Edward Hopper: An Artist in Pursuit of Desire

by Matt Backer



Dauphinée House, of 1946 (fig. 1), contains the image of a simple, rural home and the surrounding area. A central path leads the viewer into the painting's mid-ground, which contains a traditional American home. Despite the access to the painting given through the dirt road, the house itself is unsettlingly unwelcoming. The door is closed, as are all of the shutters but one, which only affords a view of darkness. Secondary features in the composition exacerbate our distanced feeling. Just before the house lies a railroad track which formally separates the viewer from the house and creates a sense of horizontal movement. The walls of the house complement this sense of movement because the front and sidewalls meet at an oblique angle; each seems to be nearly parallel to the picture plane. We seem to perceive the house from two positions in space: just behind the telephone pole on the right of the canvas and several yards to the left, near the rectangular white sign. This sense of horizontal movement suggests that the viewer sees the house from within a moving vehicle, most likely an automobile, speeding along a highway parallel to the railroad tracks. The blurry bushes of the background further complement our sense of movement. As mentioned above, our role in this painting does not appear to be as specific as that of Olympia; however, certain elements of the gaze are clear: we ride an automobile along the highways of America, we are evidently wealthy enough to afford this automobile, and this banal house holds some interest for us. These circumstances of our interaction with the objects of the painting comprise the gaze, a psychoanalytical concept put forth by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who tied it fundamentally to desire.[6]

Our relationship to Dauphinée House is ambiguous, but the objects of another Hopper canvas, Office at Night (1940, fig. 2), provide a suggestive example of the play of desire within a painting and our relationship to the forces of desire. A woman occupies the center of the composition; the lines of each desk lead to her, as does the light cast from the window. As is often the case throughout the history of Western art, the woman is an object of desire. Displaying both her breasts and buttocks simultaneously, the secretary stands in an anatomically impossible position. We inhabit the ambiguous location of Dauphinée House; the distortion of the image not only provides a sense of movement, but also eroticizes the female body. The eroticized female again targets a particular viewer, a fairly wealthy American male, who would be likely to share this sexual fantasy with the painter. Office at Night contains a particular gaze and an object of desire, but their interaction is only illuminated by a third concept posited by Lacan: objet petit a.

Hopper's favorite Goethe quote explains that the artist transformed the actual world through "literary activity." Lacan explains that this distortion is not exclusive to artists, nor is it secondary to perception; rather, an individual's perception of reality is always colored by desire. The psychoanalyst traced this phenomenon to the formative event of a subject's personhood: the "mirror stage." This stage occurs sometime before an individual reaches the age of six months. Essentially, she or he recognizes her or his own image in a reflective surface; however, the unified form and easy movement of the image do not correspond to the young subject's experience of hazy boundaries (due to the child's physical attachment to her or his mother) and "motor uncoordination." The infant generates a fantasy of himself as the unified image. This fantasy has two consequences: the recognition of a lack within the subject (as an incoherent entity) and the designation of the external image as the solution to this lack. Further, it is an image of the unified self that he lacks and desires. The object of desire, the image, contains something in the eyes of the infant which an objective view would not see. Lacan called this fantastic quantity "l'objet petit a."[7] Objet a and the desire it manifests are not intrinsic to any external object; rather, objet a corresponds to the notion that the desired object will somehow counteract the subject's lack. The object of the infant's desire, of course, changes as the infant matures, from an image of itself to sexual partners, but the dialectic between subject and object does not. As an object of desire, the secretary's body is transformed in the sight of the artist. As we adopt his gaze, we see the same, fantastically erotic distortions, manifestations of objet a and traces of Hopper's desire.

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