Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on April 29, 2010 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:
I've Now Been To Gloucester, or: My Belated Search for Edward Hopper, the Nature of Hardship, and the Dead Weight of Expectation
by Brett Busang
I took my first trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts a few winters ago. This legendary village has drawn artists for over a century -- and fisher-folk for many more. It has the quaint sort of feeling I wanted it to have, and have consequently resisted. If a place turns out as you think it's going to be, it's not worth the trouble.
Here in Gloucester Winslow Homer took in drafts of the lung-searing air he would breathe up and down the New England coastline. His great Yankee seamen lived and sailed here -- and died here too. When he knew them, they were not yet cliched and performed a necessary function. Cod and alewife sustained a population -- and these men provided it. They were the human bedrock of a great hard world; they were the uncomplaining salt of the earth; they were stalwart fellows who didn't necessarily wish to die even as they faced death every time they weighed anchor and cast out to sea.
When we got into town, it was so damned cold that I gladly cut my picture-taking short and resumed my study of the world from behind a windshield. I felt my frailty. Here the great ocean hurled its breath at me. Here were the rocks that resisted it. And here the spit-polished houses made to keep certain things out and other things in.
So many artists have recorded Gloucester that I couldn't possibly name them all; nor would anybody in his right mind want me to. Cape Cod painters are as numerous as they are, outside of the region, unknown. Many stand before the same motif, sealing their artistic fates as they jockey for position among themselves. The best of their pictures have a great, brandishing energy that is sometimes overblown. You sometimes wish, after viewing so many of them, that the artists had stayed home more often. There's only so much you can say about weary mankind scratching a living from the sea; trawlers coming in with the day's catch; lobster pots sitting picturesquely idle.
Edward Hopper began to roam Gloucester's streets after he'd knocked around for a while and knew what he was looking for. In Gloucester, he found a sun-drenched alternative to the subway, the movie theatre, the office. He painted mostly in watercolor, an unforgiving medium he had mastered as a cover artist for small trade magazines. Its portability afforded him out-of-studio time with subjects other artists shunned. In those days, you lived in the town, but painted in the country. It was how people dealt with the horrors of industrialization. Fortunately for us, Hopper drove into Gloucester and stayed put.
The contours of the town Hopper knew are still among us. Gloucester is an island and part of the Cape Ann community which also includes Rockport and Manchester-by-the-Sea. It rises up from the harbor, which isn't easy to get to. Necessary commerce has swallowed some of it. The Coast Guard has claimed its little island. As has a small maritime museum that does most of its business in the summer. I found, in Gloucester, that it is best to experience the ocean at a slight remove, to feel its presence rather than try to know it firsthand.
Because we drove in late, we couldn't do a great deal of walking. Gloucester had to be taken on the run, or not at all. Yet Hopper's plain-fronted clapboards were everywhere, even if many had been "improved" with siding. As was his light-filled air, whose sheen and sparkle is denied inland places. There is a psychological tendency to want famous localities to look, as famous people rarely do, like their pictures. Gloucester does and it doesn't. It's recognizable, but elusive. Hopper's paintings of its streets and houses don't make them necessarily "real"; they merely isolate these things. When their boundaries are extended, as they are in real life, the paintings seem fragmentary. Yet Hopper understood Gloucester's clarity -- which makes you turn around and look a second time. There is a hard luminosity that is like no other: much starker than in a place like New Orleans, which is softer-edged. Or Memphis, which might as well be fogged over. Manhattan has a similar "feel" in October: hard right angles; bright-blue sky; geometry; nature; forever and for-now.
Gloucester wasn't pristine. Its CVS had the same disorienting brightness as any other. Its storefront culture was, with its books and memorabilia, History-conscious in the same way a bed-and-breakfast can be, with its period furniture and piping-hot rolls. And the many bars and restaurants were full of people who'd had enough of sightseeing -- or of jobs in other places. A person from the Midwest might be comfortable here, provided he or she didn't wander around a lot.
Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, New York, on the Hudson River. He didn't know any more about Gloucester, growing up, than I did about the Bay of Naples. He came to it -- or it came to him -- and somehow the two became synonymous. I'm sure the irony wasn't lost on him -- even if he bloody well ran with it. As I would. As would anyone.
By car, we couldn't quite manage his old perspectives. The streets meandered, the houses came and went too fast, and there was the bitter cold Hopper eschewed by visiting mostly in the summer. Tourism had spawned tacky restaurants. My favorite was seafood palace whose façade was brushed with industrial-grade "sand" and painted to suggest that somebody had sculpted it on a beach somewhere and rushed it to this particular location to keep it safe. It is the sort of place where out-of-towners sit and eat lobster, then fart luxuriantly before a roaring fire. It's the sort of place towns like Gloucester should have -- to neutralize its superabundant character.
As we drove through the town, glimpses of the ocean tantalized: small blue swatches framed by beam and spindle. It is thrilling to be in a place that can provide, at a safe remove, visions of something so dangerous. I grew up in an inland place, relieved somewhat by an abundance of lakes and rivers. Vacations were spent on rafts and beaches -- or patches of cement that were water-friendly. When, as a child, I saw Gulfport, Mississippi, my mouth dropped. Palm trees were there. And ocean grasses wind-power had thrashed and bent. The great beach was said to be filthy, but the sand gave way underneath my feet and took me to the edge of the world, where I gaped in wonder at a distant line where Gulf and sky met. Storms had raged here -- and would, alas, rage again. But for the moment, these two savage elements were self-contained.
