Painter of Alienation
March 10, 2014
For years I have been absorbed by the psychological theory of alienation, especially in the form described by the German-American psychologist, Erich Fromm, who derived it first from the ideas of Karl Marx. The reason for my interest is that I think the concept of alienation explains a great many of the problems of modern life as it is lived today. One day, however, in looking at some reproductions of Edward Hopper's paintings and prints in a book, I was struck by the idea that the artist was trying, among other things, to embody the experience of alienation in images rather than words. However, the author of the book had little in substance to say about what he thought these images actually meant, though the word 'alienation' crept into the discussion now and then, seemingly as a kind of hook to hang Hopper's canvases on. Instead he told you everything you wanted to know and everything you didn't want to know about Hopper, the man, his family, his time, supplemented with excerpts from the laboured cogitations of 'art critics', who themselves often exhibit characteristics of that same alienation. It was the same story when I surfed the Web for studies of Hopper's work.
It was then that I thought of trying myself to analyse a selection of Hopper's paintings and prints in the light of Fromm's theory of alienation, and then to put my conclusions in the form of a post. What qualifications have I got for this rather ambitious enterprise? None whatever. It may well be that obsession with qualifications is just another token of alienation. No qualification is any guarantee that its holder has ever had an original thought in his head in his life. But I have been a long time keen observer of the human scene and I reflect carefully on what passes before my eyes. I rest my fitness for the task on that alone. This post, then, will be about Hopper's paintings and prints, and not about his life, his wife or his dog.
Edward Hopper 1882-1967
First a little background. Alienation is probably as old as capitalism, if not a lot older, but what seems indisputable is that alienation grew conspicuously in Hopper's time, for the artist was born at about the start of what we now call the machine age. It was in this age that man became an appendage of the machine, instead of being master of it as formerly. For contrast with what had gone before, I begin with a look at several American paintings executed before the new social conditions had taken root. It should be seen in the contrast of these paintings with those of Hopper that the psychological effect of this lowering of man to the level of a machine-like thing was a three-fold increase of alienation. Man became more alienated from nature, more alienated from his fellow-man and more alienated from himself.
Edward Moran: Early Morning on South Beach 1874
In this painting man is depicted as the dominating figure in a natural landscape. The large expanse of sky conveys a feeling of infinite liberty, and a soft light sheds a veil of calm. There are no straight lines and harsh shadows here. The man-made world is just hinted at in the distance. The figure of the man is raised above his animals and the line of the horizon, stressing his spirituality. He is engaged in meaningful work in harmony with his environment.
Edward Moran: Life Saving Patrol 1893
Although it is night here, a bright moon shines in the sky and nothing threatens. The sea is now calm and the man is confident in his knowledge and experience, as symbolized by the light he carries. His close-following companion is the very emblem of trust and fidelity.
Samuel Carr: Beach at Coney Island 1879
Tranquillity here again in the calm of the sea and the fine weather, naturalness in the children wading, the pride of motherhood (or perhaps its over-protectiveness). There are no children in Hopper's paintings.
Eastman Johnson: The Conversation 1879
A woman leans against a barrel, her head bowed. What is she saying? Or confessing? Another woman, an older one, listens rigidly. Is she shocked? Whatever the details of this conversation might be, one thing is sure: there is a human relationship here.
Thomas Hovenden: Breaking Home Ties 1890
A family group. The lad, gawky and awkward, is the tallest person in the room. He has outgrown the family. He looks a little embarrassed at his mother's fussing over him, and perhaps anxious to be on his way, as his hat is gripped in his hand. The mother's face expresses concern and anxiety that her son may not be ready just yet to embark on life's journey, and her apron sweeping forward seems to want to wrap him in it still. The older sister, seated on the left controls her feelings by stroking the family dog, which almost seems to be aware of the solemnity of the occasion. The mother's mother on the right looks steely-eyed and tight-lipped at the viewer. She has seen all this before. The father faces the door with his back turned, his son's bag suspended from his hand. He is anxious to get this emotional woman's moment over with. The languid pose and the mournful look on the face of the younger sister leaning against the door jamb show that her brother's departure will be a great loss to her. A man in the doorway, who might be a family friend, looks on with curiosity.
