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December 10, 2008

Over-analyzing Art

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few days ago I decided to take in a lecture at the Seattle Art Museum. The subject was their current exhibit of paintings of women by Edward Hopper. (A link to that exhibit is here.)

The exhibit is small-scale (around ten paintings) in part because most major Hoppers were part of a major exhibition of his work that started in Boston, went to Washington and concluded in Chicago, where I happened to catch it just before it ended.

The raison d'être for the Seattle show is Hopper's famous "Chop Suey" which has been designated to eventually become part of the museum's collection (the current owner is Barney Ebsworth). It was part of the traveling exhibition mentioned above and therefore unavailable for display at the museum until now.

Chop Suey - 1929

More information on Hopper can be found here; scroll down to view "Nighthawks," perhaps his most famous painting.

The lecture I attended was given by the show's curator and based largely on the catalog text she wrote. I don't think I'll bother to buy the catalog, even if its price is reduced after the exhibit closes. One reason is that reproductions of several of the paintings "bleed across the gutter" (to toss in printing jargon). That is, they occupy parts of adjoining pages, and this makes it almost impossible for a viewer to properly see the artwork. Shame! shame! shame!!

Another reason I probably won't buy the catalog is the text. Assuming it closely follows the lecture material, the following points will be found:

  • Hopper was a very shy guy, greatly influenced by a Victorian upbringing which held that "nice" women could only appear in public in certain well-defined circumstances.

  • Due his shyness, he was something of a voyeur.

  • He liked restaurants, where he could anonymously observe other people and perhaps sketch. She (the curator) made a big deal about the anonymity of New York automats, the setting of one of the paintings.

  • There was a long discussion about women and how they gradually became able to eat alone in restaurants and go other places unaccompanied without comment. Somehow this ties into Hopper's shyness, Victorianism and the creation of his paintings of women in restaurant settings.

This is pretty watery beer compared to other commentaries about artists and their paintings, where politically-correct conjecture is heaped on painters who worked centuries ago and never gave a thought about racism, sexism, imperialism and all those other isms so beloved of current academicians. I consider analyzing a painting in any time frame other than the one where it was created as being unfair both to the artist and the reader (an important exception being the placement of artists and work in the context of the history of art).

Even though I'm as interested in gossipy details of a painter's life as the next person, psychology too is best avoided in analyses of paintings unless the artist was seriously abnormal and the abnormality is clearly reflected in his work.

Actually, I'm not fond of reading almost any detailed analysis of a painting. Basic information (date painted, media and support, dimensions, who commissioned the work if it was commissioned, symbolism in the painting where the meaning of the symbolism is likely to be obscure to the average viewer, those sorts of things) is probably necessary. Borderline items might include brief observations regarding composition and color usage as well as mention of features likely to appear odd or unusual to the average viewer.

In other words, my inclination is for a painting to "speak for itself" to the greatest extent possible. Extensive analysis is usually mostly conjecture anyway, saying more about the writer than the painter.

The exception to all this is when the artist himself writes (or speaks) a detailed explanation of how and why the work came to be.



posted by Donald at December 10, 2008


I agree, for the most part. The analysis of Hopper made that painting LESS interesting to me; I prefer ambiguousness, in this particular instance.

But when I went to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit in SF this summer, I found that the info posted near the paintings made them come to life.

I never cared much for her work, but when I looked at a painting of a bloodied woman laying on bloody sheets, and learned that it followed Frida's discovery of her husband's infidelity (with her sister!) the passion and violence "spoke" more clearly to me.

Another painting of a woman jumping from a window had been commissioned by a socialite as a memorial; the socialite was horrified by the painting and refused to pay for it.

I guess I'm saying that the back-story can make a painting more least in the case of poor Friday Kahlo, who has otherwise been reduced to kitsch fridge magnets.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on December 10, 2008 11:13 PM

"Extensive analysis is usually mostly conjecture anyway, saying more about the writer than the painter."

I agree, but isn't that part of the experience of art? What people bring to it. Ten people can get 10 different interpretations of a single work of art. I find that incredibly exciting. It's part of the reason artists are reluctant to "explain" their art, for fear of putting preconceived notions into people's heads.

That said, you can go overboard on the interpretation thing.

Posted by: JV on December 10, 2008 11:52 PM

Meant to add:

It's almost a criteria of good art that it can stand be reinvented by the audience depending on their POVs.


As a teacher, I was always pretty open with students' interpretations of literature, as long as they SUPPORTED THEIR THESIS WITH ACTUAL REFERENCES TO THE WORK. I put that in caps here and in my syllabi. I include that prerequisite for interpretations of any piece of art.

Posted by: JV on December 10, 2008 11:55 PM

I am horrified that any respectable press/publisher/whatever would split artwork across the gutter.

Unless the binding is (say) saddle-stapled, or sewn throug the fold, so that opposing pages lie flat. (And then there must be care taken to align the signatures.)

