Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Night Hawks" vs. "Mildred Pierce" and Minnesota vs. Northwestern

This has been a busy week for us.

On Monday, my parents returned from their brief trip to Washington, and Joshua and I had them over for dinner Monday night. We heard all about the art exhibitions they attended, and it was interesting to hear my parents’ reactions to the four exhibitions they viewed. Turner was the major event, of course, and my parents liked the Turner exhibition very much. They also liked the Spain exhibition, primarily for the Goya and Stuart paintings, but they believed that the presentation was “too minimalist”, lacking sufficient historical background information on the various subjects portrayed in the portraits to be meaningful to the general viewer. They were not particularly impressed with the Asher B. Durand exhibition—Durand simply was not a painter rewarding enough to sustain an art lover’s interest through 57 landscapes—and they were very disappointed with the Hopper exhibition.

Sometimes a major retrospective will, unintentionally, demonstrate how paltry was an artist’s imagination, as was most recently revealed, in spades, at the major Childe Hassam retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in 2004. That exhibition pulled the rug from beneath whatever reputation Hassam’s works had managed to cling to over the years since the artist’s death, revealing him as a purveyor of kitsch.

Something similar is the result of the extensive Hopper exhibition at The National Gallery Of Art. Sameness quickly sets in, and viewers stop responding to Hopper paintings as works of art and instead begin drawing upon other associations—from films, magazines, works of literature and sociology, popular and otherwise—to make the paintings appear to be interesting. My mother, a great art lover (and a very knowledgeable one), pointed out that Hopper’s paintings looked, in person, exactly like photographs of the paintings, and that seeing them in person added nothing to the experience of seeing them in photographs.

Hopper was not a master of line or color or texture or composition, or movement or drama or emotion. He was a high-end magazine artist who tweaked the kinds of illustrations that filled American magazines of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Hopper was better and more interesting than his fellow magazine artists, in part because of his studied remoteness and his deliberate lack of passion and life, but he was a magazine artist nonetheless. I wonder whether he will have any reputation at all fifty years from now.

Hopper’s reputation is currently in flux, with the art world evenly divided between detractors and admirers. Half of this world is brutally dismissive, and the other half makes extravagant claims on Hopper’s behalf.

When the Washington Hopper exhibition opened in Boston last Spring, two art critics writing for influential publications started from identical premises and reached vastly different conclusions.

In May 2007, The New Yorker wrote:

In fact, Hoppers in the flesh add remarkably small increments of pleasure and meaning to Hoppers in reproduction. The scale of the paintings is indifferent, in the way of graphic art. Their drawing is graceless, their colors acrid, and their brushstrokes numb. Anti-Baroque, they are the same thing when looked at up close and when seen from afar. I believe that Hopper painted with reproducibility on his mind, as a new function and fate of images in his time.

After that opening missile, the writer proceeded, unaccountably, to defend Hopper, without in any way explaining adequately why Hopper’s works were worthwhile. The analysis was gibberish. His final argument boiled down to a childlike “I like it, and therefore it is good”.

In May 2007, The New York Times wrote:

Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes. His main gift was for narrative paintings with graphic punch and quasi-Modernist additives: Manet touches, de Chirico props. And like any shrewd storyteller, he knew the value of suspense. Reveal just so much of a plot — no more. Mystery keeps an audience hanging on. Unfortunately, there’s not much suspense or mystery in this show, which travels to Washington and Chicago. Museums are risk-free zones these days, spooning up boilerplates of what audiences are expected to like. On the whole, “Edward Hopper” fills that bill too well . . .Technically, he is a Modernist, but without a drop of Modernism’s utopian rationality, confidence and breadth. He didn’t make a dystopian art, either, one that stakes out an alternative position, as Warhol would do. He went with anxiety and longing, and made them feel-good entertaining, like Hollywood films, which he both influenced and was influenced by.

Like The New Yorker writer, The New York Times writer was not able to explain adequately the reasoning behind his dismissal of Hopper, although he made a better attempt than his confrere. Comparing Hopper to Hollywood films, while accurate insofar as it goes, is a cop-out.

I think there is a much easier and much more accurate way to assess Hopper. He was not a genius. He was not a protean figure. He was an unremarkable pure painter. He was not a thinker. His range was remarkably limited. He was emotionally ungenerous. Unlike Rubens or Velazquez, he could not paint anything or everything. His human figures are lumps. His inspirations—and his compositions—derive from the field of magazine illustration, from the painted flats of stage design, and from film noir. His chosen subjects were insufferably petit bourgeois, and his work primarily appeals to the petit bourgeois, “which prefers the art of recognition to the art of surprise”, to paraphrase Henry James (himself an art connoisseur).

Hopper was the art world’s equivalent of pulp novelist James M. Cain. Both men based their careers, pre- and post-Depression, on tough-as-nails Depression-era squalor, presented as realism, without meat on the bones; beyond that, neither had anything else to offer. Serious people would never dream of elevating Cain into the pantheon, in which case there can be no rightful place in the pantheon for Hopper, either.

Hopper’s current popularity is, nevertheless, easily comprehended: everyone has seen it all before, and there is some entertainment value to be derived from seeing it all again. Nevertheless, is “Night Hawks” really superior to “Mildred Pierce”, whether the Cain original or the Curtiz-Crawford Warner Brothers version? I don’t think so.

