Wednesday, July 23, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Perhaps the finest art video podcast I’ve seen so far was Alexander Nemerov’s 2007 Wyeth Lecture in American Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, titled Ground Swell: Edward Hopper in 1939.” Of all the great American artists, Edward Hopper resists political readings more strongly than any other. Born July 22, 1882, Hopper seems untouched by events during his life, content simply to depict light as it falls on a wall, as he famously remarked countless times, or to give visual form to the alienation and loneliness of modern life, especially in twentieth century America. Nemerov breaks through Hopper’s apolitical wall and shows how works such as Ground Swell (above, from 1939) can also be read as America “listening” to the drums of war in Europe before entering the conflict. Just as the figures in Hopper’s painting listen to the buoy’s bell in a strange rapture, Americans glued themselves to the radio in 1939 for dispatches from Europe as Germany invaded country after country and England seemed the last line of defense. Even the seemingly reclusive Hopper (who was a closet Francophile) must have listened to the news and the stirring broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow during the London Blitz.

Once Nemerov breaks the seal of Hopper’s apoliticism, almost all of his works from that fateful year of 1939 take on a whole new meaning. Nemerov shows how even Hopper’s Bridle Path (above, from 1939), a realistic depiction of a riding path in New York City’s Central Park, may also be read as a resistance to enter the conflict, as symbolized by the horses’ resistance to enter the dark tunnel. As FDR inched America closer to closer to the brink of war with incremental gestures such as the Lend-Lease aid program to England, a large portion of the American public looked to pull back the reigns and not become involved in another European conflict. Pearl Harbor remained two years away, so Hopper here may be depicting this reticence. Whether Hopper himself shared in that reticence remains a mystery thanks to his sphinx-like silence on almost anything not directly related to art.

Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening (above, from 1939) serves as the third painting in Nemerov’s 1939 troika. Here, Hopper paints many of his familiar Hopper-esque motifs: a simple New England house, two people emotionally distanced from one another, all of it seemingly captured on the brink of action or just after. What makes this different, however, is the dog’s attentiveness to a distant sound. Just like the buoy bell tolling in Ground Swell, the dog and the people find themselves mesmerized by that distant sound. The tall grass envelopes the dog and the entire foreground, like a sea on land. Hopper may also hint at the “snake in the grass,” poised to strike from a hiding place, like the Pearl Harbor attack. Nemerov’s lecture beautifully illustrated the power of a talented critic to bring a whole new dimension to an artist we believe we know completely. Produced in conjunction with the 2007 exhibition Edward Hopper at the NGA, Nemerov’s lecture provided the perfect compliment to that career-spanning reevaluation.

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