Have you ever been in an art gallery, or leafed through an art book and been riveted? Something in the artist’s work, in his vision reaches out and “grabs” you, saying “Get over here and pay attention! I have something important to say to you.” If so, then lucky you! It doesn’t happen every day.
As you may have already guessed from previous posts, I have had a long-standing love affair with the paintings of the great American artist Edward Hopper. But why?—I ask myself. What is he “saying” or “presenting” to me?
Nighthawks is truly iconic, representing so much of the American myth, nature and character. Yes, it’s true. He does capture the isolation and loneliness of urban life and also the separate individualistic spirit of America. But there’s something else as well.
For years, I examined his work and knew something else resonated within me. I delved into the writings of art historians and critics, but nowhere could I find anyone who perceived what I perceived. But what was that?
For me, in every painting, there seemed to be a certain visionary quality which made me feel as if I were seeing “beyond” the here and now—almost to what you sometimes sense is behind or supporting all the things we touch, see, smell and taste and hear.
And then—I read an essay by Judith Barton entitled “Nighthawks: Transcending Reality.” In it, she says that all of Hopper’s figures seem to be very introspective and independent. Often, they are alone or with others but somehow separated from everyone else. She thinks his figures are looking deep inside themselves pre-occupied with private thoughts in solitary lives. Certainly, inner life is solitary.
Perhaps this is what has tantalized me for so long—that sense of the “beyond.” The people in the paintings are not concentrating on their surroundings. They are focused on their interior lives. They, themselves, are looking “beyond” their own time and place.
Another clue comes from Barton’s quote directly from the artist himself.
My aim in painting is always…to try to project upon the canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears…; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects and not others, I do not exactly know, unless it is to be the best medium for the synthesis of my inner experience.
From this quote, I conclude that Hopper was interested in the interplay between his own interior life and those of the people he painted. [His wife, Jo was usually one of the models for the women he painted.] And so, he was always intent upon putting as much of himself and his inner life into the picture along with his subjects.
Hopper very strongly indicates the interior life of all his figures. The four of them in Nighthawks, occupy a small space but they could be a hundred miles from one another. The painter has many techniques to create his effects. If you look at this painting, you can see the horizontal, diagonal and vertical lines of the composition pushing outward so that your eye goes zooming off with great energy into something “beyond” the time and space he depicts.
So how is this important to the writer? When I created the protagonist, Alexander Wainwright, Britain’s finest landscape artist, I had Hopper’s work in mind. Not that these artists have similar subject matter or styles. I described Alexander’s paintings as being suffused with a numinous light. Admirers of his work in the novel claimed it was like seeing the “beyond”. Consequently, the feeling I got from Hopper’s paintings formed the basis of a character who goes through many journeys in pursuing not only his art but also his humanity. That is just one example of how an artist and his painting can provide inspiration for a novelist.