Hopper’s art can be fully appreciated by the casual art viewer who is familiar with similar shtick from movies and magazines. Hopper is not challenging, or difficult, or multi-layered, or even particularly good. Above all, Hopper is, however, familiar, and it this familiarity that provides the basis for his popularity among the general public. Casual museum-goers who could never make it through exhibitions featuring 100 canvases by Titian or Rembrandt or Poussin can easily wade through 100 Hopper paintings. It’s not art, it’s pop art—and no better (and no worse) than Addams or Gorey or Sendak. The term “kitsch” is never far from the surface.

On Tuesday night, we all went to Saint Paul to hear Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman in recital. Sponsored by The Schubert Club, Brueggergosman was a replacement for the originally-scheduled singer, Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.

The recital was very disappointing. Brueggergosman has a wonderful voice—it has richness, and lots of color; she has an imposing, contralto-like lower register and a clear, free, ringing top—but she is not much of an artist. Her musical phrasing is not individual, and she does not make much of texts. During the entire evening, I felt like I was attending a graduation recital offered by a very promising college senior who, if she is lucky, will find the right teacher in graduate school.

Brueggergosman’s voice is one of some size—she had no trouble filling the Ordway Center with lots of sound—but it is also unwieldy. Throughout the recital, I felt as if her voice was always on the verge of veering out of control. The singing was not quite clean enough, and not sufficiently dead-center of pitch, to allow the listener to sit back and concentrate on the music.

The program did not help matters. Brueggergosman offered the Twin Cities audience the same program she had offered other audiences during a Fall 2007 North American recital tour: a cabaret program of Britten, Rorem, Schoenberg, Poulenc, Satie and Bolcom. This is much the same repertory as appears on her Deutsche Grammophon debut disc, just issued.

The program did not contain any heavyweight material, and only an artist with wit and charm and flair and personality to burn could have pulled off such an unusual program. Brueggergosman does not possess such gifts. A generalized and appealing flow of sound was all she offered, and this was not enough for songs that required point and shape and characterization and sophistication to make their marks.

Everything sounded much the same, whether Schoenberg, Poulenc or Bolcom. When Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder sound no different than a group of Bolcom songs, both the artist and the audience are in serious trouble.

Things were not helped by this singer’s weakness with languages. Brueggergosman’s English, more or less decipherable, was much better than her French. Her French was much better than her German. I was thankful she did not attempt a fourth language.

All in all, it was a very disappointing evening. I would never go hear her again.

Last night, we all went to see Minnesota play Northwestern. Even my mother went with us to the game. It will be the only game this year for my mother, who is not a basketball fan. Nonetheless, she had a good time, and so did my father, and so did Josh and I. The Golden Gophers pounded the Wildcats, 82-63. It was a fun night out for all of us. The crowd was large and very enthusiastic. Tubby Smith has brought a lot of excitement back to the program.

On our way to the game, we stopped and had chili for dinner. On our way home, we stopped and had hot fudge sundaes. It was a wonderful weekday night out for all of us. We had a great time.

This weekend, I think we will all catch up on our rest.


  1. "Brueggergosman has a wonderful voice...but she is not much of an artist...I felt like I was attending a graduation recital offered by a very promising college senior who, if she is lucky, will find the right teacher in graduate school."

    I love your words, Andrew!

    I've always viewed Hopper's canvas as cartoonish and bearing a strong resemblance to characters from the comics I read back in the eighties. I don't think I'll be seeing that exhibition when it comes to Chicago.

    Wishing you a fabulous weekend.


  2. J.R.:

    If you find yourself in or near the Art Institute Of Chicago, I would take a stroll through the Hopper exhibition, simply because so many of his famous paintings are included in the exhibition.

    You can see almost all of the famous paintings in one place, at one time, and then never have to bother trying to see them ever again. In that sense, at least, the exhibition is worthwhile.

    The best paintings are from, roughly, 1939 to 1942. Those were unmistakably Hopper's peak years. That period includes "Night Hawks", and the filling station painting, and "Ground Swells", and the Cape Cod painting with the tall grasses and the collie.

    The exhibition is worth a walk-through if you are in the area.

    The exhibition includes a film of a BBC interview with Hopper and his wife, late in life. They clearly did not get along. They are on the verge of bickering with each other, constantly, before the camera. Both of them appear to be very unpleasant individuals.

    Enjoy "La Traviata"!

    I can't wait to hear all about it.


  3. Comparing Edward Hopper to James M. Cain! I can't believe it! And the comparison is not only apt, but distinctly telling, too.

    This was a great read, Drew.

  4. Whenever I need to disavail myself of the notion that all Yanks are dumb, I log on and read your blog.

  5. While visiting NYC in 2004 (for the first time since 1968), a friend and I toured the Childe Hassam exhibition. Around every corner, we kept expecting to be gobsmacked by some masterpiece. Alas, what a disappointment. I doubted my own judgment because I couldn't conceive that the Met would mount something so uninspiring. So, I'm glad to read your assessment.

  6. Hello, David.

    That Childe Hassam exhibition was quite a disaster, was it not? Before that exhibition, art lovers believed that they had only seen the third-rate works of Hassam, and were eager to see a major exhibition containing the first-rate works. Alas, there were none.

    I hope you have been keeping warm. It has been very cold up here--and down there, too, from what I see and read. I hope you are safely ensconced for the duration.