Monday, 9 February 2009

Edward Hopper
Automat 1927
Oil on canvas 71 x 91cm

Tate Modern, London 31st May 2004

This was a wonderful exhibition and I visited many times, mainly in an attempt to get some peace from the crowds of visitors and allow time for contemplation of so many iconic paintings. Selecting one work is really difficult as I find most of Hopper’s paintings melancholic. In the end I have chosen Automat, firstly because it has some parallels with both Dürer’s Melencholia I and with Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère.

It is a medium sized canvas and being hung in a corner made it particularly difficult to see without the view being obscured by other visitors. The brushwork is very typical Hopper, lots of scumbled semi transparent washes and all the surfaces are made up from many colours. His edges are drawn and wavering rather than ruled, but perhaps a touch too sharp. Architectural details are few and are too well defined resulting in an alien space that like most of his interiors has the look of an illustration.

The painting shows a young girl sitting in a café with cup of tea or coffee. The title of the painting implies that it is an impersonal self service café without servers and waiters and indicates that her isolation is self imposed. She has removed just one glove in order to hold the cup implying that she hasn’t settled to enjoy the drink. The empty chair pulled under her table both reinforces her loneliness and distances us (the viewer) from her. Her legs are crossed in a classic barrier pose and we aren’t encouraged to join her. Her eyes are downcast as she contemplates her coffee cup, while her thoughts turn inwards mimicking the angel in Dürer’s Melencholia I.

The bowl of fruit seems a strange arrangement for a café window, but curiously echoes a similar bowl of fruit in Manet’s painting. However, instead of the mirror reflecting the teeming Parisian nightlife we have a black void behind her given implied depth by the reflection of the two rows of interior ceiling lights. The effect is to lead the viewer’s eyes into the nothingness and suggests that the girl’s thoughts are equally dark and depressing. For me the painting acts as a mirror, and I see myself at times when I have been thrown on myself, with nothing to hold onto, nothing to distinguish one dull moment from the next, examining the inner darkness.

In her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Margaret Iversen[1] argues the case for Hopper being a classic melancholic and quotes one of Hopper’s work colleagues as describing him as “suffering from long periods of unconquerable inertia, sitting at his easel for days in helpless unhappiness, unable to raise a hand to break the spell”. This description certainly calls to mind Erwin Panofsky’s[2] interpretation of Dürer’s engraving depicting a melancholic and also the phrases used by Julia Kristeva to describe melancholia in her book Black Sun[3]. This interpretation is also supported by the consistent theme of alienation and self reflection in his paintings and this is a fine example of how to depict the tragedy of the situation without slipping into sentimentality.

[1] Iversen, Margaret Hopper’s Melancholic Gaze, Tate Publishing 2004 pp52-65
[2] Panofsky, Erwin The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton 1995 pp156-171
[3] Kristeva, Julia Black Sun, Columbia University Press 1989

©blackdog 2009


  1. You have described very well the 'depictured# situation in a self service restaurant ( although I don't see any "automat") - a typical Hopper painting, for there is always such an intense feeling of loneliness, desolation, tristesse and 'speechlessness' - one person alone in a anonymous looking room- I am a fan of Hopper, maybe because I can find such normal-unexciting, daily situtions in our world again, e.g. in motorway restaurants.., although Hopper's painting are more than realistic- he has added a kind of melancholic atmosphere which enhances our real feeling, but could it be that my feeling in reality might be influenced by Hopper paintings which are like 'sounds of silence'!
    The Museum Ludwig in Cologne mentions some references beides your hints: "Bezwingend ist die Nähe zu der beklemmenden Alltagssituation in George Segals Environment "Das Restaurantfenster" von 1967 des Museums Ludwig, das die Entfremdung plastisch in Lebensgröße thematisiert.

    In dem Gemälde 'Automat' teilt uns Hopper einmal mehr seine Bewunderung für die Kunst des französischen Realisten Edouard Manet mit. Die in sich versunkene an einem Tisch sitzende Frau reflektiert dessen Werk 'Der Pflaumenschnaps' (um 1877), während die Obstschale ein Zitat aus dem Bild 'Bar in den Folies Bergère' (1881) ist. Bei aller Affinität zur europäischen Malerei zeigt Hopper aber mit der Arbeit 'Automat' auch die charakteristischen Wesenszüge seiner eigenen realistischen Malerei, wie es die an schmucklos-geradlinigen architektonischen Elementen orientierte Komposition und die unprätentiös, flächig aufgetragenen Farben zeigen."
    this year there will be a great Hopper exhibition in Hamburg!

  2. Thank you for the information about the Hopper exhibition Philine. I need to visit Hamburg soon to see The Daniel Richter paintings in the collection there, so if I can time it right I shall visit the Hopper exhibition. Always good to see them again.

    Interesting to see the reference to Manet from your quoted German review; Hopper probably saw his work when he visited Europe in 1909. His work and consequently the writing of Baudelaire must have been a big influence on his development as a painter.

  3. I read a very interesting interpretation of Hopper's painting in : (sadly in German) -the main point of this essay is that our feelings/ our interpretaton in the context of melancholy, desolation... is a product/a fiction of our minds/ our associations- the Hopper-figures don't show any sorrow, any tears, they don't look desperate- they are w a i t i n g! Another important point of Hopper's painting is as said- their "coolness".
    As teacher I sometimes confrontated megacity lyrics of the German Expressionism with Hopper- paintings. Hopper's paintings are evoking a completing by words and stories! A really fascinating painter I have to deal with intensierly!

  4. It is quite possible that it is all in the mind; but in her essay, Margaret Iversen makes a strong case for him being of a melancholic disposition and I feel this comes through in his work. Much more so than the "alienation in the city" which is usually associated with his work. The thought of needing tears for melancholia made me smile, yes they are all "waiting" - but probably with no hope. What could be more melancholic than that? I have also read that Hopper learned from European painting that having an open narrative, leaving room for interpretation, was a good thing. So we probably all see the story we want to see ;o)