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Edward Hopper | davelovell.net
Aug 052010

Melan­choly.  I feel bad for great words that get attached to ter­ri­ble feel­ings; I think melan­choly is one of those words.  Webster’s has its def­i­n­i­tions, but I have my own as well.  Melan­choly is so awful because it is one of those in between feel­ings; not full sor­row, but very far removed from joy.  It may be more akin to mood than feel­ing, a feel­ing has an object, some­thing that we can iden­tify and deal with.  But a mood is just a vague sense that some­thing is amiss, and if we can’t iden­tify it, we can’t fix it.

The word floated into my head the other day when my Art His­tory class was look­ing at the work of Edward Hop­per. I usu­ally cover Hop­per when we talk about the artists of the Great Depres­sion, but I have never been able to really clas­sify his work.  Some­where between the abstrac­tions of the Avant-Garde and the Real­ism of the Amer­i­can Region­al­ists.  He is, like many of my favorite artists; his own, both in style and content.

In his early years, Hop­per trained as a com­mer­cial artist and he stud­ied print-making in both Paris and NYC.  The bulk of his mature work, though, focused on con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can life.  Unlike his more imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, his focus was not sin­gu­larly rural or urban; it was both and nei­ther.  His sub­jects seem rooted in his­tor­i­cal places and times, yet they remain non-specific, very much like a mem­ory of a place that we once knew well but can no longer recall with detail.  Which brings me back to melancholy.

Look­ing at Hopper’s work, I feel that he is paint­ing a mem­ory; one blurred by the pas­sage of time and pos­si­bly repressed by a defen­sive uncon­scious.  A scene in which we had been in pain that may best not be remem­bered in all its detail.

Most of his work has a sim­i­lar muted palette, as if the real col­ors have been sup­pressed to pro­tect us from being rejoined with the full expe­ri­ence.  The work has an enor­mous still­ness about it, when so many artists of the period were busy try­ing to show dynamic & kinetic strength in their work, in his; motion is stopped, time is sus­pended.  Hop­per showed us frozen images of life, can­vases filled from bor­der to border…with empty space.  Large boule­vards, with no one walk­ing — lunch coun­ters with empty stools — beach homes, barely inhab­ited — and cou­ples that clearly show too much space between them.

For me, Hop­per is the essen­tial Amer­i­can artist of the Great Depres­sion.  He paints his images of that time in the same hushed tones that I remem­ber the old peo­ple of my child­hood talk­ing about it.  Not too loud, not to directly — in fear that just recall­ing the mem­o­ries might recall the losses as well.

We all have peri­ods of Great Depres­sion in our lives, times of extreme chal­lenge and loss.  When I look at Hopper’s work, I see him paint­ing the way I recall those places — blurred and sim­pli­fied, the shapes almost pushed to abstrac­tion.  In remem­ber­ing pain through such a lens, the old pain is muted, the loss mit­i­gated — and I am left with an endurable and almost sym­pa­thetic — melancholy.

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