Thursday, April 25, 2013

`Light Falls Through the Windows'

“Edward Hopper’s `A Room in Brooklyn.’ A room my heart yearns to: uncurtained, hardly furnished, with a view over roofs. A clean bed, a bookcase, a kitchen, a calm mind, one or two half-empty rooms—all my life wants to achieve, and I have not yet achieved it.—I have tried too hard for the wrong things. If I would concentrate on getting the spare room, I could have it almost at once….I must have it.” 

This undated passage is from Journey Around My Room, a selection of poems and journal entries written by Louise Bogan, edited by Ruth Limner and misleadingly subtitled and published in 1980 as The Autobiography of Louise Bogan (who never wrote such a book). Like Hopper, Bogan is peculiarly sensitive to light. Passage after passage from her journals describe the play of light, natural and artificial, on landscapes and rooms. Bogan was a depressive and often she finds light or its absence a cause for melancholy. On the same page in Journey she writes: 

“The dreadful thing about north rooms: not that there is no sunlight in them now, but that there has never been sun in them….like the minds of stupid people: that have been stupid from the beginning and will be stupid forever.” 

Hopper painted “A Room in Brooklyn” in 1932. A woman sits in a chair looking out a bay window. She might be “Whistler’s Mother” (Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1) viewed from behind, though her head is uncovered. Outside is an empty blue sky. The horizon is supplied by the roofs of the tenements across the street. In her biography of Hopper, Gail Levin tells us the painter originally intended to show the Brooklyn Bridge outside the window, but changed his mind because he thought it would “clutter up the picture.” To the right of the sitter is a small table holding a vase of flowers. Levin tells us “A Room in Brooklyn” is the only painting in which Hopper depicted flowers. He considered them a subject for “lady painters” and she quotes him as saying, “The so-called beauty is all there. You can’t add anything to them of your own—yourself.” Yet he does. The vase of flowers adds a shabby-genteel note of sadness, even mourning, as though a funeral has just concluded. 

On the floor is a broken trapezoid of sunlight that shines through the window on the right. Except for the maroon tablecloth on the left, the room is brightly colored and brightly lit, yet the mood is unmistakably somber, another variation on Hopper’s recurrent theme of solitary woman and windows. In another passage from her journal, Bogan writes: 

“Light falls through the windows of empty apartments and lies on the floor marking the empty room into rectangles. The light falls against the leaves of plants, upright in the pots, and upon the lemon and tomato in the fruit dish, and upon the faded and dusty chintz of a chair that has worn through a summer.” 

In a late poem, “American Light: A Hopper Retrospective” (Hello, Darkness, 1978), L.E. Sissman writes of 

“An unparalleled sky: an honorable blue,
Out of which fell a withering, cherishing light,
Pointed as knives, which whittled the world to size
And held it up for acclamation.” 

And concludes: “On window wall and alcove wall and on / The bare wood floor, a shaft of morning sun / People the vacuum with American light.”

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