And when we've been on the receiving end of a Hopper moment, we're lucky not to know it. That's the instant you're lost in idle thought, willingly defenseless, protected by solitude. Until you see that guy observing from the apartment window across the alley.
The Whitney Museum in New York comes to Charlotte with early paintings by the man Ted Hughes calls "the quintessential realist painter of 20th century America." Edward Hopper, The Paris Years is showing at the Mint Museum on Randolph Road through June 1.
These early paintings are souvenirs from Hopper's three trips abroad, inspired moments from a young man's budding creative awareness, an epiphany he wrestled to the ground, stuffed in his suitcase, and brought home to America.
These paintings are also the beginnings of a body of work that would come to symbolize human detachment, loneliness, alienation in the American Century. When Hopper spoke about the American landscape he sounded as if he were the only living soul in New York City.
(He was seeking) "the look of an asphalt road as it lies in the broiling sun at noon, cars and locomotives lying in Godforsaken railway yards, the streaming summer rain that can fill us with such hopeless boredom, the blank concrete walls and steel constructions of modern industry, midsummer streets with the acrid green of close-cut lawns, the dusty Fords and gilded movies...all the sweltering, tawdry life of the American small towns, this sad desolation of our suburban landscape."
Jesus, this guy is depressing. Why pay attention to him?
Because he can paint. Hopper's meditations on the American mundane relay an emotional message powerful enough to be co-opted by illustrators, filmmakers, artists and writers for the last 50 years. His ordinary scenes carry inordinate weight. The difference between Hopper and other "realist" painters before his time and after is his brilliant use of light shining on dull subjects.
The common subjects of his paintings are infused with a light that runs counter to his content. Hallways, empty rooms, a woman staring out a window, become spellbinding under his casts of light. He found a special light in Paris. This show chronicles his delinquent years when Hopper spirited away that light from Paris and never relinquished it. He shone that light on the quiet underbelly of American landscape for the next 50 years.
The paintings in The Paris Years, from the 24-year-old's three early trips abroad, aren't the Hopper oils we have come to know. These are paintings by a driven and talented artist rambling through the treasure-trove of style and technique laid out before him in the galleries and museums of Paris between 1906 and 1910, a time when Europe owned the art world and Paris ruled. During his stay in Paris Hopper was a loner: "Whom did I meet? Nobody. I'd heard of Gertrude Stein, but I don't remember having heard of Picasso at all. I'd go to the cafes at night and sit and watch."
It's telling that Hopper eschewed the hubris and foment of the Parisian avant-garde world of intellectuals and radical artists to follow his own vision of discovery. He wandered through and painted the narrow streets of Paris as he looked back a generation to the Impressionists for direction. We see here what he found there: bridges, canals, cathedrals and light.
Hopper's work in Paris starts in 1906. These small oil paintings (9" x 12" vertical) are the closest precursors to the Hopper we know today -- close cropped, closed in and still portraits of places without people. In "View across Interior Courtyard, 1906," a handrail cuts across the bottom of the canvas. A stucco building rises to a black mansard roof. A triangular patch of light is squeezed at the top of the canvas.
Each line of color is made with a single brush stroke, and each stroke is unflinching and assured. Window sills, mullions and roof lines are executed with an intuitive accuracy. He experiments with an expressionistic brush stroke and with the intimate "cozy" feel of the inanimate structure wrestled from stark geometry of planes of light and dark.
"Paris Street" and "Stairway at 48 rue de Lille" carry the hints of the paradoxical juxtapositions we remember Hopper for today. Interiors are spatially expansive, but psychologically cramped; objects are dense with the tangible weight of place, but nearly, often completely, vacant. Places are clean, neat and well lit, but so damn sad. It feels like no one has walked here in years.
In 1907 the artist lightens up a bit. Perhaps it was the weather -- the first year he was there, Paris was horribly overcast and cold. When the sky lightened and warmed he took his easel outdoors, where his canvas got bigger and his hand looser.
"Le Pont des Arts, 1907," is a pedestrian bridge over the Seine. It is a fretwork of arched steel across a luminous ground of water, land and sky. Here, and in "Le Louvre et la Seine," and "Pont du Carrusell," (both 1907) Hopper commits memory and canvas to the well documented quality of Parisian light: "The light was different from anything I had known. The shadows were luminous, more reflected light. Even under the bridges there was a certain luminosity."
These largest, happiest paintings are, not surprisingly, his weakest. What we love in Hopper -- that mysterious mix of tepid reality tinged with the feeling of longing, loneliness and loss -- is not in the canvases soaked in sunny Parisian light. Boats, bridges and buildings no longer carry the weight of his mute shadow and dark line. Here the man-made appears organic, unthreatening, benign. Once the depressive lens is lifted the vision just doesn't have the same bite.
Hopper is strongest at making exterior scenes interior. He brings the long shadowed side street, the green swathed canal bank and the promenade and bridge to a scale of intimacy. Similarly he makes the known familiar -- a New York City cafe is both strange and uncomfortably familiar. I suspect Hopper's talent for doing this lies in his (perhaps unconscious) gift for transferring his own emotional state of mind to canvas using light and form. His penchant for melancholy was inborn, but I suspect his talent for capturing the vibrant play of light was developed in art school and realized in those few years in Paris. "Le Parc de Saint Cloud" is a painting of a grass berm divided by two promenades and a rail. Three trees vertically divide the canvas and appear to approach the viewer, from left to right. Abstracted blocks of light-saturated color divide the canvas. Absent of people, the painting appears to be solely about the quality of line, surface and design -- as close to art for art's sake as Hopper ever got. Still, in this mostly abstract painting, a sense of memorable place remains, a quality Hopper will develop and continue to use.
In a later painting -- "Le Bistro, 1909 " -- Hopper again invokes profundity of place, this time using a provincial scene -- the sidewalk cafe. It's an afternoon glimpse at a drink between friends. They talk at a small table pushed close to a dark building. The building rises above and leans away from the two. A shadow cuts across the table.
The sky behind them is expansive and luminous. The people are more mannequin than human, unarticulated, as if they are only adjuncts to the landscape, patches of color and shape, no more important than the road, the sky, the bridge in the background. The sense of place, and the light, exaggerate the smallness of the faceless friends. This sense of place, this light and these friends will follow Hopper back to New York, and for the rest of his painting life.
Hopper insinuates himself into those precious few moments Americans find between Do this and Do that. He widens and captures those moments that descend on us and interrupt our neatly constructed routines. The merry-go-round has unexpectedly stopped, opportunity for revelation arises, and we hold our breath until we begin to move again, happy to exhale. Hopper records those lost moments.
The Mint Museum of Art is located at 2730 Randolph Road. For information, call 704-337-2000.