Americans In Between Work and Themselves (When Historically Consumerism Was Not Yet Activated)

Hopper’s smooth transition from a mimetic art (no more than realistic, representational and tending towards the narrative) to a symbolic art… For the self-reflective sign system established in his painting not only recodes realistic elements and symbolic relations; it also creates a new context – a second surface.
Rolf G. Renner, “Edward Hopper (Transformation of the real)”, Taschen, 2002, p. 29

… The natural lethargy and vanity of human nature… (Edw. Hopper)
Rolf G. Renner, ibid, p. 29

Taken unaware by the painter

Edward Hopper, “Sunday’, 1926

Sunday, trade is sluggish, the owner or the employee of a small store is waiting for customers or giving himself to the transparency of time not filled by events. The format of the painting seems undecided; still, horizontality appears to be slightly prevailing over verticality. Horizontality with its relaxed lines is calm in contrast with over-dramatic verticality symbolizing the ambitions of property owners. So much passion is projected into the crude but loud architectural vignettes, while the street is empty and indifferent. Sunlight easily dominates the tall windows – human passion for success. Street puts the person down to the wooden curb where the short lines between the boards as a part of the vertical motif are completely subdued by the motif of horizontality (became part of it) – real life cools the human dreams, drums and dramas. But, to put aside the clash between horizontality (co-existence and socialization) and verticality (competition and privatization), what does the facial expression of the protagonist tells us? He is outside of his working space but not far from it. He is looking to nowhere. He is inside his working time. He is not working but he is inside his work. What else will he do when there are no customers? It is at this point in our American psychology Hopper, it seems is orienting our attention – when we are not working we are left empty. We are empty of ourselves. In the 20s entertainment industry and consumerism were not yet as developed to fill us up as they do today. If we, humans, are not filled by our own internal world – our questions and answers leading to other questions, it means, we are empty of ourselves. This specific condition – emptiness from ourselves is, it seems, the topic of this painting. That’s why after WWII we, with an almost suicidal passion, drown ourselves in money-making, pop-music, “sexual revolution“, gluttony, drugs, cars, careers, religious sectarianism, sexual experimentation, and again money-making – we don’t have ourselves. When we are, we are not. That’s what we see in the eyes of the man sitting on the street, in the eyes that are not on a face which is not. He cannot even look at anything because there is no him – we see a person who came out of the shop because nobody has dropped in there, and that’s all, a person who exists only as far as he came out because nobody came in.

When the mind is wandering around

Edward Hopper, “Pennsylvania Coal Town”, 1947

The personage of this painting has stepped outside the house he owns or rents and attending the place where he lives. He is outside of the inside of his life, but still nearby – he is psychologically in a similar situation as the man in the painting above. He is in between his place and himself (between what his life is and himself). He is here, near his house, and he is not – he is looking somewhere else. What is he looking at – a cat, dog, neighbor, a window? Here Hopper not only doesn’t let us see the man’s facial features, but even to look at it – the gaze of the man, it seems, not only directed at nowhere, like in the “Sunday” painting, but at somewhere that is nowhere (he sees something without being interested in what he sees). This person is stuck between his life and himself because he doesn’t know what his life is and who this himself is who has a life. The presence of the plant in the yard-vase seems to be significant here – the plant looks like decorative feathers of Native American warrior, while the flower pot – like his body (pay attention to its bright color). The pot with the plant is a Native American transformed by the white men’s “bravery” and “determination” into a piece of decoration. Well, it is our “heroic” past. But what about our present where we are stuck between being servants of our industrial and financial civilization and ghosts without an inner world/alive soul? It is not the ability to crush the external obstacles before they crush us – what makes a person a personality, not making billions on polluting life or killing civilians, but the presence of dialogue with oneself about one’s existentially spiritual destiny. That’s what makes the human gaze rooted and focused and can make a person with rake into a conductor of his internal orchestra.

Yearning of an Awakened Ghost

Edw. Hopper, “Cape Cod Morning” (1950)

Why the protagonist of this painting so alertly and even compulsively concentrated on something outside her house? Is she witnessing a murder? Is she seeing the rape? – Has she noticed some suspicious activity? May be, she is waiting for a car that is late? But when we try to understand a serious work of art we have to unlearn what Hollywood or comic books taught us for decades – we have to get the ability to step down from the amusement park of the entertaining events into the ambiguous area of human collective and individual psychology. This woman, it seems, is ahead of the two male personages from the two previous paintings who are too glued to the materiality of their existence and are souls without inner world/soul. These men are no more than an appendix to their standard way of life. They are stuck between their work and life, on the one hand and themselves on the other. They are without the ability to discover who they are or could be. But the woman in “Cape Cod Morning” is over-excited and inspired by her, while still blind, feeling of an inner world as a mystery. It is as if she tries to see herself real, at first somewhere outside herself. And what an amazing idea for Hopper to have her look out of a bay window of the recess of the house – as if it’s her passionate concentration itself to find herself what has created this excess, this protrusion in the body of the house that follows her mysterious impulse marking her desire to go out of belonging to coordinate of her everyday life. Still another little miracle is the presence of the black shutters on the window through which we see the woman. It is as if these shutters are opened for the viewers but as soon as she looks through another – the central segment/middle part of the window, the very position of the shutters creates the visual effect as though her view is barred by the right shatter. The blackness of the shutters echoed by the dark internals of the forest, and both reinforce the impression that the woman is not really looking into the physical space outside of the house but unconsciously trying to focus on the depth of her personality not yet discovered by her. This is how painters look at a painting they are painting to feel how to complete it, or a composer listens to the air around him in order to grasp the sounds that come out of his own soul. The generic nature of the forest also supports the semantic nature of the space outside the house confirming that this painting is rather dealing with the psychological, not a physical space.

The flora motif in all three paintings – its categorical absence in “Sunday”, its being reduced into thin layer of grass (lawn near the house), the stylized plant in the terracotta planter and, humorously, into green rolled down window shades – in “Pennsylvania Coal Town”, and symbolized by a not realistic – generalized grass and a forest in “Cape Cod Morning”, is developing the closer a protagonist to the discovery of his/her genuine self and the farther he/she is from being a servant of conventionality and a ghost (a creature without inner being/self). In other words, the evolution of flora motif from its absence, to its narrowly realistic or artificial/applied condition onto its completely symbolic representation makes room for interpreting the psychological condition of the three protagonists as connected with the states of the development of their inner world. Is this development connected with the three historical periods of American life (from pre-war to post-war life) as seen by Hopper or is it just his intuitive symbolization of the phases a possible spiritual evolution of different people he observed during his creative life of the thinker and an artist?