Call him the “Ambassador of Anomie,” maybe even the “Duke of Desolation.” Just please stop calling him, “that guy who painted ‘Nighthawks.'”
Early 20th century realist Edward Hopper – of lonely, late-night diner fame – died in 1967, mostly isolated and forgotten as the art world moved into abstract expressionism. Hopper lives on through his unique, moving, and alien canvases, etchings and sketches – some of which the Santa Barbara Museum of Art recently began exhibiting.
The often-loner Hopper was a newspaper illustrator by trade, a job he loathed but found fundamental to his life-long renderings of urban alienation and the stark de-humanizing forms of technological progress. Visitors to the Santa Barbara Hopper exhibit, which also features other realist notables, instantly confront the Duke’s cool, wet and angular “Queensborough Bridge”- an alien landscape inhuman in scale.
Modern industry’s hiccups of 1913 – the painting’s year of creation – belched out mammoth structures like bridges as well as skyscrapers and new mammoth transport. Such gargantuan innovation crushed the human scale and pace, offering no recourse but confrontation. Hopper’s little two-story house would be the idyllic American cottage, if not for its unfortunate location under a titanic bridge whose size negates any idyllic meaning. This theme of human scale and pace violated by technology – made alien and atomized – evidences itself throughout Hopper’s work.
Hopper’s 1926 watercolor “Rooftops,” has a warm, light dynamism that invites while the lack of human forms and stark, geometric precision keep the viewer quizzically searching for faces, for life. How can something feel alive and feature no living things – or be familiar, yet alien? “Apartment Houses on Harlem River” asks these questions as the pallid, angular buildings border the placid, cool river. It’s as though a neutron bomb has gone off minutes prior, obliterating any flying birds, beachgoers, anyone at all.
The early 20th century dehumanization of space didn’t stop with the conquering of exterior space, and a few of Hopper’s realism buddies join him in charting the new psychic tundra. Raphael Soyer’s “Office Girls” captures the subdued panic and confusion of women new to the workplace – literally out of place for the first time. Soyer’s “Reading from Left to Right” chillingly renders the thousand-yard stare of the lost indigent while George Tooker’s “Lunch” depicts the hunched-over souls of the night.
The SB Museum of Art’s Urban Realism exhibit blends well, and “Lunch” looks like Hopper’s “Nighthawks” ten minutes later in time, the lonely denizens shuffling down the street. Though the pieces confront the gritty machinations of life in the industrialized world, they never fail to elate. The sense of gleeful speed and dynamism is as intrinsic to the early 1900s as the giant steel girders and booming cities of industry. Almost all works contain something that’s swooshing, or mid-movement.
Hopper’s “Tugboat with Black Smokestack” churns upriver with flowing wakes trimming arcs over the sides, and another of his cityscapes, “Yonkers,” contains a notion of promise inherent in all the speed. The bright yellow trolley car hurls over the hill at the viewer, as an American flag billows in the wind and the people jostle for places on the sidewalk.
Hopper handles lethargy with equal dexterity as dynamism. The 1909 “Summer Interior” depicts a red-faced, bottomless damsel languoring in messed white sheets as the yellow sun burns a square in the rug. Her toes dangle in the heat as though it were a spa.
The sketches, etchings and lithographs of Hopper and others are an unexpected exhibit treat. The diminutive originals evoke many of the same themes as the larger works, while displaying the line-work and these visionaries’ innate talent. Hopper’s 1921 “Night Shadows” contains the most imposing lamppost shadows in art, and Glenn Coleman’s 1928 “Chinatown” smells like I.V., with its hurried sketches of drunks, perverts, bums, pukers, fighters, and the damned – all jostling through the narrow night alleyways in search of a good time.
The Urban Realism exhibit runs until September. Tickets are $3 for students.