Edward Hopper: An Artist in Pursuit of Desire

by Matt Backer



In Summertime, the small view of the interior afforded by the brisk wind functions quite differently. The gentle drapery and bluish hue of the woman's dress visually rhyme with those qualities in the curtain. We do not identify with this woman; rather, her overt sexuality leads us to desire her as a sexual object. We wish to complete the disrobing initiated by the bright light and translucent dress. The bared interior, no longer hidden behind white drapery, serves as a visual corollary to the fantastic visual penetration of the female body. As suggested by the Oedipus myth, mentioned above, the gaze and the sexual role of the male are closely related in psychoanalysis. Critic Jean Clair referred to the eye as "a phalloid organ. The gaze is the erection of the eye."[11] Our imagined visual penetration of both the veiled window and the woman's dress corresponds to our assumed sexual desire for the woman. The utter dark of the interior is necessary to this construction; a banal scene of an office would disrupt the curtain's function as a symbol of the dress. The void is a symbol of the woman's body/interior, object of our desire. The void is a placeholder of completed desire, visually (and sexually) penetrated woman. The dark window of Automat is also a placeholder of desire, albeit less obvious. As noted above, the canvas appears to take urban alienation as its subject; however, the scene is unappealing without the figure. We enjoy the painting, because we can commiserate with the woman's alienation. Thus, the window is at once symbol of alienation and an imagined bond. Both the sexual desire of Summertime and the empathetic desire of Automat exist only in their fantastic, unfulfilled state, of necessity. The realization of desire does not consist of its being "fulfilled;" rather, it coincides with the reproduction of desire as such, with its circular movement. [12] In these two images and numerous others, Hopper seems to make desire itself visual, surrounded by cues to interpretation (sexual, empathetic, etc.) and contained within a black void.[13]

In Hopper's work, the void consistently takes the form of a window. The home of Dauphinée House, for example, contains a single open window that appears to offer visual access, but the black shape fails to satisfy our curiosity of the interior. Our desire focuses on this dark portal, placeholder of fantasy and desire. Hopper, himself, commented on the "difficult problem of giving the sensation for which so few try, of the interior and the exterior of a building seen simultaneously" in a review of another artist's paintings.[14] Hopper realized that windows separating exterior and interior spaces could be used to focus his audience's attention, by implying that ideals suggested by the painting (i.e. the satisfaction of empathy, sexuality, and curiosity) are satisfied on the other side of the portal. While this attention to windows suggests movement, from exterior to interior or vice versa, the images themselves are unusually still. The introspective woman sits motionless in the automat, the fair-haired woman pauses at the top of the steps leading outside, and so on. It appears that each of these images could easily have been captured by a long-exposure camera and that the subjects will be still for some time. The figure of each woman implies a pause in the midst of motion (the brooding woman is in a hurry and the fair woman is in mid-step), a pause that extends beyond the instant caught in the image. Time seems to extend beyond the temporal constraint of the still image.

Although Hopper never articulated his method of creating a sense of extended time to my knowledge, he adroitly manipulated space, as well. Hopper commented on his use of the frame and formal elements to create the spatial extension of Manhattan Bridge Loop (not reproduced, 1928),

The very long horizontal shape of this picture is an effort to give a sensation of great lateral extent. Carrying the main horizontal lines of the design with little interruption to the edges of the picture, is to enforce this idea and to make one conscious of the spaces and elements beyond the limits of the scene itself.[15]

The exaggerated horizontal movement of the painting, interrupted by only two vertical elements, gives the impression, as Hopper intended, of the vast horizontal shape stretching into infinity. Hopper's handling of time has the same effect. By creating an impression of extended time within a medium that precludes actual time within the artwork, Hopper introduced an element that has no boundaries. Like the horizontal forms of the Bridge Loop, the time in Hopper canvases seems to have no end; the images seem to capture an eternal moment.

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