January 19, 2003
What's in your Hopper?
Art: Hopper
What's in your Hopper?
Edward Hopper's most influential painting was House by the Railroad (1925). The painting strikes at something that resonates within the viewer, as the depiction of a lonely mansard roofed house has become widely adopted as a symbol of eerie unease.
In a 1938 issue of the New Yorker, the cleverly morbid cartoonist Charles Addams introduced us to the "Addams Family" , in a cartoon depicting a salesman trying to peddle his wares to a strange household living in a mysterious mansion, adopted from Hopper's rendering of an isolated mansard roofed house. Eventually, Addams' cartoons caught the eye of television producer David Levy and the "Addams Family" (and their mysterious mansion) reached a broad audience as a television series in 1964.
Additionally, Hopper's painting inspired Alfred Hitchcock to place Norman Bates and his mother in an isolated mansard roofed dwelling in Psycho (1960). Further, when director George Stevens brought Edna Ferber's sprawling tale of cattle, oil, love and West Texas egos -- Giant -- to the screen in 1956, he choose a rendition of Hopper's lonely house as the center around which the strange triangle formed by James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor was formed. Similary, in director Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) a variant of the house was placed in a bleaker West Texas to be the center of a triangle between Sam Shepard, Richard Gere, and Brooke Adams.
However, Hopper's most famous painting is Nighthawks (1942). It seems to resonate as well, depicting late night customers at the counter of a nearly emtpy corner diner served by a lone bus boy, with the isolation of the characters made more apparent by the oddly voyeuristic view we have of them -- looking at them from above through the windows of the diner, in a manner where we can observe them while being unobserved ourselves.
This painting is Hopper's most famous probably because of a repainting of it done by the Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, who created a poster he entitled Boulevard of Broken Dreams by replacing the Hopper characters with renditions of Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. The poster has been a huge financial success, selling millions.
It is fascinating that Hopper's work became so cinematicly thematic. Born in 1882 (living until 1967) much of Hopper's work really pre-dated the rise of the modern motion picture industry. His House by the Railroad was painted in 1925, before talking motion pictures were even widespread. Further, Hopper's career was largely unaffected by the depression. In turn, his work during that period reflects not the desperate scarcity of the era -- but instead anticipates the alienation and isolation that would be part of the urban transience arising from the vast economic and social changes, including a booming economy, that would be part of the postwar era. Hopper gives us bleak city-scapes that loom menacingly, and oddly proportioned rooms with disjointed characters who fail to interact. Thereby, another cinematic thread was deeply influenced by Hopper's work, as the film noir (French, literally "black film" ) movement of the 1940s adopted his moody city scapes populated by alienated characters.

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