Image: Edward Hopper – Room in New York (1932) via edwardhopper.net
Umang Kalra’s work appears or is forthcoming in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, VAYAVYA, Moonchild Magazine, Vagabond City, and others. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in History from Trinity College, Dublin, and has previously been mentored in poetry by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
Edward Hopper and the Suspension of Loneliness in Time
Edward Hopper remains one of the most celebrated and revered artists of our time, that is, the time in which neon lighting and urban, plastic living, and existing with the threat of war hanging over our heads, all became normalised. At first glance, his work exhibits a certain timeless quality, but on closer inspection it reveals a sense of being frozen – suspended, rather – in a unique and specific moment in time, one that cannot be replicated, nor truly understood through the barrier of the misplaced nostalgia they evoke. The loneliness, the longing, of his art weighs down upon us regardless, creating an uncomfortable paradox that often forces a limited appreciation of his pieces. One can only engage with the profound feeling of discomfort they elicit for so long without wanting an escape, one readily offered by his medium – that of simply looking away.
Hopper’s works are filled with paradoxes such as this one. They invite the viewer to engage and yet force them to experience emotions that are decidedly unpleasant. The feeling of being so terrifyingly alone and exposed, in a setting meant for socialising (‘Nighthawks’), or that of simply being viewed in what would otherwise be the privacy of one’s own home (‘Woman in the Sun’), so unique to our experience as people existing in a world that is changing far too quickly for anybody to keep up, are not emotions that one often desires to revel in. Still, Hopper’s poignant portrayal of their stark reality draws the viewer in, creating something that is in reality often pointedly missing from urban, modern living – an encounter with these emotions, an engagement and acknowledgement of them beyond one’s own self, the realisation that while they consume one in their loneliness, one is not alone in feeling them.
Despite their isolated and decontextualised quality, however, Hopper’s works remain indisputably wedded to the time in which they were produced. There is nothing 20th-century-specific about a semi-nude woman recoiled next to an unmade bed (‘Summer Interior’), but she still manages to carry a profound individuality unique to a world being overrun by unique anxieties and shifting paradigms, representing a moment replicated across geography throughout modernity – that of being overwhelmed, of being overcome and being unprepared for a time and a world that is unprecedented in its truest sense. This indication of modernity, however, is not sustained by the woman alone. Hopper’s delight in showcasing small but sure details that leave no doubt about the time in which he envisioned his world is evidenced throughout his work. The anxieties of his characters are accompanied by the certainties of their settings – a lampshade glowing over modern fixtures (‘New York Movie’), the sharp, angled lines of a building (‘Early Sunday Morning’), the quiet, unassuming presence of a metal radiator in the background (‘Automat’). This tendency takes over entirely in some of his works, where the objects of modernity, with their intrinsically uncertain and unnerving quality, become the subjects themselves, exhibited most famously in his 1940 painting ‘Gas’.
His muse extends beyond the hollowness and loneliness of modernity, and engages something that should necessarily be timeless, but in Hopper’s expert hands, is anything but – light. Exhibited plainly and starkly within contexts made of concrete and other decidedly artificial things, Hopper creates the perception of light itself as an intruder, almost, an uninvited and ill-fitting guest – nature arriving in the age of industrial warfare, the age of numbing, slow-burning panic masked with shallow socialising and the ever-uncertain safety of finding solace in other people. Piercing through urban glass as a fierce reminder of the contradictions of not only shadow and light, but that of the unfeeling glass-plastic-concrete cityscapes, and life, embodied so perfectly, so eerily in the quiet, almost menacing, almost uncomfortably yellow light. It embodies Hopper’s signature device – creating vulnerability through exposure to nothing in particular. The blatant and pronounced clash between the eerily artificial glow and the external darkness create an uneasiness designed to disturb, drawing attention to the ubiquity of being observed, of being witnessed, in contexts where one never had to worry about an absence of privacy until recently. A prime example is the glaring intrusion depicted by ‘Room in New York’, and another the invasive spotlight of ‘Summer Evening’.
Hopper’s medium, too, plays into the paradoxes of his work. Paint has the quality of being slightly removed from reality, associated traditionally with the fantastical and abstract – be it the ethereal Biblical representations of the High Renaissance or the whimsical and blurred realities of the Impressionists. Hopper, however, divorces the medium from its near-otherworldly tendency and grounds it firmly in a setting into which it struggles to fit. Patchy, almost clumsy blotches of colour are coaxed into shapes recognisable enough that our eyes weave through them with ease, but shift and blur if we try to focus on their shape. It gives the viewer familiarity blended with inaccuracy – stark architectural lines and almost glowing, artificial shadows (‘Sun in an Empty Room’, ‘Rooms By the Sea’), that are sharp enough to be firmly rooted in the age of industrialisation and urbanisation, but just short of the cleanness, the exactitude of a photograph, another medium unique to the modern age.
He captured moments unique to his time, deliberately embedded into their contexts yet simultaneously plucked out of them and displayed in painful detail – detail of emotion, but never of objects, of setting. Hopper brought into sharp focus the burgeoning reality of what it meant to be alive in a time of war and change and danger perfectly blended into a life of frivolity, of fur coats and diners and gas stations in a world where turning the light on in one’s home can be dangerous after dark if the blinds aren’t pulled down firmly enough. There is something deeper in the anxieties of everyday activities when they are marked by such change and anticipation for the unknown. While timeless in a sense, Hopper’s art left a legacy, more importantly, of suspension through change, of a unique moment hanging in the stillness, the sheer terror of what it was coming to mean to be alive, the horrors of realisation placed against flimsy, superficial denial. He perfectly represented loneliness in a form that humanity had never had to experience before, and thus forced a confrontation with the fears it created.