Edward Hopper’s Retrospective at the Grand Palais

The Last Years

Nélida Nassar  10.15.2012

A comprehensive retrospective of Edward Hopper work is showing at The Grand Palais, Paris from October 10, 2012 to January 28, 2013.  Didier Ottinger, the assistant director of the MNAM Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou is its curator.

Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) painted in 1942 Nighthawks “owls” that represents a woman, two men and the server in a brightly lit bar at a street corner.  The painting has become the symbol of the city and American life, ensuring the artist definitive celebrity.  Nighthawks is as emblematic to Hopper as Mona Lisa is to Da Vinci.  Millions of reproductions have been made either of the painting or cropped details.  It also has displayed as a poster in numerous locations. It became emblematic of Hopper’s oeuvre which it is far from representing and summarizing.

For his Paris Grand Palais’s retrospective, Nighthawks is the image that appears on the cover of the catalogue.  No doubt a powerful image was necessary, however, the selection of this painting is unfortunate, because the show’s purpose is the opposite of what it represents.  The aim of the exhibition is to present Hopper’s oeuvre with ample breath and variety. The mandate is to highlight his less known work bridging between his position in the American painting pantheon as well as his status in French art because of considerable time living there.

These three goals are fulfilled, and the show is a great success in the selection of the paintings that are thoughtfully choreographed.  The display is of great sobriety tempering the excesses committed elsewhere. Here, no rails on the ground, or train noises or siren, no mannequin either to the likeness of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon that was released one year before Nighthawks was painted.

Part One: the Formative Years (1900 – 1924)
The retrospective is divided chronologically into two main parts with Hopper’s trajectory traced and documented with keen clarity.  It begins with a precocious talent for drawing, which is confirmed while he attends the New York School of Art in its first illustration class of the fine arts section.  He studied under Robert Henri, who was influenced by the European realism of Gustave Courbet and Adolph Menzel rather than Edouard Manet’s.  Henri applied this realism to American subject matters.  Hopper swiftly re-appropriated Henri’s principles refreshing their adaptation by studying closely in Paris.  From 1906 that entailed Impressionism, Degas’s poetic principles of dramatization and take of original angles, Pissarro and Renoir’s lush colors.

Hopper’s work confronts his American counterparts including Henri, Eakins, Bellows’s gritty realism, and the Europeans such as Sickert’s iconography of theatres and paintings of damned flesh, or Vallotton and Marquet’s massive structure views of the Seine’s quays.  He was also influenced by Whistler.  Between 1915 and 1928 Hopper completed a series of dry and stylized engravings similar to the ones Whistler created in London. Remarkable Consistency in the Themes Selection

Hopper’s main themes in future paintings included houses in stark landscapes, train stations, man alone on a street at night,  or a girl in her bedroom, nude in front of the open window.  The facades’ geometry, the sidewalks, the roofs and the electrical poles structure the verticality and horizontality of his compositions.  Fragments of nature, body and furniture are trapped therein without any possibility of escape.

Part Two: Art of the Mature Years  (1925 – 1966)
Hopper’s consistency is obvious from 1925 to his death in Hotel Room, 1931 to New York Office, 1962; his system does not falter.  Even more remarkably, he perfects the outdoor views as studiously as the confined closed spaces.  A straight line is drawn from the treetops; the grass is evenly cut, and the electrical lines project white triangles on the ground along the taxi-station.  All this is logical, as logical as Mondrian’s  abstractions because the exact sciences and their numbers now lead the new world.  Angles, parallels and proportions control his paintings.  Unknowingly, Hopper precedes and announces the New York’s rigor of modernist minimalism.

In Hopper’s paintings, colors are divided by solid lines and applied with regular and neutral gestures.  They contrast with each other either harshly or in balanced harmonies – varying from a clear operating light, to a neon light or to an intense sun.  The faces are carved with accentuated shadows that disfigure them.  The stripper Girlie Show appears in the circle area of the projector, less like a person made of flesh, than as a plastic pop creation.  She is an object of consumption destined for a particular function. She is a sex worker or employee of eroticism.  All the characters, male or female, secretaries and gardeners, prostitutes or retired persons, are similarly reduced to a professional definition or identity reflecting the social order that is so strict and rigid similar to the cities’ grid geometry.

Until the 1940s, Hopper painted this world’s disenchantment and the commodification of humans with a certain detachment, a sort of perverse discretion.  Were most viewers and critics wrong loving him and believing that he was the chronicler of their daily lives, without realizing that he was depicting for and to them a reflective image, at best worrying, and, at worst, frightening?

In his last years, to dispel misunderstanding and enigma, Hopper took the risk of making less descriptive paintings that were more and more silent.  Excursion into Philosophy, 1959; Sun in an Empty Room, 1961; Second Story Sunlight, 1960 are the enigmatic titles of his metaphysical period masterpieces – they are like Becketts in painting.  Undoubtedly, they are far less famous than Nighthawks, but they are no less the pinnacle of his creation.  This is a retrospective not to be missed that sheds light on Hopper’s paintings complexity.  It is an indication of the richness of his oeuvre.

Grand Palais, Paris 78008, France
10 October 2012 – 28 January 2013
Show open from Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Monday 10 a.m. to 8.00 p.m.

My article was originally published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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