You might not have heard of Edward Hopper, but you might have come across his most famous painting, Nighthawks while browsing through the posters sale in Alexandra Square. I am a proud owner of one of them, though my interest in Hopper’s art was sparked a long time ago… I was 5 or 6 when my grandma gifted me a book called The Children’s Book of Art, and it was Hopper who stood out to me the most. I don’t know whether it was the soft colours he used or the feelings evoked by looking at his work that captured the attention of my very young self, but to this day, Hopper remains one of my favourite artists.
The feelings Hopper’s painting induce are not obvious and not easy to put into words. Even the artist himself once said: ‘If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.’ The difficulty of describing emotions, felt by looking at his canvases, stems from a sense of alienation, separation and loneliness in Hopper’s paintings. Those are almost exclusively associated with sadness, yet we don’t feel sad looking at his artwork, but rather calm and consoled. Almost as if Hopper was reassuring us that the isolation we feel is common and ordinary.
To break down this contrasting emotional dichotomy that Hopper produced through art, let’s take a closer look at Nighthawks (1942). Firstly, it is important to acknowledge an odd angle of the painting; it is the one of a passer-by who quickly just glimpsed through the window. That is a common theme in Hopper’s work – he would sit on the train in New York, his hometown, looking into the windows of the tall buildings where each of them a unique, intimate spectacle was revealing itself to the eye of the public, but merely for a few seconds. Windows were of great importance to Hopper as they separate the outside from the inside world with the possibility of lurking onto one another. And that is what one does while looking at Nighthawks– lurk. There is no clear narrative. Hopper invites us to raise questions about the nature of the relationship between people in the painting (another common theme in artwork): Why is that man sitting by himself? Does that couple know each other or are they, strangers? The answers are only speculations. We can sense the gentle voices of conversation between the characters, but we cannot know what they are talking about. The only thing we can be sure of is an impression of solitude in the air that these people are breathing. Interestingly, even though it must be New York that has been portrayed, there is no specificity, no name of the street, no name of the café, and because of that lack of spatial preciseness, Nighthawks becomes a generalization. It is generalised enough to recall one’s own experiences of either sitting in a quiet café, or passing by a window not knowing what was happening behind the glass.
Hopper’s New York is not a frantic metropolis in which its inhabitants merge into one organism. Rather, it emphasises the individuality of people and their stories. It helps us recognise the loneliness, even in places where we seemingly shouldn’t feel lonely, and by doing so, it reaches its most therapeutic point. Hopper painted in the time of great uncertainty and anxiety. In his art, he appeared to have disregarded the disarray the world was experiencing, but what could one do in those erratic times other than work, live on and hope for the better future?