Edward Hopper at the Grand Palais(October 10, 2012 - January 28, 2013)
by Erik Matiny
About Erik Martiny
Erik Martiny's reviews have appeared in London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in France.
Erected for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in an attempt to equal the sensation produced by the Eiffel Tower (built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889), the Grand Palais is a sumptuous architectural treat and it's a good thing too as it allows the viewer a measure of respite from the two-to-three-hour wait in the exhibition queue. No one complains about this as Hopper is the must-see show on at the moment in Paris.
When you finally get into the exhibition, you understand the necessity for the slow-moving queue. The show is chock-a-block almost to the point where you feel you're stuck in an elevator with too many people. And it wouldn't matter as much if you were looking at a Vanessa Beecroft Happening, performed by dozens of milling half-naked stare-you-down models where being alone might be a little intimidating, but Hopper's transcendentally empty canvases require space and a degree of solitude in order to be adequately savored.
The exhibition is wisely formatted from a curatorial point of view. While one might initially be disappointed to see that the original fin-de-siècle architecture is entirely absent inside, the soberly rectangular modern museum interior space suits Hopper's paintings down to the ground.
The exhibition opens with a series of rooms dedicated to the French and American masters who influenced Hopper. One begins to wonder if it is Hopper's Francophilia that makes the French love Hopper so much; but it is more likely that there is nothing so narcissistic behind it. Hopper is loved here simply because he seems so quintessentially American. The French have a well-kept secret: they only pretend to hate America.
This preliminary section of the show rendered up such fine works as Edgar Degas's "A Cotton Office in New Orleans" which gives the viewer a sense of what America was like around a decade before Hopper's birth. A number of Félix Vallotton paintings of women in domestic settings are there to remind you that Hopper's French precursors had quite an impact on his subject matter too despite the fact that he is said to have turned away from European models after the 1913 Armory show. His later "Girl at Sewing Machine" (1921) is remarkably similar to Vallotton's "Interior with Woman Sewing" (1905) even if the stronger presence of the window frame and its slabs of blue sky give the picture its unmistakably Hopperian touch. So although "Soir Bleu" is generally viewed as his farewell to French culture, this kind of subject matter resurfaces from time to time in his later work too. The clown-like figures even appear in his final painting "The Comedians".
Soir Bleu (New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest)
The show is impressively extensive, offering the viewer a substantial sampling of all the Hoppers there are, from the Franco-American Impressionist to the commercial illustrator, the Kafkaesque designer of pre-noir sets, the pre-pop painter of signs for Esso and Ex-Lax, the voyeuristic lover of Girlie shows and the sun-worshipper of the final years.
The exhibition makes an astutely considered break just before Hopper's ultimate phase, plunging the viewer into the darkness of a slide show projecting photographs taken by the American-Italian photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, an artist who accentuates the isolated nocturnal atmosphere created in Hopper's "Nighthawks" and his noirish etching "Night Shadows". Taken in the early 1990s, DiCorcia's photographs depict the furtive solitude of male prostitutes in L.A. The title of each photograph includes the sitter's name, age, location and price - the amount the photographer paid them to pose, which underlines the moral ambiguity of the medium.
As this darkened room looked like the clinching moment of the exhibition, it came as a pleasant surprise to find that the show ends with a bang not a solitary whimper. The final exhibition space treats you to some of the greatest of Hopper's works. The star of the show was "Nighthawks". I came back several times to see it, but it was hedged around by a ceaselessly renewable wall of viewers, something I've only experienced with the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre.
Nighthawks (Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection)
Other masterpieces include the wonderful "South Carolina Morning" with its eternally appeasing blond expanse of vegetation stretching out to the horizon on the right and its daringly sensual red-robed, pink-hatted buxom mulatto beauty on the left.
"People in the Sun" has a slightly unsettling surreal quality, with its wave-like mountain range and rigid dream-locked sitters. But the painting that arrested my attention the most was undoubtedly "Ground Swell". It's both luminously appeasing and darkly foreboding at the same time. The dreamy yachters gaze at a buoy that looks like a troubling watermine, reminding one that it was painted the year the Second World War broke out.
Ground Swell (Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, William A. Clark Fund)