I have a Civil War atlas ("edited" by James McPherson, shame on him) that was badly bound; most of the maps are broken.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 11, 2008 12:30 AM

Love Hopper. Chop Suey is a new one for me, and a good one. A highlight, as usual, is the barest hint of story told through clothing, choice of seating and, especially, through posture. How does he do that with so little detail or apparent effort? It's like Vermeer got kicked out of his studio and had to paint in public places with a time-limit.

Interesting in another way is the curator's "elegant and revealing catalogue":

"Chop Suey as a part of an extended narrative of human vulnerability that evolved as Hopper studied women in new kinds of social spaces in New York."

The words "narrative" and "vulnerability" can never go amiss...and give me "spaces" every time.

However, I think I'd prefer:

"Chop Suey as part of a human narrative of social vulnerability that evolved as Hopper studied women in new kinds of extended spaces in New York."

Of course, either arrangement will be just fine!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 11, 2008 2:13 AM

Thanks for the link, which allows the viewer to click on details of the picture and zoom in on them. Amazing, to me at least, that Hopper could capture such an illusion of reality with the loose liquid brush strokes he employed. This can only be appreciated in close ups.

Posted by: ricpic on December 11, 2008 11:10 AM

I don't usually like downbeat art but I like Hopper and never saw what was so downbeat about his art. Maybe because I'm a loner myself I don't see what is so tragic about the solitary or at least unconnected individuals who appear in his work. "Nighthawks," for example, is often written as depicting urban alienation and the bleakness of modern city life; but you could also see it as individuals who have found a clean, well lighted sanctuary, even a temporary one. I was pleased when I later read that Hopper himself didn't see his work as downbeat and wondered why others did.

Posted by: Bilwick1 on December 11, 2008 4:59 PM

I must admit I have quite a soft spot for Hopper. I've always found his work good at depicting isolation and emptiness. Automat and Office at Night being some of my favorites. Hopper is the master of depicting emptiness and boredom.

As for art critics, they have their uses, but should be viewed with caution.Usually in assessing a work, they'll project their own mental pathologies onto the it. Recently in my bit of the world, there was an exhibition painting of two attractive women sitting together. The history of the painting was a bit murky, but the "establishement" view was that it was a painting of two lesbian lovers. It later turned out the that the painter was a friend of the two sisters and wanted to paint a portrait of them as a present. No hot lesbian action there. I suppose the art critic wasn't getting enough.

Posted by: slumlord on December 12, 2008 7:12 AM

Slumlord, I totally agree that the opinions of art critics, like the opinions of just about anyone, should be taken with caution. But is is a bad thing that the critic in question responded to the painting in the way you describe? I mean, that's what they got out of it based on their life experience. I'm of the opinion that it really doesn't matter what the artist intends. And anyone, once it leaves the artist's studio, it's out of his/her control. And it seems the majority of artists acknowledge and respect that. Even enjoy it.

Posted by: JV on December 12, 2008 11:22 AM

I agree, artists tend to be far more eloquent on their own than filtered through interpreters. I mean, El Greco's paintings can be accurately identified through the absolutely unique way he paints draperies and, generally, the very unique way he forces all sorts of motifs into unpredictable shapes. This tendency can be related to religious poetry of his age, and to Mannerist design theories, but I've never seen anyone explicate it as well as the artist himself did in a story told by a friend of the painter's. This friend arrived on a beautiful Toledo morning to see El Greco and found him in his darkened studio with all the shutters drawn. The friend asked what was up with the darkness, and El Greco replied: "The daylight disturbs my inner light."

Works for me...

Also, I don't think Hopper is downbeat; he's sensitive to loneliness and alienation, but equally very alert to little hints of transcendance in daily life. In fact, I would argue that he's actually quite a religious or even mystical painter, in his own early 20th century way.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 12, 2008 11:30 AM


I don't think Hopper is downbeat

No I don't think he is downbeat. However I do tend to get a feeling of revulsion when I look at his work.(In a good way) I think he has a very powerful painting style and seems to communicate emptiness, boredom and solitariness in way that makes me recoil spiritually. With the exception of some of his works, most of his subjects look fed but still hungry, rested but not, and loved but no fulfilled. In that sense you could say that, yes, they are religious, in they depict the condition of the human soul and the need for "something' else for fulfillment.

But is is a bad thing that the critic in question responded to the painting in the way you describe?
No not really, the problem is though, I think you are meant to respond to art in a certain visceral sort of way; it has to be personal. Too many people get denigrated because they fail to respond to art along "official" lines. Therefore art critics tend to encourage a group think response to art. Lots of abstract art leaves me cold, proof enough as the critics would say of my lack of refinement. But then I've never worried about their opinion, other people do however.

Posted by: slumlord on December 12, 2008 3:48 PM

Speaking of personal interpretations of artistic works, Pupu finds "Chop Suey" far less lonely and bleak than most other Hopper paintings. Pupu finds it almost as intimate as a Vermeer scene.

Posted by: Pupu on December 12, 2008 4:39 PM

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