Malaise. Ennui. Melancholy. These are some of the emotions and feelings inspired by the work of one of the greatest modern artists in American history, the great Edward Hopper. These are also emotions that can be inspired by a great piece of noir fiction. Hopper's work shares many parallels with the American Noir movement and in many cases may have served to inspire writers and filmmakers as the sub-genre was in it's infancy.
Recently I attended a showing of Hoppers work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Like many I have been a fan of Hopper's work since I first saw his arguably most famous work "Nighthawks" at the age of fourteen. Even though I was just a kid there was something wistful and solemn about that painting but also a sense of danger and excitement. The man and woman sitting at the counter while the soda jerk goes about the drudgery of his job. Are they waiting for someone? Do the man and woman know each other ? Or are they just two singular lost souls in a city with eight million stories?
For many years after that my knowledge of Hopper began and ended with Nighthawks. Then in college I saw an exhibit of his work at the Washington D.C. portrait gallery. The recent exhibit in Virginia was even more expansive with many never before seen sketches and diary entries from Hopper's wife. The actual name of the exhibit is entitled Edward Hopper and the American hotel. A large part of Hopper's output is centered around hotels and traveling. There are comparisons that can be drawn from this segment of his work and some of the great noir films produced shortly after his most active period. The Blue Dahlia , the classic Alan Ladd film, traces the isolation and otherness returning WW2 vets felt as they returned home. Ladd's character returns to find his wife has taken up with another man and so he retires to a boarding house. His loneliness and despair expressed by the stark confines of his room. When his wife is killed he goes on the hunt for her killer but we never truly feel he is a part of the world he left behind even as he solves the crime. Much like Hopper's subject in his painting "Room in New York" Ladd's character is in the world but not of the world. The female subject in the painting is only a few feet away from him but there might as well be miles between them.
In the classic film Key Largo Humphrey Bogart's Frank MCcloud finds himself in danger on the sun ripened shores of Key Largo at an old resort. Like an orange gone rotten on the inside the resort is full of corruption and despair that is just bubbling below the surface. In Hopper's "People In the Sun" his subjects are disinterested sun bathers their faces turned toward the light but their connections to each other secretive and suspicious. There is darkness slithering through all that light on that motel sun deck.
The transient nature of motels and hotels is a perfect setting for both the art of Hopper and the fetid denizens of a classic noir film. Anonymity and privacy, the seeds of both inhibition and regret are planted in fertile soil among the shadowy hallways and dark country roads that carry Hopper's subjects and the characters in classic films to their appointed destinies.
Another place where Hopper and classic noir films intersect is there lack black and brown people among their lonely citizenry. This is not to insinuate that Hopper is a racist or that all filmmakers of the golden age were. Hopper, in his writings and from all accounts in the many biographies about him was a fairly progressive individual. Yet the lack of faces similar to my own is a stark reminder that for many black and brown folks ruminations of existensial dread along the wind swept arteries of the American road was not a luxury they were afforded.
That being said the work of Edward Hopper continues to be an evocative inspiration that pushes us to examine our inner selves and contemplate our isolation even as we may be surrounded by the maddening crowd
And really what is more Noir than that?