– Arkaprabha Chakraborty
Speaking today about Edward Hopper as a practitioner of ‘gothicism’, I must first speak upon a few definitions, redefinitions and transformations at the etymological level before anything else.
I have picked this unusual term ‘gothicism’ and given it my own meaning, choosing it over the traditional and more pertinently applicable adjective ‘Gothic’ to precede ‘Art,’ because it doesn’t seem right to force an ostensibly Realist painter into a seemingly incongruous rubric. I will further clarify that Gothicism, with a capital G, would imply a seventeenth century Swedish cultural movement of retracing roots to Scandinavian Goths which is, I would hazard, quite out of place with how I wish to argue for Hopper’s art in this paper. Instead, I want this word gothicism, without capitalization, to mean in the context of this paper, the sum of its parts, that is the word Gothic, with the suffix -ism. If we give to ‘Gothic’ its meaning when normally paired with the term ‘fiction’ (in a word, weird, paranormal, terrifying, horrifying, metaphorically dark), then we must choose from one of several implications of the suffix, -ism. Taking to the dictionary, we can definitively rule out “Denoting an action or its result.” More problematic are the meanings “denoting a state or quality,” and “denoting a system, principle, or ideological movement.” However, I choose to disregard these as well. The former because upon taking a closer look, there seems to be nothing inherently Gothic about Hopper’s paintings; the latter because it would mean that Hopper consciously intended for his paintings to inspire a form of darkness, which a simple look at his paintings would make problematic, if not inspire outright scepticism. We are then left with “denoting a certain peculiarity of language” and “denoting a pathological condition.” With these, I find that I have to uncomfortably place my desired definition of -ism between these two. It is the statement of these two definitions in their composite form that I wish to exemplify through this paper, namely that “The art of Edward Hopper possesses a peculiar quality of being Gothic” and that “The art of Edward Hopper describes a Gothic condition because of the disease of the American Dream.”
There is a joke that generally gets around which suggests that every artist in Paris in the decades either side of the fin-de-siecle either was or became a Post-Impressionist of some sort. Edward Hopper visited Paris in 1906 (and returned twice in the next four years, staying once for a full year). This
is one of his first impressions of the city in his paintings. This picture effectively encapsulates all I have to say about Hopper, though I would still perhaps require the thousand words this should be equivalent to.
Just to be clear about how differently Hopper saw life in general, here
is a painting by Maximilien Luce, created roughly around 1902-05.
This essential difference is what characterized Hopper through is entire oeuvre of paintings, becoming a stark, lonely and hence, frankly terrifying voice in an America roaring into life, seeing only expansion everywhere. Unlike Europe, which required a concerted Colonial effort in the hope of finding some breathing space away from their overcrowded continent, America began expanding inwards. People were crossing the sizable length and breadth of the country in a bid to make their fortunes somewhere, anywhere. This was the time of the American Dream. Through his paintings, Hopper rips away this impression, just as he saw a stark Paris in contrast to the impossible vibrancy almost all other artists posit through their works set in the city.
As he does with Paris, he does with the idea of the America and its dream. Let us see his work then in comparison with one of his contemporaries (both were born in 1882) George Bellows. This
is how Bellows chooses to represent Monhegan Island in Maine, with the dawn breaking, and light beginning to bathe the giant rock formation. This
is Hopper’s chosen representation of the same island. Stark rocks with only an apologetic crop of grass on top, bathed in a sun about to set. In this light, grass is barely distinguishable from rock and there is an essential baldness to the entire scene, something he repeats substantially in his depictions of the country, but also is a significant motif in his cityscapes.
What we do find in Hopper, then, is where other artists have their tendency to suffuse a work with a semblance of life and their figures some kind of anima, some vital spark, Hopper denies these, leaving his paintings to like a Frankenstein’s monster unborn, horrifying in their own way. Hopper’s larger canvases, outdoor scenes, mostly, have the unsatisfying, uneasy effect of instilling a belief that there should be life, only to find none. Sometimes, a solitary figure is perhaps present and in most paintings, this uneasiness operates in spite of it, perhaps because of it as the single figure necessitates the question, “Where is everyone else?” Eventually such restlessness ends up deferring this subverted anima into the landscape, making it vaguely threatening by simply being. He sees America as vast, untamed, and despite the ever-growing population, largely uninhabited. A view largely justified when one thinks that with 320 million people living in America, the density of population is only 34 people per square kilometre according to the 2014 census. For comparison’s sake, India has 389 people by the same metric.
