The disintegration of social relationships in mass societies where, although apparently super connected on social networks, we experience what the artist had already represented in paintings many years ago.
If loneliness had a face, it would be that of Edward Hopper. He was an extraordinary painter, capable of staging the suspended lives of men with no purpose and apparently without emotions, immersed in chilling scenarios in their banal everyday life..
Edward Hopper was born in America in a small town not far from New-York. He studied painting, but his trips to Paris would be decisive, starting in 1909. The French capital was in turmoil in those years, and new styles were revolutionizing art.
Just that year, Picasso had already started the initial success of Cubism. Four years earlier a group of painters had created a scandal with the violence of the colours and the deformation of the bodies, so much so that they called them Fauves, meaning “wild beasts”.
All this ferment, however, did not affect the young American artist.
As the Avantgardes ignited the artistic landscape and winds of war were approaching, Hopper looked back at the Impressionists, albeit above all towards the great pictorial tradition. And so began his career as an artist of modern alienation, in solitary research.
After his travels, when he returned definitively to his homeland in 1914, he painted “Soir bleu”, also known as “Blue Night”, a work still imbued with the Parisian atmosphere.
The title comes from a verse of Rimbeau, a poet Hopper loved, “Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers “ (from the poem “Sensation” – “On blue summer nights, I’ll wander down the lanes”), and it is just as if wandering on the blue summer evenings on the paths of the Parisian streets he had stopped an image on the canvas that was impossible to define.
The painting displaces its apparent clarity. It represents a group of people around the tables of a Parisian restaurant on an outdoor terrace. In reality, if we look closely we are unable to catalogue this scene where everything is suspended and the characters are rather unlikely.
On the left a man with a cigarette is a worker, yet perhaps he is the pimp of the girl standing in the centre. Due to the aggressive use of makeup, she seems to recall the Parisian prostitutes of the early 20th century.
In front of her, a soldier, who could be a tamer, is next to a man with a cap and a red beard, perhaps referring to Manet.
And then there is the “clown“, the most incongruent and emblematic character of all, who has such a strong visual power on the viewer that the entire painting is disturbing.
Does he represent the artist? Perhaps not.
Then other figures, all apparently “absent”, are in a social place, yet they are not “socialising”. The characters, frozen in their solitude, do not look at each other. They are indifferent to themselves and to others. The woman is the only one vigilant and turns to us, stopping us dead in our tracks with a rather cheeky look.
Even the space in which they are immersed is indefinable, dominated by a sky that has the colours of twilight, of that passing moment in which the sun has set but darkness has not yet taken over.
The painting is a mystery of which no clue is revealed and the observer is rather lost.
In this, as in the other more works later in his career, we can recognise the hand of the “graphic designer”, Hopper’s official work starting in 1905, based on those images reduced to a minimum, the bold colors with bright shades and well-defined volumes.
The painting did not see success at the time.
Exhibited in 1920 during the artist’s first solo show at the Whitney Studio Club in New York, the work was so greatly criticised that Hopper himself pretended he had never painted it.
The painting was found after his death in his studio, half hidden by other works.
Hopper was the artist of “non-emotions” and yet his works disturb us. We feel a yearning for those figures closed in their incommunicability and perhaps a little for us as well, because we know that solitude.
In fact, the solitude expressed in his paintings is not the 19th-century solitude of the romantic man in front of the immensity of nature, but rather it is that which only modern man knows, be it in crowded places like a bar or an empty room.
This is the loneliness of suspended life, that feeling that we experienced closed in our homes during the lockdown for coronavirus. However, as we dig deeper, this same feeling also comes from living in a society where the individual is devoid of meaningful relationships.
If the task of painting is to teach us to see, Hopper has played his role well by showing us the disintegration of social relationships in mass society. Although we are apparently excessively connected on social networks, we experience this feeling today, that loneliness that he had already clearly seen.
Anna Maria Calabretta