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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, July 13, 2004
    Hopper: sad / not sad?

    In the first edition of TATE ETC (a rubbish title but a good mag) Alain de Botton does his bit to promote the latest Edward Hopper exhibition by suggesting that while Hopper's paintings depict deep levels of human bleakness, they are not themselves bleak to look at.

    Hopper's work "appears sad but does not make us sad". His lonely figures, looking as though they are far from home, reading a letter beside a hotel bed or drinking in a bar, gazing out of the window of a moving train or reading a book in a hotel lobby, are vulnerable and introspective.

    "They may have just left someone or been left. They are in search of work, sex or company, adrift in transient places. It is often night, and through the window lie the darkness and threat of the open country or of a strange city."

    But "they are not themselves bleak to look at - perhaps because they allow us as viewers to witness an echo of our own griefs and disappointments, and thereby to feel less personally persecuted and beset by them. It is sad books that console us most when we are sad, and the pictures of lonely service stations that we should hang on our walls when there is no one to hold or love."

    de Botton reckons that Hopper's characters find salvation of a kind in roadside diners and late-night cafeterias, hotel lobbies and station cafés, just as "we too may dilute a feeling of isolation in a lonely public place and hence rediscover a distinctive sense of community. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture, may be a relief from what can be the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photographs, the décor of a refuge that has let us down."

    He suggests that "the 24-hour diner, the station waiting room or motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a place of their own in the ordinary world"

    I'm not entirely convinced. Though there are parallels between this and the relationship which Iain Sinclair's characters have with their bleak terrain - about which I shall be reading (on the train, alone) and speaking (at the conference) tomorrow and Thursday - I'm still unsure that if I had a bleak Hopper on my wall it would comfort me like a "sad book that console(s) us most when we are sad".

    But hey, in 24 hours time, as I'm skulking around a Sheffield guest house, the truth in de Botton's theory may become clearer.