Edward Hopper often painted scenes where human habitation ends and where nature begins. He points to our simultaneous inclusion in and divorce from the natural world, what shape the modern, urban world takes in relation to nature and how this molds the individual in the city. In many of his paintings he shows the results of how we have reconstructed nature to our needs and desires instead of accepting a predetermined function within it, while nature looms as an awesome but threatening force of alluring entropy just outside our windows or front doors. He enjoyed painting railroad tracks because these were the thin dendrites that connected human habitations within the vastness of the natural world while the tracks also represented our departure from that world. An exhibit in Indianapolis at Newfields examines Hopper’s paintings of hotel rooms within this whole context in the show: Edward Hopper and the American Hotel.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave finds himself in a hotel room constructed by aliens. When Kubrick was envisioning this hotel room, he thought of how we try to add interesting rocks and trees and other natural elements in zoo enclosures to make the animals feel at home. So Kubrick added little touches like neo-classical French sculpture to Dave’s hotel room. A hotel room is, basically, a substitute for one’s bedroom created for the traveler from one city through nature to another. The little touches reassure one that one is safe, surrounded by comfort. Yet the hotel is also a place of isolation as the expectations of the city inhibit interpersonal communication as we see in Hopper’s Hotel Lobby. A couple and a young woman are in each other’s presence but meaningful communication is impossible. The couple themselves have little to talk about, but feel tied to each other nonetheless. We are accorded this type of companionship.
The people in Hopper’s hotel rooms often seem to be looking out the windows. Are they looking at what we have abandoned? Do they feel a longing for nature even though we are no longer suited for it, the way Yeats could hear the lapping of the ocean waves against a shore while standing on a roadway? These figures seem to be planning, plotting, hoping, waiting. They are looking outside as we do not get the impression that hotels are for introspection. If we see a person reading, for example, the person is clearly killing time and not searching for anything life transforming. Hopper is depicting movement in the outer world and not change within ourselves.
In the painting 11AM we see a woman completely naked except for her shoes, sitting in a comfy chair and staring outside, elbows on knees, hands together in anxiety, not in prayer. In Hotel by the Railroad we see a couple, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts, the woman reading, the man looking speculatively at the railroad tracks. In South Carolina Morning a woman stands at her door looking out at a seemingly endless field of tall grass. In Morning Sun a woman sits on her bed staring at the sky through her window expectantly. In Morning in the City we see another naked woman looking through her window as she dresses for the morning, wondering, perhaps, what the day will bring. In Western Motel we see inhospitable yet stately mountains outside the windows. People in the Sun shows well-heeled folks relaxing on wooden folding chairs while looking at distant mountains. It is as if Hopper is sneering at the entire tradition of Western landscape painting and its total misunderstanding of what nature is in relation to humanity.
There are some Hopper works where we are looking through the window at the inhabitants. In Apartment Houses we see a maid in pristine uniform. She is a part of the experience, part of the luxury of the accommodations, but, perhaps, we are invited to view her as more than that and think about why we might completely overlook her in the first place. In Room in New York we see a woman in a red dress distractedly plunking away at piano keys while a formally dressed man studies something intently in a newspaper. In House at Dusk we do not see what is happening inside the rooms, but we can anticipate, basically, what they are doing: the same things we do.
These paintings are about the individual pursuing his/her own ends, how we abandoned community for isolation, success and profit, how we are taught to rely on ourselves and damn everyone else and the loneliness and anxiety this type of life causes. These are rooms where you realize how very little is really expected of us in our lives. How our lives and actions are supposed to be geared to external needs and gains and we feel content when we leap over such a low bar to the acclaim of our peers. These are the outposts of materialism and consumerism, showing little or no humane engagement and very little joy among those depicted. While folks are looking out those windows, or as we gaze on them secretly, they may be feeling they are missing something under a more oppressive sense of denial that precludes further introspection.
We also get a sense of permanence and transience in these paintings. These hotel rooms will last for some time, the travelers will change on nearly a daily basis. There is no recognition of the individual or his/her journey, the goal of the hotel room is to find the common denominator of all travelers and provide a sense of temporary comfort and ease for anyone who might enter. The uniformity of the room mirrors the uniformity of our desires, aspirations and often the essence of our life choices.
The show contains numerous photos of and drawings by Hopper as well as many of his paintings but also includes the work of other artists. I wanted to focus, however, on Hopper in this review. This show is significant in that it challenges the belief that Hopper was just a painter of urban alienation. Hopper’s chief preoccupation went far beyond that and encompassed a monumental theme using the most mundane scenes.