EDWARD HOPPER: THE MIRROR EFFECTThis entry was posted on April 23rd, 2016
By Vica Smirnova
Since the 1930s, Edward Hopper has been quoted endlessly: by De Mille and Siodmak, Hitchcock and Lynch. Hopper’s infinite stylizations reproduced the same effect of subtraction of the human, with priority of space over its characters. In his Victorian cottages, deserted cafes and hotels, a character was present only to point out his own insignificance. Hopper invented an absent America, and having fallen in love with its own reflection, it forgot about the author, as if this landscape had materialized out of thin air and had existed from the start.
Edward Hopper was born in 1882 in Upper Nyack, a resort suburb of New York. He studied at the New York School of Art, where Robert Henri, a portraitist and big admirer of Eduard Manet and the impressionists, used to teach. In 1910 he moved to Paris for a while, from where he brought back the gaze of a stranger, of an attentive tourist who is sensitive to the anonymity of the urban space.
His first solo exhibition took place in 1924, when Hopper was over 40. By that time the public had appreciated Manet and Cézanne (in turn, inspirations for Hopper), which contradicted its art censorship and became its canon. In 1933, Hopper had the honour of being exhibited at the prestigious MoMA. Galleries loved his cityscapes. He had taught them to be inspired by monotony, having cultivated the taste for “the homotypic in the world”.
It’s precisely because of this effect of photographic semblance and at the same time the prickling (it’s all so real, but also so weird!) that Hopper was called a magic realist. It is true that he was interested in prosaic things: abandoned railway lines, telegraph poles, petrol stations and empty roads. As his wife used to write, everything that was outside the everyday repertoire of objects would gripe Hopper. He avoided any exotic sights, or faces where there would be a hint of individuality.
His characters aren’t created for examining. The spectator has nothing to catch – no introspection, nothing atypical. Hopper diligently ousts expressions from faces. They’re sideward-facing, they look into a book or out of the window, however, their sight remains impenetrable, it drags the viewer into a conflict between the living and the inanimate, between the strained (if we recall the posture) and the static (if we recall the color).
In other words: Hopper’s human face doesn’t symbolize anything any more, it exists as a continuation of natural body anatomy. No more and no less.
In fact, starting with the earlier works, Hopper moves towards priority of paysage. He turns his characters’ backs on spectators; silhouettes of sailing men are far more interesting than their faces. Their aim is entirely rhetorical. They are needed to repeat the geometry of decks and sails, to echo the diagonals and verticals, which Hopper is encouraged by. There is a refined sadism in this. The spectator is influenced by the subtraction of the human, its insignificance in natural landscapes. The structure of Hopper’s paintings allows such a combinatorial set. He creates an imitation of still life, having placed women’s bodies among cushions, as Cezanne once placed apples among vases.
He quotes classical themes (“The Seamstress”), however, unlike their ancestors, his embroiderers don’t shed natural photogeny. They are deficient in the inmost – the “human aura” which was so appreciated by the Flemish.
Thus, the heroine of “The Seamstress” is doing her job indifferently, having placed her body at the disposition of the glance. Whose glance? Of an opposite building, of the light or of the window. In short, of something that is spared of any kind of anthropopathy. Hopper’s heroines don’t see but are seeable. The light itself is watching: the light of a magic lantern, electric or midday sunlight. That is why the subtraction is an operation performed painlessly in Hopper’s case.
In some sense not only did Hopper invent the American landscape, which we recognize immediately after empty highways, sweltering heat, petrol stations and advertisements. What is more interesting is that he invented something that we call the digital image. Long before the appearance of computers, he created reality from which the negative image had disappeared. If we liken this effect to photography, we can say that Hopper’s exorbitance of resemblance pointed out that there was no original at all or that it was lost from the start.
Of course, this judgment may seem speculative due to retrospective outlook, which parasitizes immodestly on the present. And still… Everyone who was inspired by Hopper (Warhol, Hitchcock, Godard or Wenders, Lynch or Jarmusch) was inspired precisely by this effect of the loss of reality, by its presence only as a reference (or as a trace). The filmmakers who were fond of Hopper were dazzled by his endless ballet of presences-absences, his permanent abolishment of perspective, which emerges due to optically precise unimaginable clarity of the sight. The latter had always excluded the human, or rather hadn’t offered anything apart from his existence as a supporting actor, as a rudiment (or trash) of the landscape.
This, however, demands explication. It’s the abolition of reality in its anthropological dimension that introduced the human element into the dehumanized or, on the contrary, over humanized intellectual landscape, now as its afterthought, paradoxically irrevocable.
