout his life.
L’Hermitageis a beautiful nineteenth-century Lausannoise villa, set in its own parkland on a hill overlooking Lausanne. Most of the rooms have high ceilings and are flooded with light.
Seeing so many Hopper paintings in one place was overwhelming. I was amazed to see that this man, who I thought of as a kind of Raymond Chandler in oils, had been painting in Paris in 1908 and had still been painting things that I loved. in the 1960s. My wife and I spent a long time walking through the exhibition, taking in the way Hopper saw the world.
Two of his paintings, both new to me, stayed with me, nesting in my head the way the best short stories do.
I found myself standing in front of “Seven A.M.” for some time without being entirely sure why. It’s a painting of a storefront. A closed storefront at that. What’s to see?
Yet it demanded that I look at it and as I looked, I realised, it was the idea of those woods pressing in against the storefront, that was calling to me.
My experience of being a Brit travelling in America has been one of constant surprise at the small but important differences between the two countries. Some of these differences are like loose threads: you pull on them, meaning to tidy things up, and your whole understanding starts to unravel. “Seven A.M.” pulled me back to one of those differences: how lightly small towns in rural America sit on the land.
I was taken back to one of my first trips to New England in the early eighties. We were leaf-watching in New Hampshire. Outside our cute clapboard, porch-wrapped North Conway B&B , a road crew was working. As I watched them peel back the tarmac I saw that beneath the thin layer of road there was nothing but earth. If you dig up a street in the town I live in, you’re likely to find more street. It’s built upon all the versions of itself that have been here for the past five hundred years or so. North Conway, pleasant, civilised, wealthy North Conway, was over two hundred years old when I was there and yet it was still sitting like icing on the wilderness.
The woods in “Seven A.M.”, taking up forty per cent of the picture and positioned on the left, so that the eye reads them before it reaches the white-painted storefront, seem to me to be a reminder of the town as a clearing, momentarily hold back a forest that waits patiently to reclaim the land when the town fails.
The storefront is well-maintained but mostly empty. It’s clean but not vibrant. It’s full of straight lines and the uniform shadows that straight lines create. Of course, it’s seven a.m. so the store is not yet open. it’s dormant in a way the trees next to it never are.
I felt the painting was showing me that the town was imposed on the land by an act of will that needed to be renewed constantly. It was asking me which lifted my spirit more, the irregular shadows of the living wood or the razor-straight shadows of the store. I don’t think the painting took sides. I think it accepts that they both call to us.
I’m probably over-reading this. Someone else, looking at the same painting up close may see something quite different and find what I see to be a fanciful projection. They’d be right. What I found was that Hopper’s work invited me to place myself within his pictures, to be curious and engaged, to embrace the idea that almost anything is worth looking at more closely.
For me, the online versions of “Carolina Morning” lack the vibrancy and power that I felt when looking at the real painting. Sometimes you meet a person and you’re aware of their charisma long before you can track its source. It’s not their good looks or their words, it’s something about who they are that has grabbed you. “Carolina Morning” was like that.
Of course, my eyes were caught and held by the woman in the doorway. I wanted to know her story. Her bright red dress and hat and her heels seem out of place in this rural setting. She’s the only woman of colour I’ve seen in any of Hopper’s paintings (odd, given that his work is put forward as capturing the “real” America). Her stance is one I’ve seen many times in many places. It’s a “don’t even think about causing me trouble” and an “I have a right to be here. This is my place. Why are you here and what are you looking at?” stance.
Then, I looked at the building. It is plain and dull, lacking the life and the bravado of the woman’s dress, with a concrete slab in front of it that is stark to the point of ugliness. It offers neither shade nor privacy. Its fenceless edge serves only to set a boundary between the building and the vast plain of seagrass that stretches to the blue horizon.
It seemed to me that this was another story about planting a building on the land. This time, something functional and unforgiving and which does not seem to have made any kind of peace with the land around it.
The big difference between “Seven A.M.” and “Carolina Morning” is that this painting is dominated by the woman in it. Her dress and her stance seem to me to say, “I am not defined by where I am but by who I am.”
I wondered who she was and why she was there but I felt I already knew that she was strong and proud and I suspected that Hopper saw her as more American than the land around her.
Again, this is a fanciful interpretation. Yet, if a painting doesn’t engage my fancy, feed my curiosity, challenge my thinking, let me see things differently, then it’s nothing more than interior decoration, selected to match the colour scheme of my fabrics.
If you get a chance to see any of Hopper’s work up close, I recommend you take it. I wouldn’t pay $91.9 million for one of his paintings, even if I could afford it, but I would travel to see another exhibition of his work and have more stories seeded in my imagination.