Girlie Show: The Solitude of the Self

Girlie Show: Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Like most eminent artists, Edward Hopper’s paintings portray not only an image of the world, he also communicates a frame of mind.  In Hopper’s case, that state of mind is the sense that each of us is ultimately and unconditionally alone in an indifferent universe.  Nevertheless, middle-class decorum is always preserved by the people in his paintings; there are no Edvard Munch-like screams of spiritual angst in Hopper’s paintings and prints.

People are never smiling in Hopper’s paintings; in fact, they show no emotion at all. In Edward Hopper’s world, everyone is lost in an unending rut of work overtime, rattling El trains, cheap fluorescent diners, and bad dates.  Everything has fallen tensely quiet, and this anxious, disquieting mood haunts even the urban landscapes, in which the only person around is you, the viewer.   Here every man is an island. Hopper has become perhaps the most famous and beloved American artist of the past century by picturing the disquieting film noir isolation lurking within the glass-and-steel heart of our modern metropolises, the frustrating paradoxical feeling so completely alone when we’re so together.

Lonely men in shirt sleeves sit on the curb outside vacant stores and peer down at cracks in the pavement.  Or they prop themselves upright in lawn chairs, beside deserted highways and stare vacantly into the empty distance.   Are they coming close to the limit of what they can tolerate?  Or are they still looking for something out of life, something that has already passed them by, unseen?   It’s impossible to tell, for Hopper paintings tantalize, raise questions and leave us speculating about the meaning of their mute dramas.

Women are also nearly always isolated, cut off from human contact; they often appear to be just waiting.  Dressed up in what seems her best outfit, a 1920s twenty-something sips coffee alone at night in a brightly lit diner.  She has taken the table closest to the door, kept on her hat and coat, and only removed the glove from the hand that lifts her cup.  There is no one else around. Has she been stood up by her date, or is she, in the old phrase, all dressed up with no place to go?

The figures in Hopper’s paintings simply cannot connect, make connections or emotionally relate to each other.  Hopper painted the feeling that is familiar to most of us, the state of melancholy sadness embedded in existence, in our intimate knowledge of the solitude of the self.  In one picture, a young husband is hunched over his newspaper, while his wife who looks elegantly dressed for a night out on the town, distractedly looks away, fingering the keys of an upright piano.

In Hopper, even the strutting burlesque club stripper of Girlie Show (1941), garishly festooned with pasties, G-string, and heavily rouged cheeks, looks vacantly into the air rather than at the faces of her unseen clientele.

Michael Dirda has written a more extensive piece about Hopper’s work in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription).

Interested readers can look through The Edward Hooper Scrapbook, compiled by the Smithsonian American Art museum.

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