Edward Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists. I fell in love with his work long before I saw it in real life. Literature majors and instructors understand the complicated, ever-protested, literary canon found between the covers of the Norton Anthology. But, Hopper’s work was on the cover of several of them, so I would spend whole semesters staring at and loving his work.
I saw my first, in-person Hopper at the University of Nebraska during a Willa Cather conference I was presenting at. There was a break in the conference sessions, so I attended their art exhibit as a way to drink in as much culture on the trip as possible. At the time, I lived in Brookings, SD, and was so thirsty for culture, having left Boston behind a year before. Brookings was a desert for culture and compassion.
But, there I was, in Nebraska, standing face to face with my first real life Hopper:
I purchased this as a post card in the gift shop before I left and it remained on my wall through SDSU and UND, until I met Joel.
The work of Hopper is more to me than pictures, art and culture. He captures the lonely, the solitary, the desperation of extreme aloneness. He highlights the space, both physical and emotional between human beings in a big city.
People ask me why I left Boston. I always say one of two things: I graduated, or it was too expensive to live there any more. The truth is I went eight months without being touched. I was alone, always. Hopper saw this aloneness of the big city. He captured it in his work. However, it was not in a big city that I was the most alone. At UND, surrounded by a bar packed with people I knew, talking to them, smiling, laughing, throwing darts, but never sharing myself. I never felt more alone.
Currently, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is showing an exhibit: Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process now through June 20, 2014. The exhibit is amazing, and I found myself lost in a room of the exhibit called The Bedroom. Here I see pictures of naked, vulnerable women, alone. I sat on the bench and wept because I saw myself in these women.
Morning in a City is a naked woman, holding a towel and preparing herself to go out into the world. Her nakedness is far from sexual. Instead, it is pure vulnerability, physically and emotionally. She stands alone, indicating her solitary life in the big city. In person, you can see it a bit clearer than in this image, but her left breast is a bright red and a central focal point of the painting. In some ways, the breast brings out the color of her lips, hair, and the clothing on the chair to the left. She doesn’t have a proper dressing table, as an upper class woman would have had, instead, she is obviously working class preparing for a day she looks pensive about facing. The injured breast could symbolize how it “injures” her as she is forced to cover up her femininity and her privacy to survive in a man’s world.
But the piece that called to me far more than any of the others is: Summer Interior
The woman looks so warm, half-naked, leaning against a bed. Up close, Hopper uses red to highlight her face, indicating weeping. She looks so defeated, so alone, so vulnerable. With her head down, I imagine her worrying, and her failing, her dreams dead. I see me.
The point of the exhibit is to show an artist’s process and the fascination of how Hopper begins in drawing only to move to painting. According to the Walker Art Center:
Traditionally trained, Hopper drew throughout his life to hone his skills and to work out concepts for his oils…He possessed great technical gifts but found painting difficult describing it as a struggle between the image in his mind and the material limits of paint on canvas.
This is much the way Joel and I work in writing—so many drafts of blogs to arrive at the final concept—the right mix of what belongs where and what does not. You can see this evolution in the work of Hopper. For the Summer Interior piece, he practices where to put the woman in full and complete drawings of the painting to figure out what position the woman should be in to have the most effect: on the bed fully, standing, sitting on the bed….His final decision, as you see above, is perfection. It calls to me. It reaches me. It makes me weep. It is me.
Another part of this exhibit that reaches me is his struggle to arrive at perfection. He has talent, yet works so hard to achieve where he is. He suffers, but also knows he must continue for his personal fulfillment and sanity. I know I will never be Joel in my writing skill or ability because my talent will always be more technical than his.
But Hopper gives me hope.
Hope for a possibility of a grander and more talented future in writing.
The exhibit runs until June 20, 2014, at the Walker Art Center.