The Dividing Line

Recently, Nancy and I drove up to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine to see an exhibition of Edward Hopper paintings. One online description begins this way: “During the nine fruitful summers he spent in Maine between 1914 and 1929, Edward Hopper produced some of the most beautiful and evocative paintings and watercolors of his career.”

Nancy and I are great admirers of Hopper. So it was a no-brainer that we would drive six hours there and back to see this unusual collection of his early work. The surprise was how much I didn’t like it. I thank my friend, Duane Paluska, for showing me why.

Like Bowdoin Duane also runs a gallery in Brunswick. He calls it ICON. Duane is a fine artist in his own right. Several of his furniture pieces, both utile and deconstructive, are in the Bowdoin Gallery and the Portland Museum of Art, an hour south of there. One is sitting in the living room of our house in Cambridge.

As luck would have it, Duane was in his Brunswick Gallery when we called ahead. No, he hadn’t seen the exhibition.

“If Hopper hadn’t put people into his pictures,” Duane said while we made our way slowly through the exhibit, “No one would remember him.”

Thanks to Duane's comment, a light bulb went on inside my head. The Hopper paintings we were looking at were just like those of his contemporaries. The exhibit showed some of them: George Bellows, John Sloan, Rockwell Kent. If you were to mix up the labels on the paintings, no one would notice except, maybe, the experts. Each was pretty much like the other. I’m sure there were differences in coloration, brush strokes, design. But they were not remarkable differences. Hopper and his contemporaries were as interchangeable as Tupperware bowls. But try interchanging a Hopper painting like the iconic Nighthawks, the one with the man and woman looking gloomily into the middle distance across the counter of an all night diner, or the excruciatingly lonely Hotel Room in which a woman clothed only in an undergarment sits on the edge of a narrow bed, bent over a train schedule (pace the Bonds' poem to follow), her clothes strewn over a chair, her shoes beside a dresser.

The point is that when Hopper put a person in a painting, he put a story in the painting, too. You can’t have one without the other. The storyteller is, of course, the viewer, including the painter. Here, for example, are a few stanzas from Diane S. Bonds' Hotel Room (Edward Hopper 1931) that illustrates my point:

Hopper's woman sits, before turning back
the antiseptic sheets, nearly nude and bent
above her book. Her cell-like room argues

the world is a disease (sparse furnishings
the hues of bodily fluids, one wall shadowed
like a bruise.) And the light! the woman reads

in the glare of the examining room,
the operating room. But if you think
the room speaks of defeat (isn't it defeat

we find in narrow places?) consider whom
she resembles most: Mary clinging to her book
as she withholds her gaze from Gabriel.

It is no accident that Bonds' poem harks back to the long line of Annunciation paintings of the Renaissance. Think of Fra Angelico’s fresco in the San Marco convent in Florence. There isn’t a soul in Christendom who doesn’t know that story.

Duane’s insightful comment made me realize that the entire history of Western painting turns on this question: Is there a person in the picture? Ezra Pound once said that the task of the 20th century was to break the back of the iambic. His remark heralded the end of metrical verse and the onset (should I say onslaught?) of free verse. Well, I think the boundary between classical and modern painting is just as definitively characterized. Take the person out of the painting and whatever is left, it isn’t a story.