Paul Greenberg

BOSTON - You go up the broad steps of the classical temple that is the Museum of Fine Arts and push through the glass doors into the cool shadows that house the once turbulent past. In museums, its passions and preoccupations are stilled.

When you buy your ticket to the Hopper retrospective late on a weekday morning, the lady behind the counter says you've come at the right time. There are no pressing crowds here this time of day on this ordinary day of the week. But even if there were, you think, the stillness of Hopper's work would absorb them, quiet them, dispel them. His pictures of life all seem still lifes.

You cross a clean, well-lighted corridor to the entrance of the Hopper exhibit, which is here till August 19. There's still time to catch it, to walk out of the summer heat into its shade. Once inside, time slows, then stops, even reverses.

The exhibit is advertised as "Edward Hopper/the ordinary, made extraordinary." But no one can make the ordinary, breathtaking beauty of life extraordinary; it already is. We need only be aware of it to have it break through the everydayness. But we couldn't bear its light full-on.

That's why we have artists like Edward Hopper: to let us re-see the power of the past without being blinded by it. They mediate for us, taming the world the way the passage of time does.

Hopper's art has both power and stillness, which gives it a wordless poignancy. Words become an intrusion even as I jot them down in front of a painting like "New York Movie," 1939, with its solitary usherette lost in her own vision so apart from the cellulose one on the screen. Or the sovereign, sunlit silence of the early morning light in "Seven A.M.," 1948. The dark little shops in "Early Sunday Morning," 1930, are gone now, Hopper once noted. Yet they remain, thanks to his eye.

This is what ritual rightly performed does; it makes the past not new, for it is more familiar in these paintings than in our own minds, but present again, evoked by another's talent. The artist is a kind of priest, giving communion. We see and taste, and we are back where we have been. But thanks to the artist, we can bear it. Just as we can stare at the sun through dark glasses. The blinding glare is gone but the beauty is intensified.

Time as measured by the clock does not exist in this small space removed from the city and the world and the war outside. We walk through this gallery into our past. Hopper makes us all voyeurs, but not with ill intent. It is not others whose past we violate but our own, opening up sweet memory in the safety of art.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.