Exploring Urban Loneliness With Edward Hopper

It’s Edward Hopper’s birth anniversary on July 22nd. Born in 1882, the prolific American realist painter evoked urban loneliness and disappointment with beautiful clarity. Half a century has passed since Hopper died but his popularity hasn’t waned. What is it about Hopper’s brand of melancholy that has struck a chord with so many? His works depict urban loneliness, disappointment, melancholy, longing, even despair.

The haunting power of Hopper’s art derives from his particular brand of realism, one which is sparse, disinclined toward extraneous detail and, ultimately, characterised by what the painting seems to omit rather than what it represents. He turned iconic American spaces such as diners, drug stores, hotel rooms, gas stations and cinemas into spaces reflective of the artist’s interior realm, spaces of mood, feeling, contemplation of one’s position in the world.

Behind the apparent simplicity of the paintings lies great complexity and depth. The lack of details invites the spectator to complete the image by speculating on past and impending events, on the relationships between the characters, and on the desires and anxieties provoked by our own need to examine these characters’ lives.

Hopper was concerned with the negative effects of urbanization and increasing economic disparities. At the heart of his urban vision are the paradoxes of the foundational democratic myth. We are all created equal, and yet what makes us equal is our absolute, inviolable uniqueness and individualism. ‘I’m unique, just like everyone else.’

Perhaps this is why “voyeurism” is an overused term in Hopper criticism. A painting such as ‘Night Windows’, which positions the viewer in a first-floor flat looking across at a woman bending over in the room opposite, might be superficially considered voyeuristic, but it is better understood as a meditation on the need for connection, and the difficulty of reaching out and connecting with others. It’s as much a picture of our own sense of isolation (and, of course, Hopper’s) as it is a picture of a vulnerable lone woman.

One of Hopper’s most famous declarations, part of the statement he submitted to Reality journal in 1953, makes clear his approach:

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”

Robert Genn, the famous Canadian artist known for his landscape paintings understood that if you wanted to be an artist, you better understand loneliness. Because like it or not, a good deal of painting, writing, sculpting, music and such comes down to independent effort.

Late nights of sustained creation. Early morning epiphanies. Private frustrations and repetitive rituals. Long stretches of weekends and canvas time where you are deep in the thick of it. Navigating the whispers of inspiration, personal expression and tortured execution. This is a big part of what it means to be an artist.

I like solitude. I’m very good at being disconnected. I do a lot of disappearing. People who know me go, ‘Oh yeah, she’s gone into her cave again.’ I’m like that, a bit of a hibernating bear. Like that lizard that just sits there on the wall and doesn’t do much. I was always a bit of a dreamer as a kid, so that hasn’t changed.

Its peculiar because I have a great fear of being lonely but have a desperate need for solitude and the solitary experience.

It’s always been a tug of war for me, especially with my friends and family who sometimes mistake me as being rude or selfish. Companionship however is important to me – with my significant other. There’s no veil of solitude I wear with him, to him I’m always there, maybe a little self-absorbed with my creative tunnel vision at times, but always ready to press the alone time switch ‘off’. Howcome you ask? Here’s why:

“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet; what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying, “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”

‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone,” said Orson Welles, “Only through our love can we create the illusion, for the moment, that we’re not alone.”

It took me years though to know the difference between being alone and being lonely. They are two different things … These days, I’m rarely lonely and only for a few moments now and then until my muse gives me a swift kick in my feathered butt and I’m off flying again with another art project or written piece.

Anyway, here’s to Hopper and our happy places!