My first encounter with an Edward Hopper painting took the form of a postcard-sized reproduction of Cape Cod Sunset. It was not long after searching and finding other works by him that I began to consider Hopper to be “my” painter. Even after subsequent encounters with Hopper’s works, both in books and in museums, it is still that initial coming together that endures the most in my memory. Closing my eyes, I can still see the painting’s afterimage imprinted on the underside of my lids: A two-story greyish house set down lonely at the edge of a field of yellowing-blue grass underneath a crepuscular sky, shading from light blue to green-yellow with bands of orange settling over the uncannily blurred pine forest that encircles the house. The house itself shows no signs of life, the windows muted and opaque; a mysterious house amongst the pines to dream oneself into; an image of calm, peaceful stillness in the twilight emptiness of rural New England.
Cape Cod Sunset shares with all Hopper paintings a sense of desolate tangibility, a sense of waiting for a story to materialize out of the narrative void, like, say: “Emerging from the pine woods, where he had been hiding out for days, the man saw a house in the clearing, blinking in the sunset light like a daydream…” A film, for instance, could start that way. Another painting entitled Road and Trees shows a narrow empty strip of country road with towering pines in the background under a blue-white sky, the bark and foliage of some of the trees slightly gleaming forth from the darkness of the forest suggesting the approach of the beginning or the end of a day. An image trembling with anticipation for an action to occur, this too could be the opening shot of a movie: a single hatted figure tiredly ambles down the road, uncertain of his destination, yet freely allowing time to serenely pass by and whose eyes you recognize shining small from underneath the brim of his hat—the world weary gaze belonging to Robert Mitchum, or perhaps the ageless, open, curious look of Henry Fonda.
I referred to Hopper as “my” painter because he is the first artist from whom I felt like I could learn something. How to see landscapes as sites of narrative possibility, even if it is just the wind blowing in the trees, a dog running across a field of tall grass, or a train slowly chugging over a railway bridge into a city. His paintings are what André Bazin called centrifugal, meaning that the space of the world depicted is not boxed in by the frame but continues outward, reaching out towards life beyond the painted image. Hopper’s paintings are entirely open to the world, like the woman in Cape Cod Morning leaning out of the second-story window of a house surrounded by the omnipresent pine trees, the focus of her attention remaining unseen, but, given the eagerness of her posture, suggests she is expecting someone. Or perhaps she is just looking out the window up at the morning clouds like Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwych would do in a western by Nicolas Ray or Anthony Mann.
Hopper also taught how to imbue the anonymous profiles of people you see everyday in cities the world over with a possible story, thus turning the sad silhouettes sitting in late night diners or looking out of a window at dawn into dignified gestures each with their own unique traceable past. They are the lonely downtrodden of the everyday who carry nothing with them but the weight of the world. Steeped in longing, his tenderly delineated figures in hotel rooms, bars, movie theaters, gas stations etc., in all their aura of stillness, recall an imaginary era of peace, of a time when “sitting,” “reading,” or “resting” constituted the highest form of being in the world. Blissfully free of the obtrusiveness of images that are everywhere one looks today—in the news, social media, in movies—and that prevent you from seeing anything, Hopper’s paintings project a utopic counter-world to the present, and command slow, patient attention, giving rise to a calm rhythmic breathing akin to a tightly clenched fist opening up into a palm.
Paintings with names like Hotel Room, People in the Sun, Rooms by the Sea, South Carolina Morning,or Summer Evening reawaken the appetite for the world (for streets, asphalt, landscapes, faces, building facades), leaving no desire to be anything more but an eye. It is a desire only otherwise known to me in the movies, and one that is inextricably linked to the cinema of Wim Wenders, particularly his earlier work from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Watching, for example, his student short Silver City Revisited (1969), a film in the same lineage as Hopper, is to experience an internal click in the body, a feeling of lifting up off the ground. A moody excavation of Munich’s cityscape, Wenders shoots the views from the different apartments he lived in and creates the impression of someone looking out the window onto empty dawn streets, and endless flows of nightly traffic and lights. The expanded sense of duration, the close attention to landscape and place, the melancholic air that hovers gently over the film, all qualities that would become characteristic of his earlier features, have their origins in this rarely screened short. Silver City Revisited is a study in the act of seeing and perception, a yearning to be elsewhere, away from the city. It is a film, like Hopper’s paintings of Cape Cod houses, to daydream oneself into. As the original reviewer Gerhard Theuring wrote in Filmkritik: “a film which expresses the longing for a prelapsarian speechlessness, a film of complete peacefulness,” words that are easily applicable to Edward Hopper.
