Edward Hopper paints a prelude

The similarity between a stage with its actors and scenery, and the mise en scène and protagonists in a painting, was not lost on the 20th century American artist Edward Hopper. He was fond of theater and films.

Painting, he was acutely sensitive to crucial niceties in the placing of everything in the picture space. He arranged the poised, intense occurrences in his works just the way a theatrical (or film) director would.

The viewer of a Hopper painting is cast in the role of audience. So there is a double irony in a painting where the subject consists of members of a theater audience.

His subjects here have no idea they might be noticed. They came to watch, not to be watched. But the stage curtain is still down, and the play probably half an hour off.

The people in Hopper's paintings - when there are people - are like types. They are undramatic, undemonstrative, ordinary to a fault. With a few notable exceptions in his work, they are not actors performing.

Nevertheless, Hopper's people lead intensely introspective lives that powerfully engage our attention. They read, wait, attend. They think and dream absently. Even if they are moving, their actions seem frozen in time.

Hopper was a determinedly unfashionable 20th-century artist. He was dismissive of abstraction, pop art, and similar genres. In technique he was a soundly trained academic painter. But his uneasy vision is tellingly true to our modern world - a world he presents as if it were an overture, an intermission, a postlude, but never quite convincingly in the present. It's a theater in which the play has not yet begun.

His characters seem strangely impersonal, uncommunicative, rather bored. Perhaps they are too familiar to us and to each other - as if they don't need contact. As if they have already said all there is to say. One of playwright Samuel Beckett's characters arrived at a similar conclusion:

"There is nothing more to say." Paradoxically, this character keeps on repeating these words. It's all he can say. Not unlike Hopper, in fact.

"Two on the Aisle" is included in the current Edward Hopper exhibition at Tate Modern in London (until Sept. 5).

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