Hopper: The Art of Sadness

Nighthawks - not alone, but lonely in the big City?

A warm July night feels an appropriate moment to pause and enjoy a feast of visual and aural emotion in the shape of an unlikely combination I came across a few years ago on Youtube of all places.

I have long admired the work of the American artist, Edward Hopper, who worked on the eastern seaboard of America in the first few decades of the 20th century. My visual repast is his paintings, which are as often as not cityscapes which nevertheless home in on the individual stories in what were even then still nascent metropolises. Great, solid buildings juxtapose with often solitary individuals, the sense of what should be a bustling crowded place bursting with people and yet still somehow lonely. In so many of his works, there is an ambience of after hours, of empty spaces which have recently been filled and the people who remain are somehow set back from the crowds that have been there, present but somehow uninvolved. The City is empty - is the promise it offered ultimately hollow?

Even when not alone, the people in his tales seem to be on their own, distant - a young woman sitting at a table in her hat (Automat 1927) with the uncertainty of whether she is waiting for someone or there by herself. In a hotel room, a man and woman are together, but not: she reads while he looks out the window at something in the distance (Hotel by a Railroad, 1952). Meanwhile, a secretary watches her boss in Late Night at the Office, and we are left to decide if her look is of affection or resentment as they work, alone, in the stillness of a once busy workplace; and perhaps most famous of all his works, Nighthawks, his 1942 piece depicts a handful of customers in a late night cafe, again a group sharing a moment but a short one nevertheless. Similarly, travel features in many of his works, with railways a recurring theme and again one of the constant passage of time, yet where such sorrow may be matched by the hope of the destination.

New York Movie
And so much of his work seems to speak of human transience, set against the greater permanence of the big solid buildings, the skyscrapers and tenement blocks that mark out his backdrop - if that is the right word, because so much of the underpinning message is how these stone edifices dominate the tiny humans that use them. There is often a faint menace, a sense of something important being about to happen, and not necessarily for the better. A deep humanity runs through his pictures, and yet it is one with some feeling of regret, or disconnection with the surroundings. Strikingly, in The Pleasure of Sadness, the philosopher Alain de Botton writes that:

How true perhaps this is - like the best of art, it captures life - our life, whoever and wherever we are. Perhaps too it captures a time, the time of cities, of progress from the Depression into the optimism of the 1950s and early 60s. A time of advances in living standards, technology and medicine, but accompanied by great social dislocation, war and personal challenge. People had to uproot themselves, whether in hope or despair, and travel - often alone - to distant places for work and a new life, better or worse. Dreams were made but as often turned to nightmares and perhaps it is the sense of being constantly on the edge of either in the impersonal City, holding both promise and danger, that Hopper catches so well.

New York Office

The aural feast is much more contemporary, and yet matches Hopper so well in spite of the distance of both time and place between them. The Blue Nile are a music group from Glasgow who have a cult following but have never made it big as such. One of their songs is set in the video below to Hopper's paintings and provide precisely the mood music to his themes of detachment and the strange sorrow of anticipation.

Their first album, back in 1984, was A Walk Across The Rooftops, and the title track was the tale of a man alone on a roof above the city on graduation morning, observing but not participating in the world below. The music is slow, invoking a sadness as he sings of his love for someone and of how he looks for independence - whether from his love or from the city, it is unclear. And on graduation morning - is he graduating? Or is it an aspiration he once had but is now gone? Like Hopper, we never know if his words are in hope or of regret. And so too with the track in the video - Saturday Night - it has all the anticipation of a first date, packed with hope of how a relationship might somehow make the world alright, and yet there is within it a certain cynicism; because as with Hopper, the backdrop is the faux Paradise of the City. The "ordinary girl" who will make life somehow bearable at once becomes both far from ordinary with the expectation and also strikingly elusive. "Who are you dreaming of... when the streets are so big and wide?"

The Blue Nile have produced only a smattering of albums, all well-received critically, and the time taken is evident in their thoughtful lyrics and the haunting quality of their music. "Why hurry?" asked lead singer Paul Buchanan after a break of several years in the 1990s. Why indeed?

That their music can so well and unintentionally complement Hopper's paintings perhaps shows that it is well worth the wait. They are separated by several decades and the Atlantic Ocean, and yet their themes are so alike - perhaps to some extent the cityscape is the creative impulse for this. For the architects and builders who fashioned the red stone Glasgow buildings that feature in the Blue Nile's songs were in many cases the same men who travelled to the USA in the 1880s and 1890s to fashion the cities of the eastern seaboard and beyond. Likewise, as Hopper worked at the time of the Depression, the Blue Nile first forged their art in the depression of the early 1980s, when Glasgow faced de-industrialisation and mass unemployment. In similar environments, the human story may be expressed by different art forms, but the truths it tells are catholic and our humanity expresses itself in seemingly familiar ways.

So I was suitably delighted to discover this combination of Hopper's works with the Blue Nile's music. If any of the foregoing has whetted your appetite for either, or both, artists, please listen and watch, and, I hope, "enjoy" the sad wonder...

Original post July 2011.