Thoughts on an Usherette – the lonely art of Edward Hopper
22nd November 2011
This post is a bit of a departure from the usual classical fare that you might be used to here. On first showing you might even be forgiven for thinking that the American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is just the antithesis with his typically bleak, slightly eerie atmosphere of isolation and loneliness.
For a 20th Century painter he was, however, remarkably traditional in his approach – his work featuring the kind of realism of a Manet or Renoir, only without the charm or comfort factor. In addition to his famous city-scapes, he also painted some iconic outdoor scenes of the North-East US, though again often stark and empty in nature.
I remember someone once said that you are never so alone as when in a big city. Why? Because people in big cities don’t talk to one another, they do not trust one another (often with good reason) and they keep themselves to themselves. Hopper’s work, placed in the big-city landscape or the interiors of cafes and bars, reflects that sense of loneliness. But this painting, entitled 'New York Movie,' really has something extra. At least I think so. Here’s why.
Edward Hopper 'New York Movie' 1939.
The scene has, on the face of it, a fairly obvious narrative: The interior of a movie theatre sometime in the first half of the 20th Century; the lighting subdued; people watching the screen; and an usherette, idle, deep in thought – perhaps a little sad by the looks of it. So … what’s to get excited about?
The isolation in this painting is not that of the young girl. It is the audience. We don’t see much of them. They are in the darkness. Unimportant in this context because they are fixated on an artificial world. They are absorbed totally in the movie with all its fictitious characters, actors, special effects and cunning emotional manipulation by all those clever writers and directors. They are captured, unaware of everything but the illusion of the big screen that is being fed to them.
The usherette, on the other hand, is deep in the reality of her own thought, her own private introspection. Whatever she is preoccupied with, a broken relationship, a death in the family, an unwanted pregnancy, or just something as banal as debt or rent to pay (we can make up any story we like for her), she is engaged in the reality of her own unique inner process.
The theme of this painting, therefore, becomes almost neo-Platonic in nature. It suggests that ultimately it is the world of ideas that is the greater reality. It is the side of us that endures and which instigates change and evolution. Rather like the famous allegory of The Cave. In Plato's story, a number of prisoners sit chained within a dark cave. A fire is behind them, providing some light. But unable to turn, and seeing only the shadows upon the wall of their cave, the captives mistakenly believe these to be manifestations of the real world.
Hopper's people are forerunners of our own times. Our contemporary urban landscape is one in which we are scarcely given time or space to think for ourselves. The process of independent thought is consequently often a lonely one. Just as lonely within the busy 'gliz' and sparkle of a movie theatre as in the remotest wilderness. Having the courage to go inward, on the other hand, is often the precursor to a change in our lives.
One rather suspects that the brooding young usherette, deep in thought beneath the trinity of lamps on the wall above her, will not be in the job too much longer. She has already begun to shed a skin or two and move on. Let us wish her well.