In his smaller canvases, generally those depicting the insides of rooms, he places this anima into his figures as one would in jars, firmly contained, borders well-defined and, most importantly, not allowed to leak and suffuse the image with life, in effect. This results in an awful sense of isolation, despite depictions of interaction, not through their lack. Even when Hopper has more than one subject in his canvas, and perhaps especially then, Hopper posits the essential isolation of the American subject. This is his counterbalance to the rapid, unforgiving growth of America, the essential lack of human relationships that allow for this sense of life to flow between subjects.
When I later present Hopper’s works depicting ‘gothicism,’ I will use this division of convenience (and nothing more) in calling outdoor scenes ‘large canvases’ and indoor scenes ‘small canvases,’ as they would assist in keeping certain arguments tangle-free. Perhaps these two forms used by Hopper are better understood through comparative examples once more.
For the large canvas, let us consider Robert Henri’s work Wet Road Pennsylvania Landscape.
Incidentally, Henri was one of Hopper’s teachers at the New York School of Art and Design. Despite the wet, empty road, there is an element of positivity, some position of wild beauty here, while reassuringly there is a house at the bend of the road after which is is no longer in our line of sight, gently curving away. In other words, why worry about what lies ahead when there is potential for human contact and therefore for assistance in going ahead? To be doubly sure that this scene is ‘civilized,’ there are car/cart tracks on the road, implying some form of thoroughfare. Keeping this in mind, Hopper’s Road in Maine is an assertion of everything Henri seems to be afraid of acknowledging.
Only a thin sliver of road is visible, beginning as abruptly as it ends, obscured by a relatively gentle wilderness, a low cliff and a rocky hill respectively, but importantly, a wilderness nonetheless. The only sign of human interference (other than the road itself) is in a set of telegraph or electric poles following the curve on the road. We see then that, obscured by nature, there is the fear that little or no life will traverse this road in any near future. Suggestively, the road itself is completely smooth. We can possibly see this road and these poles as representative of a bullheaded humanity, giddy in its self-belief, determined to expand without knowing a where or how viable. The smooth road can suggest one of two things: that the road is either not regularly traversed or is new. Either way, at some end of the road, there is necessarily a set of lonely people in some settlement waiting for contact. The road is a scar that nature has to bear, paying a price for simply being. It is only Hopper’s treatment, in which this deferred anima suffuses the landscape, can we realize this last context. The discomfort only builds at having hurt an activated entity.
For the small canvas, take for instance this
painting by John Sloan, who, incidentally, was another of Hopper’s teachers at the New York School. His painting McSorley’s Bar is American Realism at its finest. There is some sense of wholeness, of concord in the interaction of the elements. The streaming sunlight infuses warmth, the conversations are a sign of life, the bartender busy, the customer expectant. The colour palette is warm and contrasting, as far as dark interiors go. He has not held back with the chiaroscuro and one can almost see Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew inextricably influencing Sloan’s hand. Once more, it is a certain reassuring indicator of life, humanity, warmth and the continuity of all these. And where can one find it if not at the places one eats and drinks? This seems to be Sloan’s implicit assumption. Let us examine a similarly set scene in one of Hopper’s works. This
is one of his more well known paintings, called Chop Suey. It looks like a collage, if we’re being generous. Hopper was an exceptionally skilled artist, but then he chooses to make this interior seem no more than a sum of its parts. The sunlight streams in and hits the woman where it should. It is not warm, but precise. The characters lean forward or back exactly as much as ‘Realism’ would dictate. If there is conversation, and this feels like one of the most important points to be teased out through the painting, then there doesn’t seem to be any. It does not feel like any of the figures are conversing. More likely it feels as though Hopper has frozen time with the sole intent of creating this painting instead of the painting being created to freeze a moment in time. Hopper suddenly feels like a selfish artist, but his biographers and analysts mostly suggest otherwise. Reclusive, perhaps, but selfish, never. If he is not doing this for himself, then he is surely doing it in critique. What does he critique, then? Once again, it is the all-consuming nature of the American Dream. What do you do when you’re not chasing Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Hopper’s answer is a straightforward one. Not very much. There is no warmth in the woman despite being hit by sunlight as she is. She seems to be forcing herself to stay, unsmiling, not sure why exactly she finds herself here and almost wooden. It is almost a given that the same would very likely be true of the woman sitting opposite her. They are two compressed, unrelated egos yoked together by some ‘misfortune’ sounds too cynical, but it certainly does not feel like either makes any sign of wanting to be there for the other’s sake. It seems a little worse that we would also be able to apply such a reading to the man dining with the lady behind the main subject of the painting. She seems poised to say something, but nothing in her companion’s demeanour makes it feel welcome. His back straight, eyes looking firmly at the menu he holds in his hands, uninterested in whatever she might have to say, possibly glancing up at her to suggest time is money or some such cliche that was getting well-worn even in 1929. For Hopper, he is the typical brash, self-centred nouveau riche youth that the American Dream regurgitated in its thousands through the Roaring Twenties. This becomes an important motif in Hopper, that despite often depicting companionship, he subverts not only conversation but also the potential for conversation. So strongly demarcated and condensed are the egos of Hopper’s figures that even in proximity, even in intimacy, nobody seems inclined or has the courage to start a conversation and find that they have nothing to say. This will become clearer in my next example of Hopper’s works of ‘gothicism.’
