Hitchcock's house of horror in Kodak Color

Edward Hopper
August 20, 2004

Catalogues written to accompany retrospective exhibitions dependent on bringing works together from diverse locations are more or less always made before the authors have seen the exhibition, and that is their weakness.

So, to my mind, this catalogue is more about where we were with Hopper than where we find ourselves in the light of the Tate Modern exhibition it supports and illustrates, the first retrospective of Edward Hopper in the UK for more than 20 years.

The text comprises five commissioned essays. David Anfam takes "Rothko's Hopper" as his title, Brian O'Doherty "Hopper's look", Margaret Iverson "Hopper's melancholic gaze", Sheena Wagstaff (head of exhibitions and display at Tate Modern) "The elation of sunlight" and Peter Wollen "Two or three things I know about Edward Hopper". Together, they paint a fairly broad and insightful picture of where the artist probably came from but avoid any real engagement with what can be learnt from his paint, the stuff the pictures are made of.

In the opening essay, Wagstaff first positions Hopper at the end of a line of 19th-century realists that includes Thomas Eakins, Degas and Manet, then moves forwards in a less pedestrian way to remind us that light playing inside a room is an ancient metaphor for thought and a very powerful, non-literal device for representation. What emerges from the outset is a portrait of Hopper as a far more lyrical, and certainly less narrative, painter than one might expect.

This position is underscored in the second essay by Anfam, who cleverly argues why two apparent opposites, Rothko and Hopper, share common ground.

He writes about the "Rothko" in Hopper and the "Hopper" in Rothko, which he pins down to them sharing a pictorial sense of silence, alienation and melancholy.

Towards the end of his essay, Anfam moves on to another of this catalogue's recurrent themes, Hopper's relationship with the cinema. He writes: "Yet these postmodern revisions of Hopper's movie theatres and Rothko's hypnotically glowing fields are reminders that their unity and silent eloquence still speak to a new century."

Iverson, professor of art history at Essex University, starts with a well-worn slant on the life of the artist's story: "For 20 years he was forced to earn money by producing illustrations for books, magazines and posters." She then snaps out of the biography to take a more literary turn, exploring the saturnine side of Hopper through the writings of Milton and Baudelaire.

So in the first three essays there is an insistence on the importance of light, the emotions and abstraction.

Then Wollen, professor of film studies at the University of California, explores the relationship between Hopper and the cinema and theatre. He tells how Hopper's House by the Railroad (1925) was Hitchcock's model for the house of horror in Psycho (1960). We learn that Hopper started his working life in a film studio, drawing and colouring advertising posters, and that in 1918 he was commissioned by The Methodist Magazine to paint an image of the inside of a cinema, "which was offered as the alternative to the saloon and illustrated the slogan 'Movies give cheap democratic amusement'".

The final words are given to Hopper's friend, O'Doherty, aka Patrick Ireland, who starts by making the tentative claim that Hopper was the 20th century's greatest realist painter, and then revises this, on the grounds that there was no great 20th-century realism, to "one of the 20th century's greatest artists". The key words for O'Doherty are light, cinema, shadows, the camera and Vermeer, who, surprisingly, no one else mentions.

In the second half of the book, the pictures take over, and a very big gap opens between what the Tate exhibition and its catalogue offer.

Over the past few years I have got to know Hopper at the Whitney Museum in New York City, where he is presented as a part of the relatively early phase of the history of American painting. It was pleasant and strange to see his modern-looking paintings against the backdrop of St Paul's Cathedral looming large through the windows of Tate Modern.

The London exhibition offers an opportunity to reconsider Hopper's paintings away from America in the light of England. Although as printed images and photographs his paintings never fail, as physical things made of paint they prove much less comfortable. The exhibition, but not the catalogue, makes plain what a struggle each picture was to paint, and nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Hopper's attempts to paint people. His architecture usually turns out just fine, but by no stretch of the imagination did Hopper have the facility of Eakins, Degas or Manet.

Like so many of the painters who followed him in the second half of the 20th century - Eric Fischl, for example - Hopper depended on the lyrical, trying to keep things simple, resourcefulness, an ability to improvise and a fair amount of chance.

I left the show thinking of Hopper not in the way this catalogue presents him - as a philosophically abstract painter belonging to the end of the 19th century and the beginnings of modernism - but as a technically struggling, trying-to-be-cool, sexily under-skilled, Kodak Color version of Walter Sickert. In short, Hopper as a very early postmodernist.

Stephen Farthing is a painter and Royal Academician currently resident in Manhattan. The Hopper exhibition is at Tate Modern until September 5.

Edward Hopper

Editor - Sheena Wagstaff
Publisher - Tate Publishing
Pages - 256
Price - £40.00 and £29.99
ISBN - 1 85437 533 4 and 504 0

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