Hopper's world is very different.
New York Corner 1913
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Several of these figures appear to be paired, but any sign of intimacy or conversation is lacking. They look wooden. The red building is isolated from its bleared background by its bold colour and outline. It has the look of a piece of theatre scenery. A stage is suggested by the horizontal lines of the raised sidewalk and the streetcar tracks, and the lighting is bright and diffused as for a stage. The painting might have been a pictorial impression of Shakespeare's lines.
Night Shadows 1921
The same setting as for New York Corner, but how different the treatment! Hopper has made it seem mysterious and threatening by a striking use of light and dark tones, and especially by the device of the looming shadow of the streetlamp that the lone man is about to cross. The technique here foreshadows the film noir style of the 1940s, with its shadowy lighting and its narratives of crime, guilt and betrayal.
Solitary Figure in a Theater 1902
Hopper's enduring interest in stage and screen is shown in this early painting from 1902. Its foreshortened perspective and sepulchral colouring give the impression of a moonlit graveyard, while the human figure, reduced to a mere shadow, a bloodless phantom, seems to rise from among tombstones to project a formless head into the space of the draped stage, as if waiting to feed on the trembling life about to appear there.
Daumier: The Drama c. 1860-1864
Hopper was influenced by the French painter, Honoré Daumier, who painted theatrical scenes showing both play and spectators, but while Daumier had depicted the intense engagement of a crowd of theatre-goers with the action on stage.
Hopper painted spectators, not only alienated from the action, but also from the other spectators. This woman's solitariness and isolation are stressed by a closed door, and the trance-like passivity and receptivity of her pose is heightened by the strong diagonals of cornice and seats, which seem to propel her, whether she will or no, toward a stage, which we see just a vestige of. She seems under a spell, and loathe to engage with reality again.
First Row Orchestra 1951
Here, by contrast, the stage takes up a large part of the painting, partly to convey the sense of expectancy in a theatre before the curtain goes up. But there is no trace of excitement or anticipation, nor even the smallest conversation among these early arrivals. The woman in the front row has crossed her legs away from her husband, a sign that she takes little interest in him, although his pose is attentive. Instead she directs her attention to the programme. But clearly she finds little inspiration there, since her hanging left hand suggests boredom, a motif repeated in the hand of the man at the end of the second row. Still, the colour, the action, and the sound of the theatre will likely be a relief from the drab monotony of a life which is alienated even from her life's companion.
New York Movie 1939
A theatrical scene again, where the action is actually unrolling, but we see merely a fraction of the screen. Neither is the focus on the spectators, as in 'First Row Orchestra', but on a gloomy usherette. The spectators are absorbed in the illusion of the film, while the usherette is crushed by boredom. The lighted stairway suggests the possibility of spiritual ascent, of rising above her tedious situation, but she remains imprisoned in an inner world that is tethered to a grinding, monotonous reality, where representations of unreality are reeled off night after night after night. Note the pillar, with its motifs from the real world of nature frozen into plaster.
Road in Maine 1914
Hopper was able to capture, like no other painter, man's alienation from both nature, on the one hand, and civilization, or culture, on the other, meaning the entire product of man's hand. Here civilization is signified by just three telegraph poles and a scrap of road which appears to start and end nowhere. Where is it coming from? Where is it going to? It just disorients the viewer. Nature is typified by the rounded masses of the hills, which seem to breathe permanence and peace, but also suggests an indifference to everything human. There is not a solitary living creature to be seen.
