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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hopper and Rockwell

In going to art museums and seeing their various special shows or retrospectives, one gets a better grip on the artists as juxtaposed against the work of their contemporaries and the times in which they lived. I guess all people have fantasies and artists probably more than others. In the "Special Exhibits I'd Like to See" fantasy category let me propose a joint exhibition of the work of Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. It could be called "Two Views of America." I'm sure it would be a big hit as a traveling exhibition across the country, perhaps in special shows set up in the public libraries of the small cities and town both artists liked to paint. The show would have something for everyone.  I tend to think of such a show as having Republican art and Democratic art.  Both artists' work are steeped in nostalgia. Rockwell's Republican art would appeal to those conservatives wishing to bring back the "good old days" while Hopper's Democratic art would appeal to the liberals who would remind us that the "good old days" weren't all that good.

The Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper
 Of course the contrasts in the work of the two painters would be much more stark than their similarities which only serve to make them comparable. There is a sunny, sweet optimism in Rockwell's work and a dry, cold, lonely quality to Hopper's. Both are extremes for the most part.  I would like to see Rockwell's 1957 painting After the Prom hung next to Hopper's 1942 Nighthawks.  The settings are similar but what a contrast in outlooks.  In another room
After the Prom, 1957, Norman Rockwell
could hang Hopper's 1930 painting Early Sunday Morning beside Rockwell's 1953 Walking to Church, paintings so similar in setting they look to have been painted on the same street, right down to the storefront colors and the familiar barber poles in both paintings. Rockwell's 1946 The Chars would underline still more forcefully the difference in the two artists if hung next to Hopper's 1951 First Row Orchestra. Hopper's 1931 The Barber Shop would make a strong statement next to Rockwell's 1950 Shuffleton's Barber Shop.

The Barber Shop, 1931, Edward Hopper

 The list of combinations in hanging such a show is practically endless. Of course it is a fantasy show by all means because I doubt very much that any museum would dare mount such an artistically controversial juxtaposition of two artists revered by such diametrically opposing camps. Moreover, I think both artists might suffer in the comparison because neither, in their extreme view of Americana, portrayed an accurate view of twentieth century America. 
Shuffleton's Barber Shop,
1950, Norman Rockwell
Rockwell would make Hopper look even more austere and sadly pessimistic while Hopper would make Rockwell's doggedly eternal optimism seem saccharine sweet.  The result would be such visual conflict as to make Washington politics seem tame by comparison. But then again, there's something to be said for the Chinese quality of sweet 'n sour. Could we trust the viewers of such a fantasy exhibition to come to the conclusion that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes?

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