Edward Hopper: Grand Palais retrospective

Twentieth century America on a canvas – that was Edward Hopper’s shtick. Only it wasn’t such a brilliant America. What was more real? The land as imagined by its political leaders or Hopper’s appraisal of the world he inhabited? There are dreams truer than life: every rose has a thorn. That’s what he was saying.
His style was amazing for its ability to convey two diametrical opposites. On the one hand he painted in a very stylish manner, making very ordinary spaces like cafe shops and side streets look unbelievably chic, hip and unmistakeably cool.
Yet, on the other hand, there is a haunting disquiet about many of his works, a piercing silence that threatens; a lingering sadness in all of the subjects. Even every shadow carries with it a weight of pathos. Can a table ache?
The American realist is currently on show in Paris in what is his first major French retrospective. The Grand Palais notes that his experience of the city – nearly a year in 1906, intermittent sojourns between 1909 and 1910 – was important in him being able to frame his work alongside the greats. It was also a period of intense inspiration.
“Degas inspired him to take original angles and apply the poetic principle of dramatisation,” the gallery reveals. “The massive structure of his views of the quays of the Seine was borrowed from Albert Marquet. He shared with Félix Vallotton a taste for light inspired by Vermeer. Walter Sickert was his model for the iconography of theatres and paintings of damned flesh.”
Paris, beautiful Paris, birthplace of impressionism, was very different to New York. Could the Big Apple ever be beautiful? Trendy, certainly, part of the avant-garde and loaded with culture. But pretty, in a European sense? Examine Hopper and you’ll know how to answer that.
The exhibition is divided into two chronological sections, the first documenting the years that shaped the man into a brilliant chronicler of broken liberalism (1900-1924) and the second telling the story of the years he spent creating his masterpieces (1925-1966).
Of course, no retrospective would be complete without Nighthawks (1942), Hopper’s most famous masterpiece, one of the most recognisable paintings in the world, which has belonged to the Art Institute of Chicago for over 70 years.
The painting depicts a pretty routine late night image of people at a diner. All of the individuals are sharply dressed; the two men suited with trilbies, the lady in a nice red blouse. The waiter, as you’d expect, is in white garb. Outside is painfully quiet, suggesting that it is very late and that for all parties concerned – a couple, an individual – this is a brief break from the journey home.
The couple look lost in their own thoughts, he – with a very sharp nose – brooding with smoke in his hand, she, seemingly sad, about to take a bite into her sandwich. The other man has his back to us and the waiter; he seems to have been caught midway through his duties.
For something so rudimentary there’s a feeling of a storm coming. We want to know their stories. Why this diner? What does the faceless man look like? Are the couple married, in love, colleagues? Where is everyone? Hopper wasn’t easy to read.
“The complexity of Hopper’s oeuvre puts it at the intersection of the two historical definitions of American modernity,” Grand Palais explains.
“One derived from the Ashcan School which claimed the Baudelairian principle of modernity linked to the subject, and the other taken from the lessons of the Armory Show which, in 1913, revealed the formalism of European avant-gardes (cubism and cubist futurism) to the American public.”
Hopper’s America is awkward, engaging and melancholic. This is unmistakable. The sad thing is, and he admitted it himself, is that he often felt lonely and that the paintings were, in part, an unavoidable manifestation of that.
But it’s not all blue. Eight years ago, as the Tate Modern readied itself for the biggest UK show on Hopper in over 30 years, the exhibition’s curator, Sheena Wagstaff, remembered a discussion she had with the owner of the seemingly desolate Excursion into Philosophy (1957).
However, as she recounted, the anonymous proprietor didn’t find it depressing at all. There is comfort in knowing that everyone feels alone at times. We share that with one another. It takes, as this picture implies, lovers to break us out of our miserable existence. This is the dream we all want.
Edward Hopper at the Grand Palais runs until January 28th 2013.
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