Railroad Train 1908
In this painting nature is represented by the band of grass, the sky and the plume of smoke, civilization by the train and the embankment. The black colour of the train lends it power and mystery. But black is also linked with fear and the unknown. It stands out aggressively against the grass and the smoke, whose dull yellow colour suggests sickness and decay. But where is the great locomotive, shrieking and thundering along its rails? Hopper often depicts an instant when an action is about to take place, or one after it has taken place. The viewer is thus somewhat disoriented because he is never present for the event. He is alienated from it.
The Locomotive 1922
Here is the great locomotive itself, but most of it is missing from the picture. And it is not thundering along its rails. On the contrary, it stands at rest before the entrance to a dark tunnel, which commonly suggests mystery and the unknown. For Hopper the train, more than anything else, represented the mechanical revolution that was sweeping the world, but his interest in it was philosophical rather than scientific. The etching seems to ask a question: where is this mechanical revolution leading us?
American Landscape 1920
And what is its impact on our world? Here a cow struggles to get over a railway track, but one suspects it's not just the cows that are struggling to come to terms with this mechanical transformation.
House by the Railroad 1925
As in Railroad Train and American Landscape, a low viewpoint is chosen to isolate the subject from its natural setting, which would have served as a frame of reference for a historical meaning, for the house once stood proud and natural in its own setting. Estranged from the viewer, as it is here, and literally sliced through by the railroad track and its embankment, emblem of mechanical progress, it merely looks anachronistic and bizarre, and abandoned too, as all its windows look closed and most of its shades are drawn. The only trace of nature, apart from the sky, is the earth of the man-made embankment. Once again Hopper's influence on film noir is evident.
The Bates' house, Psycho 1960
Railroad Sunset 1929
A glowing sunset, the lingering memory of a beautiful day, but also a symbol of the passing of a magnificent age, the age of a boundless and virgin America. For the railroad conveyed to the utmost regions of the land all the ambiguous blessings of modern civilization with its frantic motion and frenzied noise. The landscape is represented as immense in this work, and its billowing form suggests calm and natural rhythm. But its primal crust has been cut into to make a way for the rails, whose gleaming straight lines seem to create a colder, artificial foundation for the landscape. Yet the incessant motion and noise associated with modern civilization are absent. It is not the direct effects Hopper wants to capture, but their impact on being. The switching tower, ominous in shadow and reminiscent of a watchtower, backed by a signal mast that recalls a prison camp flagpole, seems to stand guard over this silent barrier preventing entry to the landscape.
New York, Newhaven & Hartford 1931
In contrast to House by the Railroad and Railroad Sunset, this painting gives a more elevated view of the tracks, so that their ties are more fully exposed to view. These form a series of short diagonal lines that powerfully suggest motion. The effect is reprised in the series of trees with narrow trunks, which seem to climb the embankment, while several of their boughs point to the right, supporting the sense of movement. Some even suggest the shapes of running or flying animals. The house, however, partly obscured, is placed centrally, instead of conventionally on a third, so that it appears to be left behind by the trees. The descent of the landscape to the left also contributes to the sense of rightward movement, as does the outbuilding that appears to descend the slope. The effect of the whole gives the impression of a single frame abstracted from a cinematic sequence. Viewed psychologically, the experience of the present has been pruned to a fraction of a second and isolated, or alienated, from the continuity of past, present and future.
Compartment Car 293 1938
The coming of the railway, like that of the automobile or the telephone, had the effect of shrinking distance, which meant that the experience of travel was diminished. The lady is seated comfortably in a well-lighted compartment, almost as if she were seated in her own home, and the sensation of travel here is reduced to a patch of landscape framed by a window, as if it were a painting hanging on a wall in her own home. With about as much interest for her, evidently, as she sits away from it, absorbed in reading, something she might well do at home. Although she ought to be able to relax in her private compartment, her crossed legs still show a certain defensiveness, as does the retention of her hat on her head. The details of the landscape she ignores are significant. The sunset is a traditional reminder of death, the end of life, a hint that life is for living and that hers is ebbing away, and the bridge symbolizes transformation from one state to another, or the possibility of an active life, instead of one that remains changeless.
