Sunday, September 14, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 10)

A very different side of urban living gets presented in the works of Edward Hopper.  A late contributor to the style of American realism practiced by the Ashcan School, Hopper had exhibited in the historical 1913 Armory Show when his career was only just beginning.  Before that, he had studied the works of Manet under the twice-removed student (pupil of a pupil) of Thomas Eakins, one of the earliest influences on the American realist style.  The artwork of Edward Hopper shows a devoted attention to this stylistic approach and subject matter; however, Hopper's paintings exhibit something more, which deviated from the Romanticism of earlier artists like Eakins.  He sought to paint the American scene in a newly realistic manner.  Similar to the Ashcan School, he concentrated on the moods and feelings aroused by the city itself but ignored the congestion and excitement of metropolitan life to capture the emptiness and loneliness that are also a part of the urban scene, especially in the new Modern Era.
Most of his paintings look something like this.  Here we see an Automat, which was a type of café that became popular in America by the 1920s and which featured a series of coin-operated vending machines and other automated devices that cut back on the need for human services (a precursor to the fast food industry).  Inside this automat café we find ourselves looking over into a corner at a lone table where a woman sits, holding a small coffee cup.  On the far left we can see a door or window leading outward—and yet, ironically, we can only see blackness outside.  Even through the enormous window behind the woman all that is visible is the reflection of the automat's two rows of interior lighting.  Nothing of the outer world is distinguishable, and yet this blackness covers the greatest portion of the canvas.  It's a profound blackness, is it not?  We've entered a microcosm, despite the paradoxical placement of a huge window along almost the entire backdrop of the scene; our vision becomes limited only to this corner table.
Seated by herself is a woman, dressed in the typical fashion for 1927 (the year this painting was produced) and holding a small coffee cup.  Her expression is famously kept blank, like the window behind her, though the placement of a small bouquet of fruit on the windowsill next to her evokes a stylistic reference to still life painting and makes her into a subject of pathos for the viewer.  Certainly the empty chair across from her seems to convey hints of loneliness or sadness.  She looks down at her coffee, and, given the apparently lonely surroundings, we might read into her expression a sentiment of grief, isolation, or melancholy; but we can't know for certain what she's feeling.  She is simply looking downward: whether practically at the beverage she is drinking or poetically at the dull monotony of the commercialist American lifestyle, we don't know—and this is our isolation as a viewer.  For we are in the scene of the painting as well.  We can see at the far bottom right-hand corner the edge of a chair, which seems to imply that you, the viewer, are sitting at a similar table just across from the woman; and that you, too, are alone.  And unlike Manet's The Railway painting, where the woman looks up at the viewer, this moment of time passes eternally without connection; the woman never looks at you.  Perhaps this is more of a comment on the remoteness of the artist in the Modern world than that of the woman figure in the painting.  The artwork of Edward Hopper continually reminds us that for many people, loneliness is as much a part of life in a great city as wide boulevards, towering skyscrapers, and constant traffic are a part of the city scene itself.  With its secluded, vulnerable, and seemingly listless young woman against the backdrop of unfathomable, black space, this painting goes to great lengths to convey the sense of isolation and confused identity which characterized the literary and artistic subject matter of the early Modern Period.
I said "vulnerable"…—another, more sinister interpretation of this painting notes the voyeuristic elements of the female's position "on display" to the viewer.  That bouquet of fruit right next to her perhaps comments on the woman's "ripeness" for consumption, and the low cut of her dress leaves a patch of pale skin that stands out in contrast against her dark coat and the even darker background.  But one of the brightest features of the paintings is the woman's legs, strategically included by the artist underneath the table.  The painter could have cut off the painting at the table's edge, but instead we are offered a kind of split-image of the woman: on the top, we see her downcast face and lonely position within her environment; but below the table, we notice the woman's bare legs, a sight that bears the potential of turning her into a sexual object.  In painting the urban scene with a style of realism so infused with a thematic sense of isolation, Hopper creates an open-ended social context within his scenes and images to allow for an interpretive duality of Modern realism.  On one level, the American scene which he painted was filled with the perils of Modernity and the threats of the modern world to the human soul; on another level, it was filled with very immediate, physical dangers.  On one level, his paintings of the desolate urban scene acted as an indictment against the indifference of society; on another level, they made reference to that same society's active greed and wickedness.
With the muted softness of the painter's brushstrokes and the soft colors of his palette, this work is perhaps more sentimental or reflective in its thematic approach than centered on the direct attack on such a specific context as that of the contemporary criminal underworld (although implications to that context can be found in works like this one).  There are many things we can read into the image of a young woman sitting alone in a café at night; perhaps one of the most immediate: that it's simply a sight which we have all seen.  Hopper's style of realism specialized in this attention to the American scene as he really saw it.

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