Hopper’s mystery replayed in Basel

On 12 February 2020, by Valentin Grivet

Like his paintings of figures, Hopper’s landscapes, brought together here by the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland, are fascinatingly eerie.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Cape Cod Morning, 1950, oil on canvas, 86.7 x 102.3 cm. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum, donated by the Sara Roby Foundation.
© Heirs of Josephine Hopper/2019, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo : Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gene Young

"If you could say it with words, there would be no reason to paint," said Edward Hopper, a painter of silence whose every image, so seemingly simple, is a mystery. Most of the exhibitions devoted to him so far, including the winter 2012 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, have focused on his solitary, melancholy figure paintings. With the exception of a few works featuring figures—the woman in a light dress standing on the doorstep of High Noon or the woman in Cape Cod Morning gazing at the horizon from her bay window—the Fondation Beyeler exhibition features pure landscapes. The particularly relevant selection strikes a fair balance between great iconic pieces (Lighthouse Hill, Gas, etc.) and seldom-seen works, such as The Bootleggers, on loan from the Currier Museum of Art (Manchester, New Hampshire). The eight-room show includes some 30 oil paintings and a remarkable collection of drawings, sketches and, most importantly, watercolours, simple stencils produced on the motif or very accomplished compositions made in the studio.

An inner nature
This East Coast American enjoyed the great outdoors, the sea and the lush green plains of Cape Cod, where he began spending summers with his wife, Jo, in 1934. The nature he depicted is seldom untouched: lighthouses, telegraph poles, gas stations, roads, railroad tracks, isolated farmsteads or wooden houses with spotless white facades attest to the intervention of man, yet without his presence. Although Hopper’s works are often equated with realism, their intensity and strangeness stem from the subtle discrepancy with reality that he carefully cultivated. Everything looks true but, in the end, nothing is. Each landscape is the result of a mental recomposition and an inner vision. "My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature," he said. Hopper's world has always fascinated filmmakers, from Alfred Hitchcock—the house in Psycho (1960) is directly based on House by the Railroad (1925)—to David Lynch and Wim Wenders. At the Fondation Beyeler’s request, Wenders made a 14-minute 3D film that is screened at the end of the exhibition. Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper is pleasant but a bit vain. Bringing to life certain characters, who meet in the painter's most iconic paintings, it seldom goes beyond an exercise in style.

"Edward Hopper", Fondation Beyeler, Basel.
Until 17 May 2020.
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