Thoughts on Edward Hopper’s ‘Sun In An Empty Room’

hopper room

Edward Hopper has perhaps suffered more than most from the commodification of visual art in the latter half of the 20th century. His most well-known work, Nighthawks, has been immortalised in cultural references both high and low since its completion in 1942. In this, it is similar to another instantly recognisable icon of modern art, Edvard Munch’s The Scream. However, whereas The Scream’s circulation in cultural media appears to stem from its encapsulation of something innate, primal; a grotesque feeling shared by all but otherwise never vocalised, Nighthawks has been unfairly agglomerated into the aestheticisation of noir, drawn in part by the pervasive influence of Hollywood but also because the painting works with more subtlety than Munch’s Expressionist magnum opus. The central image of the figure with mouth wide open and hands clasped to face in a moment of sheer existential dread in The Scream is immediately startling, but Nighthawks only offers us corners; its characters have their backs turned to us, and the painting is much less inviting, reflecting the introspection and isolation of the people it portrays. Like most of Hooper’s works, the mood is much more brooding, with a nuanced interplay between setting, shade, and composition. For Munch, it is telling that Andy Warhol used The Scream in one of his mass print projects, as it highlights the pervasive impact that the work has, so much so that Warhol attempted to undermine its aura through repetition and adulteration. However, you only have to see the usage of what is essentially the same figure in the mysterious Dr. Who villains ‘The Silence’ to have an understanding of how the painting still translates across boundaries of time and nationality, because The Silence still engender that same feeling of raw dread lurking behind the thin veneer of humanity. The fact that The Silence’s unique selling point is the inability to remember them once you look away attests to this, because it is only by viewing Munch’s painting that we gain an understanding of how prominent fear is in our emotions.

 munch scream silence 

Therefore, the contemporary image of Hopper as the court painter of urban noir settings has neglected to address the incredible originality and depth of his work. To try and address this, I offer an analysis of one of his last works, Sun in an Empty Room, which is shown at the top of this article. Analysis of Nighthawks would also suffice, but I think there is something even more telling about Sun in an Empty Room, not least because as one of his final works it demonstrates a realisation of Hopper’s creative vision and because it was completed in 1963, offers an alternative to the naive analyses of culture which broadly paint the 1960s as a time of optimism, communality, and freedom.

The titular room of the painting is, in contrast, neither optimistic nor remotely free. Hopper’s paintings normally confront us with a figure pictured in a state of total isolation (regardless of the population on the canvas), but here we are not granted even the luxury of a subject. Neither are there any narrative elements in the painting. I alluded earlier to Andy Warhol’s project of saturating images until they became shorn of what gives them their essential aura in their first place, but using this painting as an example, we can see that Hopper beat him to it. There is very little in the painting to grab your attention. Imagine it on a suitably sized wall of your home; it would be difficult enough perceiving the painting from the surrounding wall, never mind analysing the actual work.

Much of the painting’s dynamism stems from its engagement with what is considered realistic, or ‘realism’. It is certainly a very realistic scene; an empty room is something we are all familiar with. Or are we? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? The ability to observe an empty room poses the same philosophical problem. The title of the painting insists that what we are viewing is an empty room, but our presence as spectators offers a paradox, because a room with an observer present cannot be considered empty. Similarly, the light originates from somewhere behind or around us, casting illumination on the scene – by being places in the painting, do we bring a redemptive light, or is it a penetrative voyeurism? On one hand, Hopper could be arguing that this is the luxury painting affords; the ability to become a superhuman spectator, not in the canvas, and thus able to observe an empty room without an invalidating ‘observer effect’. The more negative interpretation is that Hopper shows us how, in viewing a painting, we are never at a level of perfect detachment; that we always have some engagement with the painting which means we cannot view it objectively. Both analyses are perfectly adequate, but I generally side with the latter one, because of some of the other delicate techniques Hopper applies in the painting. Even without musing on the ramifications of the composition of the piece, the fact remains that painting what is called an ‘empty room’ is incredibly ballsy; trying to articulate absence when the overwhelming tendency in Western art is to manifest presence and/or narrative.

For example, though the room is very regular, the centre where the eye would conventionally meet a vanishing point is replaced with an outcrop of wall, creating a concertina effect. Once again the eye of the viewer is made to confront its pre-existing expectations of interaction with art, as even though the wall is passive, it is also stoic, refusing to mould exactly to the viewer’s expectation. The emphasis on that dividing line of wall is also pronounced with the contrast between light and dark on either side. Instead of having the traditional use of perspective which fades to a common vanishing point, we are met head-on by a wall which is shaped like the prow of a ship travelling directly towards us, or perhaps the furrowed eyebrows of a staring foe.