Chair Car 1965
Here, all trace of the world outside the train, and, thus any sense of movement, have been extinguished. The comfortably-seated passengers are completely alienated from the outside world, for not one of them is looking out of a window. They are also alienated from each other, since - as is usual with Hopper - there is no sign of conversation among them. It is as if movement between two places is no longer movement, but just another space, and a confined one at that, as there is no handle on the door leading out of it. The experience of a journey, symbolizing the adventure of life itself, has become frozen, lifeless and confined.
Approaching a City 1946
The dark tunnel, like the one in the Locomotive print, signifies mystery and the unknown, but here there is no train at all.Instead, the viewer is thrust into the position of imagining himself actually standing on the track, fearful of being instantly annihilated. What's more, instead of the sense of uplift often felt at the approaching end of a journey, one is seized by the suspicion that he is about to be devoured by some monstrous insensate thing, symbolized by the vast pallid facade and sightless windows of the building upper left.
Photo: New York's elevated railroad
To get around New York City, Hopper often relied on the elevated railroad, which was in existence in his time. It is likely that scenes he glimpsed from the 'el' through second or third storey windows gave him the inspiration for some of his paintings.
Night Windows 1928
In the agrarian age there was a distance between people, both in the physical and in the psychological sense, but the age of the machine demolished this distance and engendered instead a false sense of intimacy. Genuine intimacy is embedded in a narrative, a human story, but the 'intimacy' depicted in this painting is made deliberately fleeting and fragmented by such devices as the catching of the curtain in a sudden gust of air, the momentary stoop of the human figure, as well as its curtailment in space, and especially by the division of the image into three frames, like a portion of cinema film. It is often commented that Hopper's paintings resist narrative. The implication is that these devices are just so many gimmicks Hopper employed to attract interest to his work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hopper was simply recording his personal impressions of life as conditioned by the alienating demands of the machine age.
Office at Night 1940
Some observers have tried to impute a romantic 'story' to this painting, but the rigid posture of the two figures points rather to a repression of romantic feeling, especially on the part of the male boss, who studiously ignores the voluptuous curves of his pretty secretary. Her pose, nevertheless, twisted out of a strict professional stance, is more open than his, since she is turned towards his desk. The possibility of a romantic episode is suggested by the rectangle of light on the rear wall, which links the two figures, and the stirring of the window blind, symbolizing a stirring of feeling. Unusually for Hopper, the hands of both subjects are occupied, a common means for keeping oneself under control, and could be compensation for the clasp of an embrace. The painting could be a study in the repression of spontaneous feeling, one of the principal consequences of alienation.
Room in New York 1932
By now it should not be surprising that there is no communication between these two figures, though they are obviously husband and wife. Their alienation from each other is stressed by the closed door occupying the space between them, while what links the two figures visually, a round table, symbol of domesticity, implies that their shared premises is the only thing that links them. The man's attire suggests that he has just come home from his office, where he has been sitting reading printed material all day long, only to sit down at home to read more printed material. But he is not relaxing with a newspaper. He is bent forward over it in an attitude of study, study of figures perhaps, financial ones. The woman, by contrast, appears to be in evening dress, which probably shows a wish to go out and socialise, or simply a wish to please her husband. Either motive would suggest a desire to engage with life and break the spell of alienation. Her hanging left hand speaks of boredom, and she taps idly at a piano keyboard to ward it off. Maybe she wishes her husband took rather more interest in her figure rather than being obsessed by financial ones! for the red of her dress symbolizes passion, desire, love.
Summer Evening 1947
Here it is the girl who repels spontaneous feeling, as witnessed by the rigidity of her body, buttressed as it is against persuasion by the brace of her hands against the veranda wall. She is clad only in a strapless two-piece bathing suit, an item of clothing that would have marked the wearer as 'daring' in 1947, and the apparent thrust of her body forward, while essentially resistant, is at the same time somewhat sexually provocative. The boy is turned towards her with hand on breast, seemingly engaged in a plea, and it is likely that he is declaring his passion for her. Why is she so unyielding? The answer possibly lies in a letter that a woman sent to a magazine following the publication of the 1948 Kinsey report on the sexual behaviour of men. The whole study, she complained was a foolish waste of Dr. Kinsey's time; reading the book was a total waste of hers. For all the book did was to prove what she and every other right-thinking woman had known all along, to wit, that "the male population is a herd of prancing, leering goats."