While in Gloucester, I felt a sort of homecoming. Remembering Gulfport, my imagination lit up.
As we looked, I began to appreciate an aspect of Hopper's work that must necessarily remain conjectural: the part of it you don't see. The best artists pare things down, erase barriers. They allow us to experience the incomprehensible by means of things easily grasped. A house. A yard. A mansard roof competing with a flat one. White on blue; blue on blue; one modulation piled on another. I know why Hopper came here. It wasn't the houses. He just didn't want to be literal-minded. So many artists watched wharf and water the whole teeming spectacle of diving gulls, spreading nets, and exhausted fishermen. Thanks to artistic convention, Yankee fortitude became America's Virtue. Hopper would not take his easel down to the boats and the fishermen; it was too easy. It was too pat a thing for a man who, like Winslow Homer, craved sterner stuff. When Hopper walked into town, he enlarged an experience that had been, up to that time, severely limited. You might not make money on it, but is money important in the long run?
Hopper genuinely liked Gloucester's architecture. It is organic: small spare "bones" in harmony with a hard-angled place that needed to be. It reminded him of his boyhood home in Nyack, which overlooked the Hudson. There Hopper thought of becoming a marine architect. Here the houses were enough. Most looked out to the water themselves. He felt at home, as he possibly did not in Greenwich Village.
Some people stick to places because they've got family. Or a job that pays them well. Opportunities might pop up there and no other place. But there are other reasons. Reasons a lot of people wouldn't be aware of as they fight like hell to keep jobs that don't appeal to them, or to salvage relationships that might not make sense anywhere else.
I would guess that the people stay in Gloucester for personal reasons. I doubt if the catch of 2010 measures up to that of 1970. The men I saw tending their nets were outnumbered by the gulls that swooped around them, snatching at buried morsels. Some boat-building was going on and it looked reasonably serious. But it seemed precious to me a matter of "image control." Tourism had shut down. Too cold? Yes, but what difference did that make to a place that had always taken the good with the bad and came out even? The wind came raw over the water and was viscerally felt. We thought aloud about its force, present even in the neutral places we could rarely find. My lips went immediately dry and stayed that way until we could warm up in the car on the road back to Amesbury.
I grew up in the South, whose climate was agreeable for the most part. Notions of resistance did not come naturally. You had to go and find them. Men went down to the Mississippi River and failed to come back -- but not in disproportionate numbers. The steamboat era was rough on humanity in general and took many lives. Boilers exploded, flinging crew and passengers into the swirling water -- and scalding the least lucky among them. Railroads killed people evenhandedly and were no more a scourge in the South than anywhere else. The most virulent diseases were racism and poverty. Except where it grew too much -- or got too big -- nature wasn't a problem. Which is to say, if you went somewhere in the South, you had every expectation of coming back. You didn't worry about tidal waves, cold snaps, evil-looking shoals. And while the Mississippi could ground a boat and sink it, the thing sank in a leisurely fashion. Boats slide into the ocean so fast there's no tracking them. Eyewitnesses don't get over it -- unless they see one too many. In the South, you talk about bad patches in a friendly way. They rough you up, but that's part of the fun. You spend time describing all the details. Why? Because your survival is assured, you can afford the luxury of expansion. The New Englander is laconic because his last words have always been close at hand. No time for windy speeches when you've been slapped off the side of the bow and are swallowing salt-water. At that point, you're not talking anymore.
No, it is different in Gloucester, not only in its housing stock, but in Yankee perceptions of life's hardship. Hopper was, perhaps unconsciously, drawn to a fisherman's church that is still standing among his bright clapboard rows. It is small, but somewhat more ornate than its neighbors, as if visions of safe returns needed window-dressing. Perhaps what Hopper was searching for -- or trying to reconcile -- was the outward serenity of a good old house and its spottier storyline. Art speaks in symbols -- which is to say it is best approached sideways. Its intentions are not even apparent to its creators -- the best of whom know that. They use it to illuminate a thought or question and slip away so that the rest of us can try to decide what it means -- or whether it might have multiple meanings.
I am impatient with the kind of scholarship that teases out every nuance of an artist's work. A singular vision should be allowed to stand apart from mere analysis. And while I'm guilty of wanting to know things, I also try to bear in mind that it is experience that comes first. Any lasting representation of human consciousness must acknowledge that. It must operate as if the stuff of life cannot be known.
I was expecting to dismiss Gloucester as a place the wider world had vacated, a sort of ship-in-a-bottle art historians shook for the occasional insight and put aside. I'm glad to say that I had a glimpse of something I could not have seen on the page -- the source of my previous knowledge of the place. I was glad to have stopped there for a time, as we slipped away into the traffic that would start to thicken as Boston commuters poured back into the small communities they still valued enough to hold onto.
© 2008/2010 Brett Busang
About the Author
Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited
at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson
Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC.
His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy
Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his
work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward
Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard"
with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing
has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American
Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday.
He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun
to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide
following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.
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