One of the great paradoxes of urban living is that proximity to large numbers of other human beings tends to result not in increased social activity, but in people feeling utterly alone. The “slaves of solitude”, as Patrick Hamilton termed them, were a recurrent feature of 20th-century art and literature and, one suspects, will continue to be, as isolation and loneliness become increasingly widespread. Edward Hopper, more than any other painter, was the great chronicler of this forlorn life, as this reprinted monograph proves admirably.

“The loneliness thing is overdone,” said Hopper – a quote which Kranzfelder seizes on with relish to support his rather academic thesis on “the decline of the public sphere” – but there is a reason why critics tend to dwell on it. In Automat, for example, Hopper created one of the most profoundly sad images of the 20th century. The isolation of the girl who nurses her coffee in the small hours is brought home by the knowledge that an automat does not even have any staff, food being obtained from slot machines. The alienating effect of the city (blackly invisible outside the window, its presence is implied by the woman’s urbane mode of dress and the modernity of the setting) is such that she has to shield herself by switching off her thoughts and gazing without focus at the tabletop. The sadness comes as much from the upside-down smile of her fashionable cloche hat, which droops like a stetson left out in the rain, as it does from her blank expression.

Like the dehumanised, introspective inhabitants of Hopper’s other paintings, the girl in Automat could almost be an automaton, if it were not for the fact that such mechanical humans exist to move, and Hopper’s is an inherently static world. His figures are rarely dynamic, more often sitting in banal contemplation or staring into the distance, and his landscapes are frequently unoccupied. The gas stations and provincial streets are as placid and unpopulated as those in a ghost town; the deserted cities could almost have been hit by a neutron bomb, which apocryphally destroys human life but leaves buildings unscathed.

Hopper was influenced by the idioms of Manet and Caspar David Friedrich rather than the formal experiments of contemporaries like Picasso and Mondrian; the earlier works stand out as the products of a man indebted to the French Impressionists. But Kranzfelder eschews chronology – rightly so, as the details of Hopper’s life are sketchy – and groups the pictures according to the themes that resurfaced throughout his career. And it is these themes that mark Hopper’s work out as truly modern. The alienation, melancholia and Weltschmerz in his pictures is as pertinent today as it was when the paint was still wet.

First published in World of Interiors issue 244. Reproduced with permission.


by Ivo Kranzfelder  (Taschen)

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