Sunlight in a Cafeteria 1958
♪ Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage ♪
Go together like a horse and carriage ♪
The song was written in 1955, long after the horse and carriage had disappeared from American streets. However, the painting suggests that horse and carriage sexual morality still gripped America in 1958. Both the young man and the young woman here seem open to a liaison, for the young man, with a gesture of his left hand, seems about to address her, while the young woman's curved pose points towards him. But there is a barrier between them, for she is in full sunlight, while he is in shadow. She toys with her hands, musing. About what? The salt cellar and pepper pot - the same colour as the girl's hair - paired together on the table in front of her might provide a clue. Marriage? On the other hand, the single erect salt cellar on the table behind the man hints at thoughts of a rather more carnal kind. He regards the plant on the window sill, symbol of domesticity, as though he has got to accommodate it before he can have her. In fact we can easily imagine them walking out and never seeing one another again, because, as late as 1958, people were still under the spell of a sexual morality that divided 'right-minded women' from 'prancing, leering goats', who needed to be tamed by marriage. Did Hopper place the woman in the sunlight and the man in the shade to mock these alienating notions?
Hotel by a Railroad 1952
An image of alienation in middle age. The man dominates the centre of the painting in the light from a window, while his spouse is relegated to a corner. This gives you an impression of the kind of relationship that exists between them. He is looking out at a dismal and claustrophobic combination of walls, a fragment of track and a scrap of blue sky. Is the reason for his scrutiny of this dreary scene to avoid having to look at his wife? For she seems to have lost any incentive even to get dressed, probably because of his habitual disregard of her. This is also the likely reason for her dishevelled appearance, her slumped posture and the unfeminine pose of her legs. He, by contrast, is a paragon of correctness in shirt, presumed tie, suit trousers and waistcoat. What's more, his ramrod-straight back betrays a certain puritanical attitude. He holds his cigarette pretentiously aloft, and one can easily imagine the fingers of his left hand tucked primly into his waistcoat pocket. He has, evidently, a rather high opinion of himself, while his view of his wife is probably one of the utmost contempt. Apparently she has resigned herself to this alienated relationship and tries to escape from it in reading.
Chop Suey 1929
Eleven a.m. 1926
A woman gazes out of an open window at something or someone invisible to the viewer, a motif, common in Hopper, that obscures the subject's relation to the world. The figure dominates the tightly-cropped space of the painting by the paleness of her skin against the dark colours of the background. Her nudity seems to invite intimacy, but her face, the most distinguishable part of the human anatomy, is turned away from the viewer, who is thus held at a distance. The corpse-like pallor of her skin suggests sickliness, but in contrast her long, flourishing hair shows a desire to be feminine and fertile, that is, healthy. But that she can never be unless she overcomes her alienation to the outside world.
Here the relationship of the subject to the outside world again seems estranged. The woman's downcast eyes show that her being is totally focused on her own interior world. Through the large window nothing can be seen of the outside, just a partial reflection of the inside, which symbolizes her own inner world, while her reluctance to let go of her cup parallels her unwillingness to discard this inward infatuation. The round table has traditional associations with 'the world', and her position perching over it suggests that her inner life has become her only world. Her choice of coat, trimmed with fur, emphasizes her femininity, as does the red lipstick she wears. The modesty of femininity appears in the parallel pose of her legs. Physically, she is a paradigm of ripe and fertile womanhood, an impression underlined by the bowl of fruit on the window ledge. But her promising fertility is fated to remain barren for lack of an adequate relation to the outside world and other people. The empty chair on the right, facing the woman, hints at the absence of the 'other' person.
Room in Brooklyn 1932
"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun!" In Western art light has long been a symbol for love. The female figure in this painting, however, crowded into the left-hand side of the frame, has chosen to sit away from the sunlight streaming in from the east, although she is physically touched by it. Her back is turned from the viewer, indicating non-engagement, and she does not even seem to be looking out of the window, but immersed in a book, as the downward tilt of her head and her elbows propped on the armrests of her chair seem to suggest. Whereas the human figure is partly obscured by a table, the vase of flowers on its tabletop occupies a prominent position in the frame. More, it is given greater emphasis by its greater height and its place in full sunlight. Although the woman is linked to the object by the floral patterns on her dress, the leaves and flowers seem to be stretching out toward the light, in contrast to her withdrawn pose. The painting conveys the same impression as Automat. The young woman is alienated from her own femininity, her capacity for love and the promise of her fertility for lack of an adequate relationship with the outside world.
New York Office 1962
We've seen several paintings now where people are 'on show', as a result of living in a claustrophobic machine-age city, where sometimes even intimate details of one's life are on public display. What is the consequence of all that? A loss of spontaneity, surely, because ordinary people, in these conditions, are turned into a species of public performer, who have lost a sense of their identity, their reality, of who they are, so that they succumb to fantasies of fame. If they were famous, so the unconscious reasoning goes, their public would tell them who they are. So that, by 1962, it seems, the idea of 'romance' had ceased to appeal to the humble office worker. Now she wanted to be a model, a luminary, a Marilyn Monroe, loved by everyone but free from the complications and disappointments of having to love in return.
Early Sunday Morning 1930
Strong horizontal lines and bright lighting again suggest a theatre stage with a backdrop of a city scene, made striking by the absence of actors, a stage at the moment when the curtain has gone up, but before the action begins. The scene is further depersonalized by the illegibility of the window lettering and the lack of any interior detail, while the arrangement of curtains and shades is vaguely disquieting, with it's hint of people astir, yet concealed and possibly watchful. A deceiving sense of stability is conveyed by the strong horizontal and vertical lines, but an embryonic tension is suggested in the slanting sign-shadows that cut across the façade and the impenetrable blackness lurking in the shop windows and doorways.
A man sits outside what seems to be his shop. He looks bored because he has no customers and he has nothing to do. One might rather say that his monotony and emptiness prohibit him from doing anything, or that doing anything unconnected with his business is inconceivable to him. Sunday is the traditional day of rest, and although the man is motionless, he lacks the serenity of soul that would allow him any true rest. Although the wooden sidewalk and buildings show that this is a provincial town, there is no trace of nature to be seen.
Lighthouse Hill 1927
Not a solitary human being here, nor any living thing in sight. A desolate scene made even more desolate by the presence of the lighthouse, and gloomy and foreboding by the sombre façade and dark windows of a dwelling that seems to peer over the hill and pour masses of shadow down the slope at you. Another disturbing element appears in the placement of the house centrally instead of on the left third, leaving an unsettling gap. Even nature, it seems, which traditionally 'brings peace to troubled minds', in Hopper's world allows no escape from apprehension.
The painting lacks a clear focal point, so that the eye wanders around lost. The diagonals in the bunting and the triangular shadows on the pavement outside create a feeling of tension. Even the horizontal lines of the storefront are not parallel to the frame of the picture but tilted slightly, suggesting insecurity or uncertainty. The light inside seems to imply refuge from the dark, deserted street outside, but the entry door, which might show welcome, is hidden from view. The door to the left, however, is closed and dark, signifying secrecy and repulsion. Moreover, the inside seems to be as empty of human beings as the outside. Conflicting impulses are created by the clash between the feminine curves of the red and green 'show globes', traditional symbol of a pharmacy, and the masculine straight lines of the bunting, which, taken together assume a jagged, threatening form. The male principle is also manifest in the cluster of blue boxes below, which are set at angles to convert their vertical lines to tension-creating diagonals. These, with the bunting above, do, however, hint at a focal point: a blank square space traced out by straight lines. The work at large implies that while the outer world is typified by mystery and menace, the inner one is anxious and uncertain, with nothing of substance at its core. What better way to say in paint that man is alienated from his fellow man and from himself? A note of humour is evident in the ad for Ex-Lax, a common cure for constipation. For a common cause of constipation is anxiety. The implication is: 'If you suffer from anxiety, take a drug.' Thirty-five years later, Americans would be doing exactly that in large numbers.
