““E pluribus unum,” a magnificent ideal, thuds on “unum” every day throughout the land.”
That sentence, in Peter Schjeldahl’s magnificent review of Edward Hopper: A Fresh Look at Landscape (The New Yorker, June 8&15 2020), stopped me short. Not just because it’s such a political statement for an art review. Also because it’s so true.
The review unfolds in a hop-scotch of art description and real-world bizarreness. Like when Mr. Schjeldahl confesses that he has not actually seen the exhibition he’s reviewing (due to COVID-19 lockdown). His review is based on the exhibit’s catalogue, and his memory of Hopper’s viewed past. “Once you’ve seen a Hopper, it stays seen, lodged in your mind’s eye.”
Of course, he’s correct. A photograph of a Jackson Pollack just conveys mess, while the tactile spread of actual, in person, paint unnervingly sucks you in. A reproduction of a Vermeer cannot convey the glistening quality of the real thing, hanging in the Rijksmuseum. But Hopper, flat and surrealistically accurate, maintains its power through the filter of page or screen.
Often, Hopper paints us looking in on someone unaware of our intrusion. A person alone, so alone. A person made isolate by the fact of being so fully rendered. A person for whom the relative comforts of mid-twentieth-century American life leaves him or her exposed rather than comforted. Women liberated from their kitchens, ill at ease in broader habitats. Men equally awkward away from toil. Electric light so harsh, city structures so solid yet so constraining.
Even during the Depression, Hopper understood that solitude was the essential attribute of America life; an attribute that came into full flower only later in the twentieth century, when our unparalleled affluence made solitude available to so many. Stirred to autonomy and independence (in no small part by the corporate urgings of a consumer society) without regard for their consequence, we neglected to heed the aloneness inherent in Hopper’s paintings. We created the loneliest human society ever known.
“We are alone—together” is one of the many signs of hope we see taped to the inside of windows during this pandemic. I don’t buy it. If our uncoordinated, individualistic response to COVID-19 illustrates anything, it’s that we are not together. We are simply alone. With Edward Hopper, via catalogue, to illustrate that the mere comfort of shelter cannot salve the trauma of isolation