His best paintings have white in them: the white sail on a gaff-rigged sloop, the white exterior of a New England clapboard house, the white of an Atlantic lighthouse, the white uniform of the guy working behind the diner counter. White is a lonely color: it reflects every spectrum of light. Even though his whites have tints of blue or black or green, it’s still lonely, still stark. White is the color of silence, which is one aspect of what paintings are all about.
The museum at the Foundation Beyeler in Basel was hosting an Edward Hopper exhibit. On the last Saturday of February, the 29th, by 7:00 A.M, I was on the train from Chur, the wagen I was in new, with that new train car smell, over Zurich to Basel, a city on the Rhine at the borders of Switzerland, France, and Germany. Outside the train station I caught the first of two tram rides to the outskirts of the city; the seats on the tram were of shaped wood, looked like something designed by Alvar Aalto: spare, comfortable and functional. I arrived at the museum, a one-level, long, not unpleasing modern building set behind a wall next to the Berower Park. I noted that I was so close to the border that my cell phone kept switching service providers.
It was surprisingly crowded; I didn’t think Hopper was so popular over here, but both the size of the crowd and then later readings indicated his broad appeal. Show the e-ticket, check my bag and coat, then I began making my way through the eight rooms given over to his work. The collection, mostly from the Whitney Museum in New York (I had seen some of Hopper’s work there a long time ago), was of charcoal, water color, and oil paintings.
Although I wasn’t in a hurry, I decided to skip over some works to spend more time in front of others. I prefer to linger a while, get acclimated to each painting, close the eyes for a moment, then look again, try to see it new, fresh, that elusive beginner’s mind. Repeat as needed. If I was able to take in only fifteen or so paintings, give them real and full attention, then that would be more than enough. Therefore I skipped any pure landscape picture: scenes with no buildings or people, these didn’t seem that interesting. I skipped all charcoal sketches. I skipped those that I thought outliers: there was one painting of people riding horse, but it looked to me like Hopper was copying something from Frederic Remington.
I had left my camera with my bag, but I noticed others taking pictures of the paintings. At first I scoffed and snorted, then thought better of it, and fetched my camera from the cloakroom. Of course each and every one of these paintings is in the exhibit catalog, and certainly available on the old www, and yet, I, too, wanted to take my own pictures of the paintings. But why?
In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry asserts that when we see something beautiful, we want to keep on seeing that thing, so much so that we will move our position, work to keep it in view. And more than just looking, we want to copy the beautiful object of our attention:
What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.
Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.
Beauty prompts a copy of itself.
Scarry describes people following the migratory paths of birds, trying to keep the birds in sight, or the story of Leonardo da Vinci, who, when struck by a particular face, spent the entire day following that person through the streets of Florence.
So through the halls I went, changing my position, replicating what I saw. It was like a trip back to the eastern seaboard of America: Bethany Beach, Allentown, Newburyport. Freight Car, Gloucester (1928) was of deep red box cars in yellow gold green grass at the edge of town; that same red appears on the houses in Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro (1903-1933), red walls, a white roof, set in a draw among green hills. There were more paintings of homes, but two in particular stood out: the first is Route 6, Eastham (1941) shows a white clapboard house that has grown and been added on to, the main house had an addition of almost equal size added (facing the road), then running to the back an additional wing connected to a shed, which then joins to the garage. The second is House on a Hill (1926/1928), with beige siding and red/pink shutters, a fine portico and trim details, but set too close to the other homes, like all the overbuilding that is always done near a shoreline.
As much as I love living in Europe, I miss those American homes. I remember visiting friends in the mid-Atlantic or New England, their homes that were once elegant, but made shabby by time and maybe the dwindling wealth of each generation. But still there remained a feeling of longevity, of continuity, to me anyway, contrasted by my experience of moving so much growing up, while my friends had always been in the same place, forever.
I knew of the places Hopper painted. But why all these French and Swiss and Germans here? What did they see? What did they feel? It seemed curious that an exhibition of an American painter should, here in Europe, draw such a crowd, never mind that many times in the United States I had gone to see Vermeer or Rembrandt or the Treasures of Tutenkhamen. Wouldn’t these paintings resonate more with an American than a European? The style of homes and city scenes could only be American, but also the mood, the atmosphere, the loneliness.
Suddenly tired, I looked around for place to sit down. I’m never up this early to go work, why was I up so early on a Saturday, to go look at a bunch of paintings? Most of these paintings I have seen before, as postcards, in books, on the internet. Why bother with all this travel, whose time would exceed the time spent at the museum: apartment walk to Chur/Bahnhof over Zurich to Basel to Museum | Museum to Basel over Zurich to Chur/Bahnhof, walk to apartment ~ 6 hours. In less than a minute I can shuffle from the bedroom to my desk, start my computer, and see everything anyone’s ever painted. Still in my boxers.
In his contrarian and thought-provoking Ways of Seeing, John Berger examines the viewing of paintings. In particular, he focuses on the experience of seeing a painting before the advent of photography, when going to see art, paintings, was a vastly different experience than it is today. Paintings were often a part of buildings, with religious or classical themes, and to go see one was a sort of pilgrimage; indeed, a work of art could only be seen in one place, at one time: on the wall, where it was painted, or in the museum where it hung. You could not see a painting unless you were physically in front of it.
