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.