Saturday, August 10, 2013

`A Glowing and Coloured Human Home'

It’s the mundane unexpectedness of Rooms by the Sea that holds our attention. We think, briefly, of Magritte, his taste for unlikely juxtapositions, but there’s something vulgar about his paintings, cheap and suggestive of junior high school, as surrealist bric-à-brac usually is. Edward Hopper captures something more ordinary and valuable - the wondrous in the everyday. In Rooms by the Sea (1951), the clean, orderly interior adjoins without boundary the sea. Elsewhere, Hopper paints an unpeopled room (Sun in an Empty Room, 1963) and a house around which grows grass without boundary to the foundation (Cape Cod Evening, 1939). But Rooms by the Sea is more concentrated in its impact. The pure geometry of sunlight on the walls, so neat and reassuring, contrasts with the lapping sea. One feels vulnerable. 

We know from Gail Levin’s biography of the painter that Hopper originally sketched in steps outside the door, but eliminated them and made the sea the horizon. The biographer writes: “Edward wrote to Frank Rehn: `I have finished a canvas am hoping to get another before we leave here.’ At the bottom of the letter, Jo [Hopper’s wife] added a note: `A queer one—could be called the Jumping Off Place—we can’t count on that one ever being sold…’” Jo Hopper seems to be hinting at the scene as a veiled invitation to suicide. Anna Lewis pulls the focus back a notch to observe an observer of the painting in “On Seeing Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea”: 

“Between inside and out, a cool, gray wall.
A polygon of light through open door.
A settee, red. A carpet, green. The hall,
a yellow passage not to sandy shore
but hard to some blue sea, below. That’s all.
No action here. Just color, shape, and light.
No saints in gold-leaf haloes to adore.
But, as you almost pass it, left to right,
I see you pause before its either/or:
the calm suspension, here, right now, of white
as light through cool, gray rooms conducts its fall;
or, there, beyond, a square of blue, the sight
of lustrous sky and ocean. Still, you stall.
You stand before the brink, its unseen height.” 

Her line precisely describes my understanding of the painting: “I see you pause before its either/or” – order/chaos, security/jeopardy, life/death. In a very different spirit, G.K. Chesterton might be describing Rooms by the Sea and other Hopper canvases in his essay “The Artistic Sense” (The Coloured Lands, 1938). He’s riding on a train that passes through a tunnel and emerges to the sight of houses along the track: 

“Sometimes the grey facade is broken by the lighted windows of a house, almost overhanging the railway-line; and for an instant we look deep into a domestic interior; chamber within chamber of a glowing and coloured human home. That is the way in which objects ought to be seen; separate; illuminated; and above all, contrasted against blank night or bare walls; as indeed these living creations do stand eternally contrasted with the colourless chaos out of which they came.”

No comments: