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Friday, June 06, 2008

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper: Themes & Meaning

In the interest of rounding up the major themes of this blog I am risking being taken for a "blogser" (meaning: poser). The fact that I took two courses on visual art appreciation doesn't qualify me as an "connoisseur" of sorts. I still, however, remember a great deal of the material studied, and how the mechanics of lines and direction makes the viewer understand the painting better. I selected Edward Hooper because I am interested in his exposition of the themes of isolation, meaninglessness and even nihilism. I could be making more of it than it is, but I've seriously given it a great deal of thought these days (despite my lack of time), and I have been hoping for a long time to open up with Hopper for my visual arts postings. The iconic picture, of course, would be "Nighthawks." Hopper painted "Nighthawks" at a very crucial time in the United States. The actual paining was completed in 1942--the shock of the United States' entrance into World War II not yet fully digested, and the memories of the Great Depression not long forgotten. A great book regarding this amazing painting is Gordon Theisen's "Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche." This is perhaps the best known of Hooper's canvases, and maybe the easiest to examine in terms of where "the eyes go" when one looks at it. And looking at it, it seems that the two main lines of the painting are probably the easiest part to identify. The facade of the building at an angle guides the eye--but where? Doesn't it seem strange that the fast moving lines come to a screeching halt at the edge of what appears to be a curved glass window? Where do these lines then go? It took me a while to see the resolution. Lines B and A shoot down the painting too fast for them to be the first thing a viewer observes; the eyes immediately fall on the couple and the waiter. But let's look at it again. The viewer has to absorb the rest of the painting as it moves from right to left (an often used Hooper technique). And again, the lines lead to a "dead-end." So where do we go from there? Back to the couple and the waiter, pausing to question who is the solitary figure? He is like a thorn, dead center on the canvas, yet not telling a story, not allowing us to see the meaning as a given. He is the factor of isolation, the most common theme on this series of paintings Hooper developed into his trademark. It is about the man, I believe. His lack of visible facial features speaks to the fact that he is the "everyday" man, he who despite working hard, faces the incredible hardships of loneliness. He is only allowed to contemplate--across the lunch counter--what he is missing, lacking, or not worthy of. That leads to a larger social definition. The three costumers appear at the same socio-economic level, perhaps a bit higher than the service job worker (wage slave). Therefore, structure (lines), philosophy of isolation as catalyst for meaning and a socio-economic interpretation are all possible here.

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