From Emotional Openness To Psychological Reservation Or Even Existential Shutting Up

The theme of “Automat” alludes to the decline of the public sphere. Although the place depicted is nominally public, it does not create the impression of actually being so. The woman seated… appears entirely turned inward upon herself, and her isolation is increased by a suggestion of hurry and unrest, conveyed by the coat and glove she still has on.

Ivo Kranzfelder, “Hopper (Vision of Reality)”, Taschen, 2001, p. 146

Edouard Manet, “Plum Brandy”, 1876
Edouard Manet, “Plum Brandy”, 1876

Although this very young woman is looking not so much to the world but rather into an internal well filled with her feeling of her life, she radiates this feeling – shares it with her surrounding, unintentionally, unconsciously, matter-of-factly. Her sadness is pacified by being not denied by her – by being felt, being opened or, using Heidegger‘s term, not hidden (not concealed – unconcealed). It became gentler because it’s shared socially. This type of sharing belongs to a pre-communicative level – the girl doesn’t necessarily need to talk, to “open her soul”. She is, as if, listening to people’s silent compassion, the human presence around her, in this public place. Without this presence even talking to somebody about our problems, even obvious compassion would be too harsh, too operational, not delicate enough. Humane atmosphere starts with compassionate silence, with sensitivity of the human souls, felt in the air of public space. Her cigarette is unlit, she is alone, but she is – together with the world, to which she naturally gives her soul with a matter-of-factly hope for compassion and empathy. Her pain becomes for her as a plum brandy. This girl doesn’t know how lucky she is in France of the second part of nineteenth century, in spite of all the terrors of history, because she can be alone without feeling lonely.

Edward Hopper, “Automat”, 1927
Edward Hopper, “Automat”, 1927

So differently from Manet’s painting (which gently saves the protagonist from fixation on herself), Hopper’s “Automat” de-centers its protagonist in a subduing way – it makes her smaller in comparison with the artificial environment that surrounds her. In Manet the jewel of the girl’s being is gently but generously framed, but here the surrounding dominates human presence. The both paintings depict lonely human figure in the public space. But in Manet the young woman, as if, invokes other people – we feel their presence. In Hopper a much larger space is shown but it only creates the feeling of the intensity of human loneliness. The contrast between the artificially bright light and darkness of the background and the furniture exaggerates the contrast between an omnipresence of industrial efficiency and human vacuity. The overfilled glass-bowl signifies prosperity without human beings, as a goal in itself. The super-lamps of the bistro reflected in the background, as if are swallowed by the larger world. They look as industrial technology mechanically intervening into the space. But this woman is not relaxed (like the one in Manet) – she is focusing on something which demands thought, she is not just present in the space. What is she thinking about? – A boyfriend who is late or, perhaps will not show up or work, a job interview? Her pain is locked inside her and for this reason it is not just pain but frustration she is trying to keep under control. She has not only been isolated by the vacuum of the space from other people, but is isolating herself by trying to mobilize her frustration to resolve difficulty of her situation.

The space of Manet’s painting is vertically divided into four parts. The mentality of the girl is emphasized by the window as a frame of her head, the girl’s soul accented by the back of the sofa framing her torso, the surface of the table which is a screen for the girl’s feelings, and under-table space, shown as a private and anonymous for the semantic telos of the painting. In contrast, in Hopper’s “Automat” the space is vertically divided into a dark background dominating the woman at the table as a giant predatory abyss, the surface of the table reflecting the brightness of the light proclaiming the energetic power of technological eternity, and girl’s articulate legs – lit, as if, advertizing themselves from under the table. While Manet is in love with the reality he is representing (he, as if promotes it through his very inspiration and is in tune with his love), the task of Hopper is psychologically much more difficult – it is to be critical of that which you love, your country and your people, to split your own soul for the sake of truth, to be “crucified” between your land and your truth.