Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, oil on canvas, 1928.

Quite some time ago, when I was an editor at the old Chicago Daily News, I'd often take the L home on hot summer nights. Rather than reading the paper, I'd gaze idly out the window as the train rattly-clanked its way around tight curves and past seedy apartment buildings. Often shades were up and back doors open, and I could see into lighted rooms inside.

An old man slumped alone in a rocker, dog at his feet. A young woman primped in her slip before a mirror. A couple sat unspeaking at a kitchen table. They were all strangers. And the brief glimpses I had of their lives told me nothing about them. Who were these people and what did they do? What did they think about and what did they long for?

Sometimes I'd construct a fantasy life for them. The scenarios were always fleeting -- the train rolled past too quickly for me to form more than an impression -- but they always suggested a melancholy existence: These people were lonely, isolated, cut off from those they lived with.

Probably none of this was true, just the weary and romantic longueurs of a homebound city worker hoping for a cool shower and a cold beer on a hot night. Who could presume to tell such stories, anyway?

Edward Hopper did, and these memories rushed back the other day when the Lady Friend and I saw the new Hopper exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hopper's greatest painting, his powerful "Nighthawks," has been a comfortable old friend to three generations of Chicago journalists. At one time or other we all ate silently with strangers at corner cafes under Phillies cigar signs before starting the midnight-to-8 shift at our newspapers.

But it was the other, less familiar paintings such as "Night Windows" that touched my soul. As the exhibition handout says, Hopper's voyeuristic technique in painting what he saw fleetingly through city windows gave his work "an overwhelming silence and disquieting stillness." What were these people and their ambiguous dramas all about? Hopper wouldn't say.

It was up to the viewer to make of the art what he would. Aloof solitude or aching loneliness? You tell me, buddy, the paintings seem to say.

I could go on for hundreds of words about the impact Hopper and his art had on me the other day, but I ought to mention the companion exhibition at the Art Institute: the watercolors of Winslow Homer. While he doesn't have the emotional impact of Hopper (at least for me), Homer is very much worth viewing for the breadth and depth of his many-sided techniques, especially in transforming chalk drawings into watercolors.

In short Homer is to be admired, but Hopper is to be experienced.

This twin exhibition opened February 16 and closes May 10. If you're going to be anywhere near Chicago between now and then, go.

One complaint: There was no printed script for the deaf and hard of hearing of the sophisticated audiophone presentation. This was disappointing, especially since the Art Institute has conscientiously provided these scripts for many if not most of its shows. I hope this was just a one-time oversight.

[March 19: The Art Institute advises that there indeed are printed scripts of the exhibition; it so happened that on the day of my visit someone walked off with them instead of returning them. So it goes. But I am glad the Institute isn't falling down on its moral obligations to people with disabilities.]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! I'd heard about the show but had forgotten all about it -- now I'm going to make plans to see it.

    I love "Nighthawks," too!