In fact, there is no oddity in that. Any époque supersaturated with things executes re-denotation, creates a new policy of relations, insisting on re-subordination and a new superiority. Hopper achieves ambivalence (the character is unimportant precisely because it is depicted), having merely exiled the effect of accomplishment from the state of the world, having excluded completeness or, rather, certainty from gestures. His heroes are frozen in time; they look endlessly beyond a frame (or a screen).
Cinematographic metaphor isn’t accidental. After all, not only did Hopper love photography (having presented him with a copy of “The Photographic History of the Civil War”, his wife was afraid he would give up drawing), but he was also a moviegoer.
He drew cinema halls, lobbies, usherettes, and the triangular ray of light that explicitly recalls the light of a movie projector. His frozen moments recall photograms. They give away the mechanical nature of spontaneity, anatomizing time, turning continuance into a mechanical sum of minutes.
To illustrate this thought it is enough to compare a sketch and a painting. For example, in “Morning Sun” one can recognize Jo’s face from the pencil sketch. There’s no face in the painting any more. It has lost its singularity and, flooded by light, it turns into a mask. Hopper’s brush achieves photographic resemblance and then undertakes a favorite maneuver – it empties the face, makes it contrast with the body (which still expresses expectation, curiosity or hope with its posture). If we make a comparison, we can say that Hopper’s painting gravitates towards a surrealist effect: it freezes at a crossroad between photography and painting. It plays with the natural ability of photography to be a reflection, a mold of reality, and with the ability of the painting to be a representation of this reality.
Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock
What was it about Hopper that turned out to be so interesting for filmmakers? Is it because he created this melancholic landscape of America? Is it because he became a director of light decorations?
It seems to be something else. That this easiness with which cinema assimilated Hopper owes a lot to his passion for the anonymous, to his strange temporal somersaults, to his taste for the banal. In short, to things with which Hitchcock, Wenders, Lynch and Jarmusch have been working throughout the whole century.
For instance, long before Warhol did it, he invented this state of boredom (the present as nonsense), introduced the everyday (people as tourists in their own lives, being bored indifferently on their porches, in buses and hotels, sleeping in cafes by themselves).
Before Hitchcock did, he imparted the expression of peering, which he took away from the human, to the paysage. His open door, through which the light sets in with the same brushwork – electrical and natural at the same time – turns the light itself into a sign or an index. Light is understood as a field. His bright lighting – forte (too bright, not to mean anything else) – became not the light but a thought about the light. The light engaged the world into a game of question and answer. Or rather a question, which would be posed by reality itself, if it suddenly was subjectivized, having become its own mirror.
And there’s one more thing that explains Hopper’s place in cinema – deconstruction of spectacle. Indeed, not only did cinema participate in “deception” or illusion, but also, on the contrary, it showed where this deception took place, learning itself to play artfully on the border, as Hitchcock did, undermining belief in rationality, which is cherished by genre (or the viewer).
Thus, Hitchcock, as no one else, could sense Hopper’s permanent “superfluity of reality”. And even in the 1960s, when technique allowed exterior shooting, he would use rear-screen projection, he would make it so that figures would stand out from the backdrop, not only emphasizing the unnaturalness of the human in the landscape, but also making the landscape a purely mental construction.
Hitchcock and Hopper are also similar in their absolute belief in structures. For example, with Hitchcock it’s only the camera that is dreaming, although we think it’s the characters. It’s no coincidence that in the final scene of Rear Window everyone breaks even. She stays with her “Harper’s Bazaar” and he stays with his camera. The masseuse stays with her anticipations, which always come true. The happy ending is only “by word of mouth”. As a matter of fact, nothing has ended. Only for one moment, the state of things became clearer, the fantastic – a bit less believable, the intrigue – a bit more intelligible. This guilty pleasure, which everybody experiences, owes a lot to an eternally unaccomplished contract “to tell everything”, promised by the genre and, of course, by the narrator. We believe in the contract, but we enjoy the fact that it’s never fully executed.
And finally, there is one more similarity between the two authors. That suspense, which is created by the gaze of objects, was already present in Hopper’s series of cottages (for example in “Tow Puritans”). However, we can say it the other way. Hopper gets this effect from Hitchcock – because we can’t eliminate our own experience of cinephilia, the experience, thanks to which we are always already involved into a tradition and are determined by it.
Edward Hopper and Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders is another admirer of the author of “Nightwalks”. Hopper’s genre portraits, in which people are literally imprinted into a surrounding space and are as imminent to it, are a constant reference in Paris, Texas or The American Friend.
In fact, the weirdness and deviance in Hopper’s paintings, always flat without perspective, exist precisely in absolute mimesis. The human face only mirrored the paysage, evoking a sense of a prick, of awkwardness, of some persistent moral discomfort.
