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Nighthawks

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Nighthawks is reproduced electronically in our Home page header courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic. It is a digital reproduction of a painting from 1942 by the American artist Edward Hopper [1882-1967] in their Friends of American Art Collection, Image ID G32700.

Edward Hopper's painting of 1942 for me evokes the danger I faced as a naive 18-year-old Englishman in New York when, one very dark night, I got lost walking back to my hotel and ended up in The Bowery.  I was scared.  That week I had walked over a man in the street with a hole in the back of his suit and an expanding patch of blood around that hole - he'd just been shot. Another time, I had seen from a few hundred yards away a man shouting at and trying to hit a woman in the East Village. Several times, I took coffee in cafes containing a screaming lunatic ranting to no one but herself.  Once I entered a small bowling alley and was nearly knocked over by the density of the marijuana cloud; I left soon after I saw a dozen eyeballs peering at me out of the dark - I'd never been to an all-black bowl before [or since]. The scariest moment on that trip though was in Chicago's O'Hare airport when I noticed that all the guys looked like hoods with those angular but ugly faces - and the same ugly suit and gangster hat.......just as in Nighthawks.

Hopper's painting has a tension sprung with dark images of the threat of being victimized by, alongside the possibility of committing, crime in the city.  It links the city with danger and danger with the city.  It smells of a plot.  It suggests something could blow any minute.  It reminds me of conversations late at night in the US, as a Brit, after a bowl, a burger, a Bud and a JD or all four, with criminologists like Alan Block, who recounted late night meetings, or at least meetings in dark car parks, with gaberdine or Burberry coat collar turned up with shades fully on, with CIA or FBI agents who'd not lost their consciences. Blocky probably never did see anything with those shades on and I suspect frequently bumped into pillars and posts, and Hopper's comment on the lunacy of urban imprisonment in this cool but dark urban dream is that his cafe gets no entrance or exit and he puts himself in both male roles......

For more on Hopper, read the review of the Hopper exhibition in the Tate Modern in 2004 by Adrian Searle: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/may/25/1

or of his work in general by Annie Proulx: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/may/08/art

and Philip French, with special relevance to us because of his comments on Nighthawks and crime in art: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/apr/25/art

The best review I read was by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian [sorry, I cannot locate this piece], probably published in May 2004 and entitled "All the lonely people: the paintings of Edward Hopper evoke an emptiness that is still pervasive in everyday life".  See also the comments in Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change [1981, London: BBC].  Jones wrote: "The city around the Nighthawks is a green void, its deadness illuminated by the light coming through the diner's glass walls.  Inside, one man sits alone in his hat, hunched up, maybe on his way to or from a killing........The strength of American art in the 20th century lay in its ability to draw on an instant museum of national weirdness.  After Hopper, it was Warhol who saw this most blackly, and it is his art that connects the Nighthawks to Abu Graib.  In Warhol's Race Riot, a southern policeman sets a dog on a civil rights protester - a sleazy, base cruelty that immediately makes you think of the prison images from Iraq.......the pictures the military torturers have taken of one another...although shot far from home...are as resonantly, instantly and hyperbolically American as Hopper's houses that all look like they belong to serial killers.........Edward Hopper foresaw the serial-killer settings of a disillusioned national landscape".

Being an obsessive student of US culture, I also like this text from "Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces":

"Apparently, there was a period when every college dormitory in the country had on its walls a poster of Hopper's Nighthawks; it had become an icon. It is easy to understand its appeal. This is not just an image of big-city loneliness, but of existential loneliness: the sense that we have (perhaps overwhelmingly in late adolescence) of being on our own in the human condition. When we look at that dark New York street, we would expect the fluorescent-lit cafe to be welcoming, but it is not. There is no way to enter it, no door. The extreme brightness means that the people inside are held, exposed and vulnerable. They hunch their shoulders defensively. Hopper did not actually observe them, because he used himself as a model for both the seated men, as if he perceived men in this situation as clones. He modeled the woman, as he did all of his female characters, on his wife Jo. He was a difficult man, and Jo was far more emotionally involved with him than he with her; one of her methods of keeping him with her was to insist that only she would be his model.

"From Jo's diaries we learn that Hopper described this work as a painting of "three characters." The man behind the counter, though imprisoned in the triangle, is in fact free. He has a job, a home, he can come and go; he can look at the customers with a half-smile. It is the customers who are the nighthawks. Nighthawks are predators - but are the men there to prey on the woman, or has she come in to prey on the men? To my mind, the man and woman are a couple, as the position of their hands suggests, but they are a couple so lost in misery that they cannot communicate; they have nothing to give each other. I see the nighthawks of the picture not so much as birds of prey, but simply as birds: great winged creatures that should be free in the sky, but instead are shut in, dazed and miserable, with their heads constantly banging against the glass of the world's callousness. In his Last Poems, A. E. Housman (1859-1936) speaks of being "a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made." That was what Hopper felt - and what he conveys so bitterly."


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