A dark and deserted street again with triangular patches of light and shade on the pavement that now seem to suggest that the tension emanates from within the diner. But any door bidding welcome is not merely hidden - there just isn't one. In contrast to Drugstore, however, the place is not empty of human beings: the tension somehow radiates from them. Some observers read into the scene an expectation of some dramatic happening, based on the idea that the couple in the painting look like a gangster and his 'moll'. That's true. Look at the man closely. He appears to be glaring hard at the counter attendant with compressed lips, and the careless way he holds his cigarette hints at a similar carelessness about scruples, while the woman, thin and broad-shouldered like the conventional idea of a gangster's moll, occupies herself indifferently with what seems to be an insignificant scrap of paper, as if she were awaiting - with complicity - an inevitable outburst of violence. But there is no objective evidence to support such a view, and the work contains several clues that would tend to contradict it, such as the presence of a third person, or indeed the dazzling brilliance of the place, or its spectacular exposure to view. Given Hopper's unfailing interest in film, it is likely that he contrived the piece to look like a film set, and this with the object of stressing the idea that we confuse reality with fantasy. Just because someone looks like a gangster doesn't mean to say that he is one, as any actor in a gangster film can attest. Any scene whatever must be interpreted and analysed for meaning, and the extent to which it is real or unreal must be invested by you. But of course if you are alienated from yourself, there is no you to make the investment. One is just awash in a sea of sensations.
Cape Cod Evening 1939
Another Hopper comment on the twilight of the agrarian age, when this Victorian house surely stood among mown lawns and managed woodland. But now nature is busy reclaiming the place. The forest seems to have advanced right up to its walls, while the leading tree puts forth a bough toward a window, like an exploratory arm. The grass swallows the feet of the occupants, typical of Hopper's alienated couples in their mutual silence. They are marooned in a bygone age. The woman tries to 'keep up appearances' with her formal dress, and her carefully-coiffeured hair, but they just render her more than ever outmoded. Her folded arms show that she is impatient with her fate. The man, however, has not even bothered to put on a shirt, while his attempt to interest the dog with a ball shows that he is more reconciled or resigned to their life. But the animal escapes domestication for the moment, for its attention is claimed by some noise from the invading forest.
It is evening again, with the same suggestion of the sun going down on rural America. Its demise is underlined by the obscure rendering of the forest in the background, contrasted now with the bright and bold delineation of the service station, fundamental symbol of machine-age America. But instead of offering a homily on this emblem of mechanical progress, Hopper endows it with archaic symbols. First, the clapboard building. It vaguely resembles a church or temple, with its hint of a steeple on top and the blazing light that radiates from within and around, as though its source were some sacred flame instead of just a fluorescent tube. One surreal tongue of it even reaches almost to the roadside grass. Next, all who enter here do so under the sign of Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek mythology, associated with speed, power and rapid transport, attributes the enterprise desires to identify with its products. Third, the pumps themselves. They look like anthropological idols, not of wood or stone, but of steel; more, they are machines with the form of men. For, as I said in the beginning, the machine has become master of man and ceased to be his servant. Fourth, the service station attendant. Why is he tinkering with these machines at nightfall, if he is not the high priest that ministers to these mechanical gods? And last, they are steeped in red, but one of a kind that Hopper has adjusted to the colour of blood. Sacrificial blood, one might even say. Because the machine as master of man sucks the lifeblood from his being by alienating him from all that makes him human.