Saturday, January 28, 2017

Two views of the same cold world

How Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper painted America's entry into World War II

By Lars Trodson

Same theme. Same war. Entirely different approach.

Who could be more different in temperament and technique (at least on canvas) than Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell? They were born at the same time (1882 and 1894, respectively), in nearly the same place (New York), and enjoyed spectacular success during their lifetimes.

But you'd never know they painted the same America, and no where is this more evident than two works that treat the same theme in two spectacularly different ways — and both of which were introduced about a month apart.

It’s been written that Edward Hopper started his most famous work, “Nighthawks,” sometime after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His wife, Jo, wrote in her diary that he finished the painting in late January, 1942, and that he had been working on it for about a month and a half.

I have written here, and I believe it is more than speculation, that Hopper designed the diner from an image he saw in a forgotten B-movie called “Stranger on the third floor.” There is a moment in that film when a character stands on a corner in front of a diner, and far too many details align between that screen image and the painting to be ignored.

But even if Hopper borrowed imagery from the film, he brought his own psyche to it: the barren landscape, people sitting in close proximity to one another without really communicating or connecting. That’s the Hopper way. While many people have felt the painting is a discussion on the loneliness and isolation people can feel in the city, even when there are other people about, I thought that this painting represented a group of people who were attempting to find some shelter, solace and comfort in a world suddenly gone strange and mad. America, and the world, was engulfed in savagery.
The outside world in “Nighthawks” is a hostile, sinister place, but at least it’s warm and comforting in that diner.

Now take a look at this cover of The Saturday Evening Post from December 20, 1941.

By 1941 Rockwell had already morphed from popular magazine illustrator to national institution, and while never taken seriously as a painter per se, his technique was widely admired and imitated. Even so, the idea that Hopper could have seen this particular cover is somewhere between fairly certain and almost certainly. (There's also that little detail of the number 5 that appears in both images. I have looked for a Phillies cigar ad from the 1930s and 1940s that uses the specific font that Hopper used in the painting, but I can't find one. But you can find the same stylized number 5 in both the Hopper painting and in the price of the magazine off to the right in the Rockwell image. Coincidence?)

Neither work offers a particularly novel idea. These are people seeking shelter from the storm (in Rockwell's case, quite literally), but of course it's the treatment that matters.

So here are two towering figures in American art, offering their view of how we ought to find comfort in world where solace and comfort suddenly seemed to be in short supply. Art is a wonderful thing.

Here's the link to the essay about finding Hopper's diner: