Hoping for answers: Hopper at the Grand Palais

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In early autumn last year, I noticed there was a major Edward Hopper exhibition on at the Grand Palais in Paris. I dragged the family off to see it saying we were bound to just be able to buy a ticket on the door and walk in because I couldn’t imagine why on earth the French would be interested in Hopper’s work.

Wrong. We were greeted by a three hour queue. Never mind, said Himself. We’ll book tickets online for when we are back after Christmas!

Wrong again. All booked up even online for every possible date between Christmas and New Year.

Undeterred and driven by grit determination, I hit upon a Mad Plan to travel across to Paris this weekend and buy one of those Sesame tickets which purportedly allows you unlimited access for a year to the Grand Palais and no queues.

Why this grit determination to see Hopper’s work? Because I’d never seen it “for real” and I was desperate to form my own view on the question: was he a great painter or not?

I’ve always been intrigued by what I’ve seen of his painting in books. But the last six years have shown me that a lot of poor painting is greatly enhanced through reproduction whilst photos never do justice to great painting. And I remembered reading of debates between critics about whether he could paint or not.

So I finally made it in to the show yesterday. The Sesame printout actually worked to allow me in (with a friend to boot), and I eagerly joined the enthusiastic throngs now so much an irritating permanent feature of any blockbuster exhibition anywhere in the world these days.

I wasn’t too dismayed by the fairly banal early stuff being presented. Any artist needs a few years to really get going. But slowly, slowly, as I passed by his early commercial illustrative work, I began to wonder whether Hopper’s early years had lasted a bit too long in terms of developing his technical ability.

I brightened up when I reached a room of his etchings. I love etchings. I hadn’t even known Hopper had an etchings oeuvre! But the etchings on display explained this lack of awareness all too clearly. His etchings were frankly awful; banal subject matter and really not exploiting the creative potential of the medium. It puzzled me why such a tonal painter had never tried aquatint as an alternative to somewhat scrappy dense cross-hatching. There were however portents of the future in prints of American Gothic houses and strongly tonal abtracted images with shadows, planes and angles.

Next, I approached the watercolours room: the medium in which he achieved his early commercial success as an artist. Goodness knows how. His watercolours evoked Sunday painting at its absolute worst: insipid portrayals of countryside and houses in a style and of a standard more commonly found at the local weekly artfair market held in shopping centres across the country.

And so into the paintings themselves. I remain impressed by his compositional talent, striking viewpoints and sense of mood and surreal incongruity. New York Pavement (1924-25) exemplifies this.

But there’s an insistent clumsiness about so much of his work, and an unsettling garish childlike use of colour. Railroad Sunset (1929) in this respect is possibly the worst painting by a supposedly great artist I have ever seen exhibited anywhere. Many paintings with their simplistic colour modelling reminded me of the illustrations you used to see in those old Ladybird books of the 1950s and 60s.

Even more disconcerting is his mean use of paint. Scratchy and thin, with clumsy transitions of edges and no sense of stroke direction in modelling form. Hotel Room (1931) is a work which looks wonderful in reproduction with all these painting quirks smoothed, reduced, but is almost unpleasant to view in real life.

I could go on. And on. I won’t, though. Because actually I rather enjoyed the show. He’s definitely at his best in his voyeuristic questioning works. Room in New York (1932) for example is a brilliant composition, a beautiful contrast of red and a light grass green emerging from the blacks of the anchoring stonework. I was moved by the dissociated couple, she aimlessly playing a piano key with one finger, quizzical and reflective, he buried in his newspaper with a contented expression.

I was tempted at one point to see Hopper almost as the Thomas Kincaid of his day, but I think that’s going a step too far. He was unquestionably evoking something uncomfortably real, with evident feeling.

There’s no doubt for me that the seediness of the characters and clumsily stylised figuration of his later work in the early sixties was ultimately redeemed by the composition and formal tonal qualities of his work: and I do think he showed an unerring instinct for abstract form despite his figurative focus.

In this sense, then, it was reassuring to see the final painting on show was Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Devoid of apparent (though suggestive of a temporarily absent) human presence, it allowed light and colour and form to coalesce in a surprisingly pleasing study of a sunny room in which all his best qualities as an artist were allowed to emerge to good effect.

So I wouldn’t say don’t go to this show. It’s interesting and thought provoking, and I’ve concluded that Hopper wasn’t really a great painter but his paintings do somehow speak to the viewer. And ultimately, communication is what it’s really all about.

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2 responses to Hoping for answers: Hopper at the Grand Palais

  1. Thanks for this!! It’s strange – I never really considered the fact that the actual paintings might be something of disappointment compared to how the reproductions appear. This makes me even more keen to see them at some point. I’m a real fan of Hopper – I love his work in all it’s simplicity, and it’s really hard for me to say why I just find them so moving. But I can also understand why some might think he’s no big deal. He is, after all, the man that said ‘…all I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.’

    • gillianholding – Author

      There’s no doubt at all that his work has something exteaordinary about it, and I felt a bit churlish at finding myself so picky particularly on the painting technique. You don’t get a big show in the Grand Palais without having something amazing to offer. In some ways, he’s as much an enigma now for me having actually seen the work…

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