Certainly, by quoting Hopper, Wenders speaks about himself. He articulates his own relations with the camera (for instance, with its incapability to get behind the scenes of a face). And, at the same time, he shows how photographic approximation to reality becomes a trauma; how the border, which was traditionally set by perspective, turns out to be lost in Hopper’s paintings, and we have only discourse in front of us, which plays the role of the Real.
In the same way as Hitchcock did, Wenders borrows what captivates him the most. For instance, in Wenders’ landscape, the disappearance of a face isn’t a reason for discomfort. Rather, the opposite. Wenders is intrigued by the ability of a face to surrender to landscape. He is captivated by the moment when a line of character becomes a biography.
In the films he made in the 1970s and 80s, there’s no cause for the characters’ behavior, and the causes can’t be guessed from psychological silhouettes, sketched by the author.
This is the reason why, without knowing the story, a viewer can’t anticipate a quiet domestic decorator’s transfiguration into a hitman. In the introductory scenes of The American Friend (where Jonathan Zimmermann refuses to shake hands with Ripley as he is a “pictorial art connoisseur”; he has this uncompromising idealism towards the “purity of art”). This somewhat highlights key points: friendship between the American and the German is out of the question. However, everything turns out to be different. Despite different habits, cultures, worldviews and environments (Zimmermann’s world is a space of claustrophobia, imbued with the spirit of his illness, with perpetual expectation and nervous sleep; Ripley’s world, on the other hand, is a space of streets, airports, and motels with theatrically waving red curtains, windswept space opened to all winds) both characters get together to exchange destinies.
In The American Friend this inability to distinguish between a role and a biography, of an original and a copy, will turn out to be a philosophical subject. The moral dilemma (the fictitious and the real) will turn out to be aesthetic: the artist fakes paintings which are sold on auctions to connoisseurs. An original loses its privilege of superiority, of that specific aura, which a copy can have. In some sense both Wenders’ film (which mimics classical noirs) and Zimmermann’s life (who tries the role of a murderer on and who gets more and more joy of a spontaneous journey full of danger and with an unknown destination) are copies.
Edward Hopper and David Lynch
Another not-so-evident quality of the American classic is revealed in David Lynch’s films: his connection to surrealistic aesthetics and his tendency to see the everyday as the eccentric, and the banal as the paradoxical.
Essentially, in Hopper’s hyper-reality and in Lynch’s everyday fantastic fiction, we meet the same effect: “All this is a record”. Reality turns out to be constructed, everything natural becomes a sign. Neither Hopper nor Lynch have anything real left. The photographic reflects nature and nature itself becomes an index.
To prove this point it would be enough to compare faces. On Hopper’s paintings they are paradigmatically typical, any individuality is excluded from them. Faces in Lynch’s works are canvases suitable for drawing on top of, ideal for any masquerades and transformations. Certainly, Lynch’s stories are full of freaks and madmen. Their role is purely syntactic, though. They turn out to be mediums of a mystery; they are supplied to maintain the fragile balance between the film and the viewer, to whip up hypnotic presence in a territory of the subjective.
It’s not a mere coincidence that Lynch constantly sends us outwards from the screen. “There are no actors, no musicians here” – he addresses this to his characters and to his viewers, disturbing the diegetic space.
However, the main thing that Lynch borrows from Hopper is a game with the present. The face in Hopper’s paintings, resonating with the figure, blocks time. This is such a disturbing maneuver that it generates a possibility of temporal somersaults. Lynch’s syntax is essentially a repetition of Hopper’s conflict – he likes prolonged close-ups, creating a caesura in a narrative, his slowdowns produce an effect of the endless present, of an ellipsis, which is needed to make the viewer experience hypnosis of language, its ability to produce tautologies, to point out that “this thing”, “this girl” is never itself or herself, and that after being named one is imbued with excessive significance and is involved into an unending semiotic game.
That’s why in Lynch’s films nothing is insignificant. A man beside a shop-window, a man with a dog, branches of trees above heads – all these claim to have sense. Lynch and Hopper undermine any kind of “natural” reality. The photographic creates a crack, the light (Hopper) and the syntax (Lynch), introduces the effect of unreality into the everyday, generates a rupture between speech and image, the signifier and what it signifies.
In fact, we could continue to name authors under Hopper’s spell. The question remains open though. Why is it the Hopper is so popular? Why is he suitable for memes, unbridled takeovers and subcultural assimilations?
Perhaps because his paintings are so provocatively interactive, that they offer the viewer an opportunity to create his own version of the world. Uninhabited as The Mona Lisa’s famous face, they conceal a self-portrait and a paysage, fulfill a function of a mirror, easily reflecting anyone who watches. It is possible that this mirror effect turns out to be determinative.