June 26, 1998

EDWARD HOPPER. An intimate biography. By Gail Levin. 695pp. Berkeley: University of California Press. Paperback, $19.95. - 0 520 21475 7.

The word "intimate" has a slightly tawdry quality. In celebrity journalism it is a codeword for prurience; in other discourses it tends to imply a blushing denial of unpalatable reality. Neither pole seems the most desirable aim for a biographer, and in any case "intimate" is an odd label for a book of almost 700 pages. Hopper himself talked about "the most exact transposition possible of my most intimate impression of nature", yet, in his cool distillations of city life and the American landscape, intimacy in every sense seems absent and unattainable. Furthermore, as we learn, in life it was a condition from which his temperament utterly excluded him.

Gail Levin has been working on Hopper for some twenty years, and this book is a complement to, and a critique of, a whole career's scholarly engagement. Her key source is the painter's wife Jo, whose choleric diaries document forty years of chronic physical and psychological abuse, as well as the frustrations of her own career (she met Hopper at art school in New York), for which she held her husband in large part to blame. This book is in essence a portrait of a marriage, and a fairly hellish one at that. The story is grippingly unhappy: Edward a familiar kind of clenched Emersonian puritan; Jo a tragi-comic entity somewhere between Nabokov's Charlotte Haze and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Levin's lurid accounts of the Hoppers' slappings and snarlings inevitably upstage her treatment of their work, although she makes some perceptive observations about the personal significance of motifs to do with alienation and sexuality in Edward's work. However, her belief that Jo was a good artist undone by sexism seems questionable; not because there was any shortage of sexism around her, but because (as far as we can tell here) she was not a terribly good artist. KM

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