It was for all these reasons that I attended an Edward Hopper exhibition late June at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel that featured a 3D installation by Wim Wenders titled Two or Three Things I Know About Edward Hopper. Wenders has extensively cited the importance of Hopper’s oeuvre to his work, naming him as an aesthetic guide during the shoot of The American Friend (1977), as well as an aid during the period of editing Hammet (1982), his first Hollywood film, when he was experiencing a crisis in his filmmaking. In the diary film Reverse Angle (1982), made during this period for French television, Wenders includes shots of Hopper’s Summer in the City and Morning Sun and says: “After days of this blindness, it’s two books that once more open my eyes to pictures and put me in the mood for peaceful looking: a novel by Emmanuel Bove, who observes and relates his subjects simply and with great respect to detail, and a book of reproductions of Edward Hopper’s paintings. These books remind me that the camera is capable of equally careful description, and that things can appear through it in a good light: the way they are.” There is also his famous reconstruction of Hopper’s Nighthawk in The End of Violence (1997), wherein he uses the iconic painting as the basis for a movie-set for a scene in a Hollywood studio thriller.
This final example touches close on the impulse behind Wenders’s 3D live action short, wherein he recreates a handful of key Hopper paintings with actors and real locations, using them as blueprints to weave together micro narratives. With the city of Butte, Montana and its surrounding landscape substituting the pines and wooden houses of New England, these flash fictions are in and of themselves banal, instantly recognizable from the reservoir of ready-made stories of repressed desire, cynical intrigue, and doomed romance found in film noir and melodrama. The achievement of Wenders’s project is to give a flicker of life to the stories you sense are hidden beneath the surface of Hopper’s paintings. The woman wearing a pink slip from Hopper’s Morning Sun is stunningly recreated with her calmly sitting on a hotel bed in a quadrangle of soothing sunlight looking out of the window at the skyline of Butte, her abusive lover with whom we saw her fighting moments before now gone. The youthful couple on the porch from Summer Evening is on the verge of a break up, a sweet summer affair now over. The gas station attendant from Gas has just finished servicing his last car for the evening or perhaps forever and as the car drives away he hangs his head in exhaustion, a lifelong worth of fatigue ingrained in his body. The young woman in a white dress and Panama hat from Summer Evening is being secretly followed by a dark suited man—a private detective or perhaps a stalker? Wenders provides ample space to allow the viewer to create his or her own story out of these image fragments, keeping each scene, like Hopper’s painting, open to narrative possibility. Accompanied by the plangent score of long-time collaborator Laurent Petitgand, which at times burdens the images with its own grandiosity, the music, when it does work, manages to become inseparable from the images, reminding you what is it like to see for the first time
Janet Leigh escaping in her car to the score of Bernard Herrmann in the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Robert Stack drunkenly racing home in his yellow convertible in the beginning Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) to the ominous score by composer Frank Skinner.
The word “immersive” is frequently attached as a descriptor to 3D, and, though I’ve rarely had such an experience with the medium, this film came the closest to achieving that. The strongest moments in the piece, where the 3D-ness resulted in a mode of “peaceful looking” (to refer back to Wenders’s text) were those that captured depopulated places and landscapes, moments that were not direct recreations of Hopper paintings, but that channeled his way of looking. For example, the interior shots of the rundown hotel in downtown Butte, corridors full of sawdust, disused rooms crisscrossed by shafts of afternoon light, dust motes floating dreamily in the rays above the blue and yellow armchairs that look like they have not been sat in in an eternity. Or a beautiful sequence of a derelict railway station outside of town with images of complete stillness with nothing but the tracks, the slope of green hills, a silo tower, the white clouds in the blue sky, the gravel and the sound of the wind in the weathered grass. Or another sequence of a landscape of sun-bleached grass with a ochre-reddish barn (instantly recognizable from the many paintings Hopper did of the farmhouses and barns in South Truro, Massachusetts), flung out in the emptiness, a rolling cloud bank casting shadows over the land; a landscape breathing in and out with the hiss of the wind in your ears whereby you stretch your fingers apart in the cinema to allow the air to blow between them.
Suddenly, with these newly acquired images, the world, for the first time in a long while, becomes livable again.
Several days later while on a train in Austria I found this quotation from an interview Wenders gave in 1982: “For me, landscape has everything to do with cinema. The first time I had a real 16mm camera in my hands, I did one three-minute take… It was of a landscape… The wind blew, clouds passed overhead, nothing happened. It was an extension of painting for me, of landscape painting. I didn’t want to put anyone in the foreground, and even today when I’m making a film I feel more interested in the sun rising over the landscape than in the story that’s going on there. I feel a greater responsibility for the landscape than for the story I’ve situated in it.”
Outside the train window: a landscape of granite colored mountains, verdant fields crisscrossed by paths dipped in sunlight, pale-bright clouds hanging motionless in the deep blue sky. Looking out over this expanse I discerned, repeatedly in the course of the journey, fleeting figures in this otherwise unpopulated countryside, some in pairs and groups, but mostly alone all sunk in whatever activity they were doing—a young woman jogging, a child riding a bicycle, an older man taking a photograph of our moving train from his two-story house (that could have been in Cape Cod), and a woman just standing there in the great outdoors under a big sky (like the Big Sky you find in Montana). All of them appeared to me like Hopper figures, mysterious, open, dignified in their aloneness, and all signs of an upcoming era of peace that I am hoping will still arrive.
Two or Three Things I Know About Edward Hopper is on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel as part of the exhibition Edward Hopper, running through September 20, 2020.