Every so often a major exhibition reminds the world of an under appreciated or forgotten artist. The most recent example is the Edward Hopper (1882-1967) exhibit at the Grand palais in Paris. Hopper’s biggest ever show, it reveals the complexity, simplicity and gentle surrealism of this very American painter whose oeuvre might be described as art noir.
Indeed, film noir itself was seen as a manifestation of the trepidation, anguish and isolation at the heart of pre and post WW2 American existence. Rooted in the Great Depression, many had questioned the dubious and fragile American Dream. Hopper’s paintings contain the very same fears and foreboding. His work depicts what might appear as every day (or more like ‘every night’) renderings of Great Americana - a New York Diner, an automat, a gas station, a theatre or a hotel room - but rumour volumes about said dystopia. Ipso facto, one might live in a city of ten million and still be extremely lonely.
Most of his subjects vacantly gaze out of a window or stare at the floor. Many of his paintings look as if they were painted on Christmas Day - when the subjects and the painter had nowhere else to go while his painting House By The Railroad (1926) was used as the template for Hitchcock’s iconic brooding Bates Hotel in the film Psycho of 1960. He also had a huge impact on Warhol, Jim Dine, Rothko and De Kooning.
Undoubtedly, Hopper had a massive cult following in the seventies and eighties. Tom Waits had named his 1975 album, Nighthawks At The Diner after Hopper’s landmark Nighthawks (1942), Ridley Scott drew heartily on Hopper for, Bladerunner, and in 1991 Madonna, maybe appropriately, incorporated the ambiance of Hopper’s spooky and thoroughly un-sexy, Girlie Show (1941) into her act and named her world tour after it.
But it is apt that Hopper should be rediscovered in Paris. He lived there in 1906, was a frequent visitor and, even though he later rejected European influences (maintaining that American art should encapsulate the character of the nation) was heavily inspired by Degas, Walter Sickert and Felix Vallotton.
Hopper’s poignant output has been described as romantic, realist, symbolist and even formalist. I’d call it enigmatic. Whatever the moniker, his work seems entirely appropriate today.
Edward Hopper is at the Grand Palais, Galeries nationales, Paris until Jan 28th.