Edward Hopper’s Peep Show at the Seattle Art Museum

Edward Hopper’s images are among the most iconic in the American art canon, and with paintings like Chop Suey and Automat, he is well-known for being an urban Norman Rockwell: he painted 20th century genre scenes of men and women going about their daily routines. The Seattle Art Museum is currently running Edward Hopper’s Women, a small show of ten of Hopper’s paintings and etchings, providing a unique opportunity to examine more closely one of the more well-recognized American artists of the early 20th century.

The challenge in presenting Edward Hopper’s work is finding an angle for entry into Hopper’s artistic perspective for contemporary audiences. Patricia Junker, curator for American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, has culled images that portray primarily women — or men watching women. She chose to frame the show around the shifting roles of post-Victorian women, who work, live, and dine independently.

A large portion of the exhibit is given over to “Tables for Ladies” — paintings where Hopper documents the activities of these newly liberated women. In the catalogue, Junker writes,

“When the discreet but friendly sign ‘Tables for ladies’ began appearing in windows, it signaled a restaurant’s acceptance that society was changing. The morals and motives of an unescorted woman were no longer automatically questioned, and she was not shunned in a public dining room. The placard ‘Tables for ladies’ also indicated a place of refuge for the young working woman desiring a comfortable, unthreatening environment in which to take her lunch and supper meals, a place where the stranger sitting next to her would most assuredly be a friendly female companion and not, as a woman alone might understandably fear, a predatory male.” (Edward Hopper: Women, pp. 16-17)

Chop Suey is set in a restaurant such as the one the catalogue describes, showing two women enjoying lunch on a sunny afternoon..

Chop Suey (Edward Hopper, 1929), Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth

Chop Suey (Edward Hopper, 1929), Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth

But Edward Hopper is no journalist, painting these images out of a desire to record the changing mores of his generation. No — this exhibit (and others across the country) cast him as a Peeping Tom, peering in at ladies through windows. On the walls of the exhibit at SAM, there is a quote from the New York Post from 1935:

“He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night…. He likes to ride the els. He would like to get into the apartments but there’s no excuse.”

This paints Hopper in a dark, sinister light, and encourages viewers to read a voyeuristic, erotic tension into his bright, if laconic, images. I think this show took the easy route in reading Hopper’s paintings: after my own analysis, I am not at all convinced that Hopper is spying on women without their permission.

Hopper was apparently a shy man, and spent time in Paris between 1906-1910; during this period, he honed his sketching abilities in the cafes, watching ladies lounge at dainty park-side tables. The SAM exhibition catalogue reproduces two sketches of fashionable ladies drinking wine, alone, at cafe tables; they gaze back at him, one even playfully leaning her chin on her hand, her green boot emerging coyly from under her ruffled cerulean skirts. The gaze went both ways: these European women were engaging in sly exhibitionism as much as Hopper was engaging in voyeurism. (Images are included in the catalogue, but are not available online.)

Edward Hopper brought his love of people-watching back to the United States with him; his work after his return to the US documents people in public, though without the same self-aware returning gaze that we see in his Paris sketches. Some works he sketched from life – the SAM show includes several of his wife, Jo – and there is evidence that some he sketched from memory. The structure of his images are such that if we imagine the artist present in the scene, Hoppers subjects must have granted him tacit permission to be there, and by extension, for the viewer to gaze too. It is harder to read in the Chop Suey picture above, but take this one below, Evening Wind, as a distillation of Hopper’s voyeuristic impulse.

Evening Wind (Edward Hopper, 1921)

Evening Wind (Edward Hopper, 1921)

It is a startling scene, as the naked woman looks quickly away from the viewer, turning to peer out the open window where a stiff breeze has pushed the billowing curtain aside. An art history professor of mine once described the difference between nudity and nakedness as perceptible self-awareness while unclothed. (Examples: Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus is nude; Manet’s Olympia is naked.) Hopper wants us to believe that he has caught the woman in Evening Wind in the nude — as she climbs into an unmade bed, she is surprised (and suddenly modest?) as the wind pushes aside the curtain to reveal her bared skin. I call Hopper’s bluff. This woman is entirely unclothed before a large window; she must surely recognize the possibility of her exposure! Further, to compose this image, our artist must be in the room with his subject. This is a scene, staged to look genuine.

Evening Wind is one of Edward Hopper’s earliest images in this exhibition (1921), but it has all of the qualities of his other ‘views of women’ seen elsewhere in these two galleries at SAM. This image has three distinct perspectives: the artist (and viewer) looking into the frame, the woman looking out the window, and anyone on the outside peering in. Who is watching whom? And, as mentioned above, Hopper’s subject must have had a tacit awareness that she could be seen or watched in this setting, though she does not acknowledge the gaze of the viewer. Hopper found this formula compelling enough that he comes back to it again and again: ladies sit before windows, while the artist and viewer gazes upon them from inside the same room. Hopper’s women keep their eyes low, and avoid our direct gaze, but this does not mean that they are unaware of being watched.

All of this – particularly the staged-to-look-genuine aspect – reminds me very much of photography and film. Watching a movie is a different kind of tacit permission to view another’s performance of intimate activities. Throughout his life, Hopper was a passionate theater and film-goer. He and his wife regularly attended shows, and Hopper would often go by himself when he needed artistic inspiration. In an essay (thank you, Google) called “Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, and Film Noir,” Erika Doss writes about the connection between Edward Hopper’s artworks and American cinema. He was not a realist, working from photographs, but instead created images out of his mind, using “imaginative reconstructions” that were a pastiche of person, time, and place. “In their generalized nature,” she writes, his paintings “…can be read as sophisticated discourses about American culture, in much the same way American movies delineate American history.” Doss goes to great lengths to draw comparisons between contemporary American films and Hopper’s paintings; Compartment C, Car 293 (1938), on display at the SAM, has much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). Out of curiousity, I watched the film myself. Though the film is in black and white, in one scene a woman casually flips through a magazine in a sleeper car; Edward Hopper replicates the layout of this scene in his painting, from angle of the viewer’s perspective inside the car and the woman seated near the window reading a magazine, even detailing the brass fittings and the shape of the seat booth.

Geoffrey Clements, Corbis

Compartment C, Car 293 (Edward Hopper, 1938) Image: Geoffrey Clements, Corbis

Edward Hopper may be a voyeur, but so are any of us who have ever paid to see a film. Hopper, like a great filmmaker, taps into the universal desire to look and to observe small details in human action. The characters who people his paintings and drawings are subtle exhibitionists: their actions are indistinguishable from real actions (eating a meal, sitting in a train car, staring out a window), but are small performances nonetheless. In his works, Edward Hopper – and his subjects – give us permission to look, to observe in others the uncomfortable alienation of sitting alone at a cafe table late at night, or the quiet melancholy of being left alone with one’s thoughts.

Take Hopper’s lead, check out his peep show at the Seattle Art Museum, and do a little spying of your own. The exhibit runs through March 1, 2009.

~ by ecp on January 28, 2009.

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