The Shops Are Gone Now: Edward Hopper's Sunlight Recaptured

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Aug 10, 2007 12:01 AM

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.

It is not true that art must disturb; it can also reconcile. Hopper reconciles us to the solitude no one can escape. He does more than reconcile us to it; he savors it. He's the loner's artist. Looking through his windows into people's solitary lives, we are alone together.

The solitude in these paintings and the appreciation of it . . . the emptiness of these scenes even and maybe especially when there are figures present in the frame . . . the colors muted as if they were pre-aged . . . .

Hopper's pictures belonged to the past even as they were being painted. That includes those with a touch of the surreal or futuristic. They have the feel of a future that never came to pass, a future of the past. Think of the exhibits at a World's Fair circa 1939 of the wonders that Science and Industry would soon bring us.

All those promised wonders were going to change everything, banishing time and space and doubt and loneliness. That is always the promise made to those who would escape the paradise they can't see all around them. Hopper, who could see it, knew better. He transmits that knowledge in these pictures, and transmutes it into something achingly lovely even while he reconciles us to it.

On the walls of the gallery are the usual tendentious texts breaking down Hopper's art into glib socio-economic commentary. Hopper himself explained what he was up to in the simplest words. "All I wanted to do," he once said, "was paint sunlight on the side of a house." He tried often enough. And he succeeded in painting all kinds of shade. From the acclaim he garnered during his life, which persists and grows, there's no doubt he succeeded as an artist. Whether he ever painted sunlight on the side of a house to his satisfaction is another question. But he let us see what he was after, and that is wondrous enough. Thank you, Mr. Hopper.