This is Hopper’s 1932 work Room in New York, which is possibly the best exemplification of his motif of people being ‘isolated together.’ A man in his office clothes, a woman in an evening dress together in a room. The man pores over a large sheet of paper, a newspaper, possibly. The woman listlessly plays on the piano. Their isolation is absolute; the man is either no longer interested or is yet to be interested in the woman. The woman has some desire she wishes to act out, that is clear. She represses the urge to say anything by deferring, or distracting it through the piano. Whether it is simply waiting to go out for dinner or perhaps had their night out suddenly cancelled, the man has receded into exercises of the ego, being ‘busy’. The sense of ‘Nothing to be done’ is all-pervasive.
This painting was the one that automatically floated into my head when I was coming up with the title. This 1940 work, Gas, is representative of the human endeavour in the face of the terrifying unknown of nature. The questioning is in the wisdom of this effort. If the solitary gas attendant has time to tinker with the pump in the early evening, then this is very obviously very far off from any semblance of a thoroughfare. This painting becomes an indictment of Post-Depression America, one which this painting posits is an America prematurely born, its life-support created in anticipation rather than expectation, the subtle difference between the two being the difference between a surmise and an analytical forecast. Nature is dark and terrifying in this painting (which is not to say that it is not equally terrifying in his city shadows), and in the face of it the attendant is alone but caught up. His investment is everything; his time, his money, his mind. He seems well-dressed, but still fiddles with the pump. This is very likely an indicator that he is the owner and sole employee of this lonely station, seemingly on either side of nowhere. Even nowhere needs fuel sometimes.
The final painting in this triptych of examples is his 1953 Office in a Small City.
This is a curious example that fuses the previous ideas of interiority and exteriority, with the small city in all its loneliness frustrating the life out of the small-time office worker. The layers of insulation are almost like Matryoshka dolls, with the soul encapsulated tightly in the body and the body painfully within the building.
If we think about these constructs in isolation, the unused road, the silent restaurant just as the silent room, the solitary gas station, the single employee in the office are terrifying constructs which are, in their way trying to resist the impinging of humanity in its plurality. It is the fear of an inhuman unknown which I believe makes the Gothic fear what it is. We see this resistance to humanity literally in the case of the road, and symbolically in the constant frustration of spoken language which Hopper posits. The terror (and not rage) is of Caliban looking into the mirror, as it were. The question in our heads becomes, “Will we one day become like this? Are we already like this? Are we alone? Are we ignorant? Are our efforts being frustrated?” In his small canvases, it is the insulation of his figures that inspires in us this Gothic fear. It is the idea of the all-consuming American Dream which makes us uncomfortable. Inside rooms, Hopper’s women are alone and his men are lonely. The continuous ‘investment’ in trying to ‘make it,’ finds its symptoms manifested in this isolation, this insulation of vital force and barely concealed repression. In what I have called his large canvases, the countryside becomes oppressive in a sort of life-filled lifelessness, but his cityscapes are equally discomfiting. Where the discomfort in his vision of the countryside comes from a sort of animation of an essential lack, Hopper’s city oppresses geometrically. His dawns drag out onto America, his daytimes are stark, his late afternoons ‘equalize’ differences, his evenings enclose, his lines are meant to box in, his shadows meant to hide, the emptiness of city streets at any given time of day meant to represent a despair in the lack of humanity posited. This makes it all the more poignant when there is a single person, or two persons framed. All the obsessive markers of humanity looks into them with a fear-filled hope that some investigation might reveal some enigmatic truth in Hopper’s emptied stage. But seemingly echoing Beckett, Hopper concludes every one of his paintings with the same stage direction: “They do not move.”