The painting also teases us with illusions of realism. At first glance there seems to be nothing out of place about the scene; in fact, its banality is possibly its most striking feature to begin with.  As well as this, there seems to be no reason why Hopper should play with light and shadow, because the canvas appears to be just too empty to be able to do that. Nevertheless, attempts to recreate the ‘scene’ of the painting have proven that the middle crossbar of the window should project a shadow onto the back wall. One of the most important effects of making this compositional choice is that it preserves the purity of the contrast of light and dark at work in the piece, ensuring that sections of wall oppose each other in discrete blocks without the interference of another shadow. Given the playful impossibility of the title (how could a Sun be contained within one room?), then I believe that the use of light in this way is playfully cheeking at earlier paradigms of light in Western painting, for example the stark chiascuro of Caravaggio’s revelatory pieces.

Throughout history the sun has been associated with transcendence, renewal and a higher form of experience, yet here it is isolated into distinct, regimented blocks – given Hopper’s interest in cityscapes and portraits of urban experience earlier in his career, then this is reducing his philosophy into its most constituent parts. Just as the American city seems to bring people together but actually confirms their isolated individuality, here sunlight is shown to be something ruthlessly segregated; there is no essential underlying common humanity other than our collective recognition that we are all alone. Contrast this with a Renaissance painting like Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, where the interplay of form and shadow becomes a Platonic metaphor for the profundity of the spiritual world beyond the merely physical.

supper at emmaus

Hopper’s light is a commodity, another capitalistic distillation just like his forlorn gas stations or theatres which promise a collective experience yet only exacerbate individuation.  Hopper’s sense of isolation makes his work in fact very similar to The Scream, but the distance of decades between each piece’s completion shows a change in attitude over time – Munch as the last, brash cry of the 19th century, a violent railing, whereas Hopper’s is a more completive acceptance, expressed in the language of conformity. I alluded to the cultural repetition of Nighthawks in fashionable forms but it seems destiny that that should happen, because Hopper converses in the tongue of advertising and offering an ideal before dismantling it before our very eyes.

Beyond the effect on light and shadow that the window has, it should not be forgotten that it is our only portal into the world outside, suggesting that there is something of a world outside, though it is incredibly indistinct. The green and grey view out of the window, a slush created from only a few brush strokes, reminds me of the complete absence of nature depicted in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, written only a couple of years earlier:

HAMM:

Open the window.

CLOV:

What for?

HAMM:

I want to hear the sea.

CLOV:

You wouldn’t hear it.

HAMM:

Even if you opened the window?

CLOV:

No.

HAMM:

Then it’s not worth while opening it?

CLOV:

No.

HAMM (violently):

Then open it!

(Clov gets up on the ladder, opens the window. Pause.)

Have you opened it?

CLOV:

Yes.

(Pause.)

HAMM:

You swear you’ve opened it?

CLOV:

Yes.

(Pause.)

HAMM:

Well…!

(Pause.)

It must be very calm.

(Pause. Violently.)

I’m asking you is it very calm!

CLOV:

Yes.

Beckett famously disliked his work being interpreted in the context of the growth of the nuclear bomb and lazy assumptions that Hamm and Clov are post-apocalyptic survivors, but considering the work in cultural dialogue with Sun in an Empty Room betrays some of the fears of a world with mutually assured destruction – Hopper’s painting was finished only a few months after, and could have conceivably been worked on during, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of being represented with an accurate depiction of the natural world outside the room the viewer is tested, given a superficial signifier of nature to accept. Thus, in viewing the painting in the context of nuclear war, we can observe how Hopper’s portrayal of emptiness and strange nature makes the viewer consider to what extent they are happy to sacrifice both individual conscience (manifest in the complete absence of a subject, someone we can sympathise with, a common element to Hopper’s earlier paintings) and the natural world. The natural world here is green, but that is the only property it possesses, it is shorn of everything else. Take a closer look:
hopper windowIs it a tree blowing in the wind? Is it a bush surrounding a now-derelict house? My flatmate in my final year of university, who I do not hesitate to call an Actual Artist, reckoned it looked like some sort of Kraken-like monster, a portent of doom in its own right. What’s more, the general murkiness of the scene outside appears incongruent with the shaft of light piercing the room.  

You do not have to subscribe to the theory that Hopper is completely inspired by the Cold War, but I would maintain that despite its apparent passivity the painting is structured in a pugilistic way. Violence is present through the light’s striking entrance into the scene, but it is intangible, coming from a source which does not obey the usual rules of observation and visual representation. It may be facile to think of nuclear war as an inspiration, but when coupled with the effect of the concertinaed wall I mentioned earlier, Hopper manages to make an empty room appear antagonistic.  The detached gaze of the spectator is shown to be destructive, invalidating the room’s designation as ‘empty’ and being met by an irresistible force in the composition. This is a fundamental theme running through Hopper’s work and is demonstrated through the trope of ‘corners’ I alluded to earlier, where characters stare into the distance, rarely meeting the omniscient gaze of the spectator. Hopper pulls the eye onto sharp edges, not the luxury of deep vanishing points.

There is much to be said about Hopper’s work, and not all of that can be expressed here. The reason why this painting intrigues me so much is because, as I mentioned earlier, emptiness runs against everything we expect, or possibly demand, from art. It is interesting that a painting that would perhaps be the least distinct in a gallery is, for that reason, the most subversive of cultural expectations.

 

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