Today this is unimaginable: a painting can no longer be seen in only one place at one time; photographic reproduction changed our experience of art forever. Paintings became reproducible, therefore transmittable, a sort of information, known before they were actually seen: a postcard of a Monet’s water lilies, a detail from a Botticelli on the box cover and splash screen of Adobe Illustrator, Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa as gift-wrap paper, or even a Ken Burns style extended panning of a fresco by Raphael on a PBS documentary. With photography we could see things that were not in front of us. Given this, what is there left to experience by standing in front of original works of art? Berger notes that original works of art are now only interesting for being the original upon which reproductions are based.
I sat down on one of those backless, wide couches, one of six that are found pushed together only in the middle of rooms in art galleries. It was a bit crowded, but people seemed to be leaving, and I was happy to wait until it thinned out. One of the paintings in the room, Gas, had a crowd in front of it. I read the description from the brochure:
The composition is first and foremost a sophisticated orchestration of interpenetrating lighting moods: on the one hand, dusk, the transition from day to night, which defines the work’s atmosphere; on the other hand, artificial lighting in the gas station’s windows, projecting patches of light outside the building, its source hidden from view. The unfathomability of the forest that lines the road leading into the darkness beyond contrasts with three gas pumps standing in a regular row. Their perspectival foreshortening reinforces the sense of being “sucked” into the picture’s depth.
Sophisticated orchestration? Interpenetrating lighting moods? Perspectival foreshortening? What does that mean? Was the writer describing the same painting? Again, to John Berger: this inaccessible interpretation by an art expert is what he calls mystification, a false religiosity that often surrounds works of art, often related to the cash value of a work of art. Yet this is also meant to keep the meaning of works of art esoteric, within the confines of ‘a few specialized experts who are the clerks of nostalgia’. While agreeing that the study of art can be useful, but also that understanding of a work of art can, should, come from one’s own experience, from a more spontaneous and personal reaction to the work, Berger advises us to study and judge for ourselves, to be skeptical, even of what he himself advises.
I tossed the brochure in the garbage.
Gas (1940) according to Elder: there are pleasing deep reds on gas pumps, and again in the red Pegasus, the logo of Mobil Oil. But to my eye there are some discontinuities: the attendant is too well dressed in his tie and vest, the service station has an unlikely domestic touch, a cupola. Across the street are tale dark pine woods that might be out of a Grimm fairy tale.
There were other paintings of interest: The Martha Mckeen of Wellfleet (1914), a sailboat with a crew of two, muscular, the perspective a bit odd, rounding a sandbar where ten seagulls were resting. High Noon (1949), perhaps Hopper’s only erotic painting: a blonde haired woman wearing a revealing blue robe stands in the doorway of white house, her breasts almost seen, but we’re not really sure of her mood. Another sailing scene, The Lee Shore (1941), one sailboat is too close to shore, and likewise a house set too close to the water.
Why make the journey to look at paintings? I traveled to the gallery to reduce distractions, for the singularity of the event. Berger notes that one of the most important aspects of a painting is that it is silent and still. That experience of stillness and silence is hard to find today in our fragmented, over stimulated world. Viewing paintings on a computer is an experience of sight and sound, distraction a click away.
Being in front of the painting gives me the chance to see the work as it was originally, the painting taken in all at once. Years ago the painter stood before this very thing and created it. Now, across the years and miles, I am standing before it. Does this make the experience any more profound or authenticate? Not really, but if nothing else, the removal of distractions, to have the opportunity to focus purely on one thing, the art, is wonderful. There’s no sound track, no dissective panning over the parts of the image, it’s completely unmediated.
Why look at paintings? In part because of what Scarry wrote, about the pleasure of seeing something beautiful, although I would not call all, or even many of Hopper’s paintings beautiful. Art is a way of extending, expanding life. I read books, because for me, one life is not enough, and through reading I can add to my own, narrow experience. It is the same way in seeing paintings and to a certain extent photography—not just the aesthetic appreciation, but something more. We see ourselves, some aspect of ourselves, in these works of art.
The last two paintings were where I spent the most time.
Le Bistro (1909) felt austere, even for a Hopper painting. At first glance a few elements attracted me—the different shades of white, the four poplars, that most French of trees—but then in the next moment, something felt not quite right: the position of the trees seemed unlikely, as if growing out of the bridge or out of the river. A wind was blowing the poplars to the left, while the sun was casting shadows to the right. The bridge reminded me of the elegant, pleasing Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River, a bridge which connects Virginia to Washington, D.C., or maybe it was the memory of the Alte Brucke over the Neckar in Heidelberg. The current of the blue river was fast enough to make little white waves at the bridge piers. The nature to the two figures in the left foreground was vague. I liked it, it bothered me. I bought a print (60 x 50 cm.), and put it on the wall in Switzerland.
In Lighthouse Hill (1927), both the house and lighthouse are painted white, but also are in shadows; the house has a charcoal roof and red chimney, while the lantern panes on the lighthouse are gold, and the domed cupola is charcoal. The background is a blue sky, reflected in the lower story windows of the house. Unlike Le Bistro, the attraction was immediate, sustained, undisturbed. How to explain? I want that blue. I want that white. To see it, to feel it, to be it, to become it. I looked a long time at this one. I bought a print.
- Fondation Beyeler website is here.
- Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton University Press, 2001
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, 1972. There is also a four part television series produced by the BBC under the same title; these are available in YouTube. Both are highly recommended.
- Berger attributes many of the ideas in chapter 1 of Ways of Seeing to an essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. A copy is available here.
- I enjoyed this essay about Hopper by Mark Strand in the New York Review of Books, which you can find here.