Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 13)

Edward Hopper's style of stark, flat realism often looks almost surreal.  His art creates detailed scenes with specific imagery, but the color schemes, structural layouts, and perspectives often produce emotional effects, akin to the art of the Expressionists.  It's as if his work is oxymoronic to itself—realistic, yet surrealistic and expressive.  And although a commonality among Postmodern artists was the trick of taking and blending from several different sources (we'll see this even more definitively with Pop Art), painters like Hopper forged completely independent styles, almost indefinable but for the historical context of art movements collectively labeled Modern Art.
This painting, meditatively called Rooms by the Sea, was finished later in his career, in 1951, and marvelously expresses the same sentiments common to his entire body of work.  Rather than a realistic work of figures sitting in restaurants, Hopper's painting here directly addresses the artist's themes of modern isolation and abandonment with new immediacy.  No figures appear in this scene; and although the interior of the house in which we find ourselves in this work appears ordinary, we very quickly notice the open doorway on the right, emptying out straightaway into a far-reaching oceanic landscape.  It's unrealistic because the artist's latent subject matter here is a metaphysical quality, the human experience of loneliness and grief.  Notice the artist has painting the scene with the same stylistic approach that keeps his objects looking realistic and plain, but this time he has inserted an anomaly: a door leading immediately to the sea.  Within this artistic contemplation of grief, the artist brilliantly structures a visual story, in metaphoric terms, for our eye to follow, as if reading a book, from left to right.
First we see the commonplace interior of some domestic dwelling.  Greens and reds, though muted in tone, provide a starkness of presence, causing us to notice quite readily the furniture of the place: the couch, perhaps most of all.  It is red and colorful, but empty; perhaps the artist draws our eye to it for this purpose.  The whole room is empty—indeed, the whole painting is empty.  But a light shines into the place, and our eye follows the whiteness of the sun on the bright walls.  Interestingly enough, Hopper has made the centerpiece and largest object of focus in the work the barren, white wall separating the interior room and the exterior ocean.  Although nothing is on the wall, a streaming window of light creates an intense line of expansion that draws our eye toward the right half of the painting.  As a kind of bridge between the two, this wide, empty wall offers no visual stimulus in and of itself, yet leads to arguably the painting's most interesting feature.  And the added touch of the floor, painted with the color of sand on a beach, makes this long stretch of blankness a kind of visual motif of transcendence.  Following the barren vacuity of this featureless environment, perhaps we do not find it so odd after all to empty out into the wide expanse of the ocean.  It's some optical illusion or surrealistic anomaly, but Hopper inserts it into his painting with the utmost subtlety and inviting calmness.  Contrasting the colorful green and red scene on the left, as well as the waste land of white in the center, this right-hand window of the scene fades away exclusively in shades of blue.  There is something poignant about the transition, something that speaks of the nature of loneliness or sorrow.  Many of Hopper's artworks, as we've seen, have dealt with these themes in the context of the urban environment.  Toward the end of his career, the artist showed just how near the wide-open expanses of unending void and emptiness can be to the familiar, domestic settings of American city life: the proximity is just down the hall and through the door.

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