In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Moviegoing: "About Schmidt" | Main | TV Alert »

January 13, 2003

Pic of the Day--Ambiguities of Reproduction


I’ve always enjoyed the paintings of Edward Hopper, both of the “direct (or apparently direct) from nature” and the “anecdotal” varieties. Of course the story lines of his “anecdotal” paintings are never very clear, which allows viewers to project meanings into what they see as well as forcing them to contemplate the ambiguities of what’s going on. I liken the more successful of the “anecdotal” paintings to glimpses into other people’s lives seen from a passing car—a nanosecond view of something too complex to be fully understood, but which is embedded in a suggestive context.

Today’s pic of the day is one of these little not-entirely-to-be-understood dramas. Painted a few years after World War II, it seems to show a middle-aged working man raking the lawn of his not-very-new, not-very-expensive house. In my imaginative construction, it seemed to be a view of a modest life lived in discipline and dignity. While it doesn’t appear at all condescending, the accent in the painting seems on the “modesty” of the life in question.

However, an odd effect made me reconsider my view of this painting. When I was scanning an illustration of a book on Hopper, I first chose a software setting that created a fairly “objective” scan (i.e., one that looks pretty much like the illustration):

E. Hopper, Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1947 ("Objective" scan)

Then I chose another software setting (the “automatic” brightness level) just to see what it looked like:

E. Hopper, Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1947 ("Bright" scan)

This brighter picture suddenly suggested an altogether different reading of the picture (which, of course, you may find just as goofy as the first.) In this version, the man raking his lawn is staring directly at the source of the light on his house—which we cannot see. Rather than bent over his mechanical task, the man seems to be transfixed by the sight of the radiance. In short, rather than being a picture of a man living in modest, somewhat claustrophobic circumstances (a person who we see but who does not see us), it suddenly became a picture of a man who is experiencing some revelation denied to us.

I have doubts if this is the meaning that Hopper intended for this painting. (Given his lifelong fascination with painting light, though, it’s not easy to be sure that this interpretation is completely off base, either.) But equally, given the extremely open-ended structures Hopper creates, it’s not clear to me that any interpretation of one of his pictures (assuming it doesn’t ignore what’s actually in the picture) is entirely wrong. Odd, isn’t it, how subtleties of reproduction can shift perceived meanings so dramatically.



posted by Friedrich at January 13, 2003


Great demo, thanks. It's a pretty dramatic contrast. The first one to my eyes has a kind of plainspoken, diginity-amidst-the-drabness thing going on, although I guess I take more note of the guy's head position than you do. (I take him to be looking at something.) But I couldn't agree more about the second one, which seems like a different drama entirely -- maybe the Mother Ship from "Close Encounters" is materializing in his garage, something like that. Seems almost pop-religioso.

How do you feel about viewing painting on the computer screen more generally? An artist friend tells me she hates it -- that the glow-from-behind alters the experience too much, even when the repro is otherwise good. "Paintings don't glow," she says. Another artist I know told a funny story. He teaches beginning art history to college kids, mainly via lectures and slides. And he tells me the kids (working-class, generally , with no background in the arts) are almost always disappointed when he takes them on a field trip to a museum. The slides, after all, are big, and in a darkened room they glow like movies do. In the museu, the real things are mostly small, and it's just paint sitting on a surface, doing its best to reflect a little light.

Good news is that another artist, who teaches painting, tells me that enrollment's up. So (assuming this isn't some isolated quirk), maybe the passion for computers, screens, and the web -- kids are understandably flooding those courses -- is being accompanied by (and is maybe generating) a desire for something more tactile, "real" and handicraft-oriented.

But I've mused my way pretty far off the path. How big a fan of Hopper's are you generally? I'm a fan myself -- I like his mulishness and forthrightness, as well as his stage-managing abilities and his skill at locking things into place. He's fun to copy, I've found, both the drawings and the paintings. You learn when you copy from him, or at least I do.

Hey, another blog posting I'll probably never get around to writing: why is that when you copy some tiptop artists you learn a whole lot, and when you copy others you don't learn nearly as much? Is it entirely a personal matter, or is there something more "objective" to be teased out of this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2003 2:24 PM

Friedrich -

Thanks for posting on Hopper. I tend to lean to your second analysis. I've always appreciated viewing his paintings.

Thank you again.

John V

Posted by: John Venlet on January 14, 2003 9:49 AM

To my eyes the raker is facing West. It's the end of the day. He's just home from the mine and he is gazing at the glory of a setting sun. Soon it will be dark, as dark as the mine he just left. Tomorrow, early he will head back to the dark mine. So he is taking this moment to register this moment in time which he can take with him into the deep, dark, black mine miles below the sky.

Posted by: philip snyder on January 14, 2003 10:36 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?