- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

A recurring motif for the artist Edward Hopper appears on many of the floors he painted. Drawn from street lamps or an orange morning sun, light gets laid down into his gloomy scenes like dazzling little throw rugs. Hopper’s people often stare into the light, searching for a reason to get up, or a way to escape from their miserable doubts.

from street lamps or an orange morning sun, light gets laid down into his gloomy scenes like dazzling little throw rugs. Hopper’s people often stare into the light, searching for a reason to get up, or a way to escape from their miserable doubts.

In the 40 years since his death, Hopper has become more appreciated than ever, and certainly he deserves the red-carpet treatment he is getting: A gorgeous coffee-table book called “Silent Theater,” a series of video documentaries and a traveling exhibition that opens this week at the National Gallery and stays for the rest of the year.

In the book, Walter Wells, an emeritus professor with California State University, trains a steady analytical eye on this brooding American genius, sharing barely known sketches, diaries, shades of paint, 220 plates and all the psychological insights he can muster out of the work and the famously silent artist.

It seems that at the end of the 1800s, when the average American man grew to be but 5-foot-7, word got out about a young boy in the sixth grade named Edward Hopper who had already become 6 feet tall. Mother Hopper had a natural artistic streak, and so encouraged Edward to draw and paint. He would take off for points unknown around Nyack, N.Y., finding solitude down by the riverbank, or just as easily in his room.

Edward drew a portrait of himself as an even younger boy with thick glasses, lifting two huge books that might have weighed more than he did. Those authors who made the most lasting impression included the pioneers of psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Edward was raised as a strict Baptist. He was very bright and admired the sensibilities expressed in Sherwood Andersonn’s novel “Winesburg, Ohio.” In one chapter, titled “The Strength of God,” Anderson described a certain Rev. Hartman, who nightly peered down from his church study into the glowing windows of his parishioners.

For the rest of Edward’s life, windows became a plane of mediation, existing as both view and barrier, a protection and limitation, a false sense of privacy and a fragile shield, a sieve for daylight to enter and a grate of imprisonment, just like the windows in the cell of a monk or a prisoner.

A giant window separates the viewer from Hopper’s most famous people, those inside the morose New York City diner he dreamed up in 1942, and who ever since were called the Nighthawks.

There is no mistaking Hopper’s melancholy, his obsession with having been an outsider and still feeling like one looking in. He knew too well how it felt to be shunned, the oldest punishment of all.

It is not necessary, however, to buy Freud’s glossary. Hopper’s silent language already has a perfect logic and syntax. A chimney is not a cigar, and sometimes a chimney is just a chimney, to paraphrase Hopper’s hero. Yet in this collection, Mr. Wells takes tedious joy in pointing out each and every phallic symbol in the paintings, sounding for all the world like a 12-year-old tour guide at the museum.

Still, one cannot escape the fact that Hopper had a heightened sense of self-awareness, and a devilish wit, and quite a few of his 800 known paintings and etchings seem to poke fun at himself.

Mr. Wells takes care to examine Hopper’s powers of observation, how a shadow across the stairs seems to defy the laws of physics, or how a breeze that ruffled sheer drapery failed to have the same effect on a young woman’s skirt.

Hopper took great pains to paint proportions in New York City with realistic, even optical accuracy, but he also stripped out as many details and textures as he could. There are no electrical wires, sidewalk cracks or scars, not even any garbage cans, though he was briefly labeled as being part of the Ash Can School of urban realist painters.

As far as any implied rapport or identification with his subjects goes, Hopper never got close enough or waited long enough to see the whites of their eyes. He held back. Every face remained mask-like, blank, the eyes reduced to darkened windows. And he was always masterful with subtle, understated body language. With the tilt of a neck or a hip, women broke through the silences of disappointment and bitter resignation.

Hopper waited until the age of 40 to marry, and his bride, Josephine Nivison, was the same age and also devoted to painting and acting. She gave up her own career to support him, becoming his one-and-only model, and as well, the business agent and archivist in the household.

As Mr. Wells points out, we know this because of Josephine’s obsessive journal-writing, detailing exactly how Hopper worked. He relied on notes and quick sketches on the scene, making architectural notes for a window here and a doorway there. He and Jo would then insert imaginary characters, auditioning them, naming them and inventing extravagant and tragic back-stories. Moreover, she would let him pose her like a doll, becoming anyone he chose so he could repeat his life-long fascination with women’s legs and hips.

Their 40 years of marriage turned into one long search for balance.

“It hurts me so,” Josephine confided in her journal, “that he should be so limited in his ability to include me in his own soul.” Their friend, the writer John Dos Passos, said that Edward always seemed “on the verge of saying something. But he never did.”

Edward’s life became art as therapy. The Hoppers began to spend more and more time in New England and slowly, at least in his paintings, he broke many of his old habits. At last he got out in the open sea with bright light everywhere, and there found sets of people engaged in harmony, fulfilled by the wind and the challenge at hand.

The photographer Robert Frank saw America through Hopper eyes. Alfred Hitchcock borrowed one of his mansions for the thriller “Psycho,” and a whole courtyard of apartments for “Rear Window.” Edward Hopper still touches a nerve, even though it seems to be one numbed by doubt and regret. It may be that no other artwork better symbolizes America in the century just passed.

J. Ross Baughman is director of photography at The Washington Times.

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