Edward Hopper: An Artist in Pursuit of Desire

by Matt Backer



Lacan identified a force that counters desirous impulses, which he called the law. It is associated with the patriarchal code of conduct that promises punishment for reckless pursuit of desire. Lacan used the myth of Oedipus to illustrate the interplay of desire and law. By taking his mother as his wife, Oedipus submitted to his desire, which corresponds to a disregard for patriarchal law, symbolized through the preceding murder of his father. According to the myth and Lacan, disregard for the law leads to punishment. In anguish, Oedipus cut out his eyes. By removing his eyes, the tools of the gaze, Oedipus also removed his means of locating desire, negating the possibility of committing such a transgression again.

In Office at Night, the law is manifest primarily in our position as viewers. Hopper described the view as one from the seat of a passing elevated train, which seems appropriate, due to the elevation and implied movement of our position. As a result, the view of the woman acquires an illicit character; we feel as though we steal this glimpse. The figure of the man at work complicates the interaction of desire and the law (the feeling of impropriety). By adopting the gaze of a man similar to the one at the desk, we identify with him and his conscientiously laborious attitude, unaware of the attractive woman and the potential interaction suggested by her downward glance. In an article on the painting, Victor Burgin phrased our inner dialogue as follows, "I (male spectator) know very well that I am looking at the body of this woman, but nevertheless I (imagined man) am not." Thus, we can enjoy the object of our desire while imaginatively observing the law. [8]

All of these tensions within the painting (the allure of the secretary, the diligent focus of the man, and their potential interaction) are dormant until we perceive and recognize them. This absent place within the painting is reciprocal to the viewer's own originary lack, product of the mirror stage. It is as though the painting desires us to fill it, as we wish to fill our own lack through perceiving objects of desire. Roland Barthes noted this quality in literary objects, "The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me. The text chooses me."[9] As Hopper mentioned in regard to the above quote of Goethe, general theories on literature tend to apply equally well to art. The text requires a reader to convey meaning, as a painting "desires" a viewer. The void that we fill is especially apparent in some artworks, such as Hopper's 1927 canvas, Automat. We find ourselves inside a cafe with a young woman who sits at another table and gazes into the black coffee filling the cup in her hand. A black mass similarly draws our eyes; the bowl of red and pink confections directly behind the figure draws our eyes away from her to the black window. The rows of reflected ceiling lights create a second compositional movement, which also leads to the window, but not in the same area. The composition thus lacks a stable point; our eyes roam uncertainly from the figure to the black window and from the lights to the window. This reciprocal relationship between the young woman and us, both drawn to quiet contemplation through a black void, is impossible without a viewer. The painting "chooses me;" I complete it.

In Office at Night, Hopper carefully balanced attractive (the voluptuous secretary) and repulsive (our status as a voyeur) elements in the painting. Our relationship to Automat is similarly ambivalent; while the painting's "desire" for us is appealing, our role in the painting is an uncomfortable one. Like the young woman, we gaze into unfathomable darkness, which fails to absorb our attention; instead, we turn inward in a search for meaning within the dark of the window. Viewing this painting can be an unsettling experience, because it lacks a central object to hold our desirous impulse. The painting hints at the emptiness of desire; while we are compelled to look at the painting and follow the clear compositional forces, it offers no satisfaction. Lacan's objet petit a eludes us.

This is certainly not the case in Summertime of 1943 (fig. 4). As in Office at Night, the composition focuses on a sexually appealing young woman. Standing on the steps of an anonymous urban building, she wears a translucent, white, gossamer summer dress. The visual permeability of the dress, which allows us to perceive the forms and flesh tones of the female body through the thin fabric, excites an erotic desire for the woman. The window just to the left of the figure is open. A white curtain partially obscures the dark interior; its gentle flapping tempts us to peer through the window, but we find only an opaquely dark interior, similar to the dark void of Automat's window. Each painting draws our attention to an indeterminate, black shape, and other elements in the painting lead us to interpret the shape as more than a dark interior or window opening onto the night; they become symbols. In Automat, we tend to identify with the woman. We have the point of view of someone sitting at an adjacent table, and, as noted above, we join her in a contemplation of a murky form. With this identification, we share something of her mood, which appears unsettled. She appears to be in a rush (she has removed only one glove to drink the coffee and wears her hat and coat) but she sits quite still, apparently caught in her musings. Some of Hopper's paintings, and this is certainly one of them, have frequently been described as scenes of American alienation. [10]We imagine that the figure shares our alienated experience in modern America; however, the crux of the painting is the black shape behind her. As our eyes drift across the window in search of a resting point, we invest the dark void with a symbolic value: the alienation of life in urban America.

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