Life in England is different from life in America. I grew up in the States with an English father. Even so, when I came to the UK two years ago, I found some elements of British culture were deeply foreign. Here is a list of things I’ve found that many English people generally accept as true and that I don’t always understand:
- Pimms is delicious and one of the most exciting treats in the world
- The department store Marks and Spencer is at once a special treat and deeply comforting
- Captain Scott, despite his expedition’s ultimate failure, is still regarded with deep cultural pride
- Custard is a viable desert option
If you are an English person reading this post, I challenge you to disagree with more than one of these points.
But of course when we approach foreign lands we always find bits of strangeness.
So it’s a lovely feeling when you start to understand and then enjoy one bit of another world.
One such encounter between cultures is taking place right now in Paris, between the American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and French exhibition-goers. At the Grand Palais in Paris, an exhibition of Hopper’s works has received unexpectedly large and enthusiastic audiences.
Hopper, an American realist painter, lived in New York in the first half of the 20th century, and is known for his moody, evocative scenes. While he worked in various capacities over the course of his life, his most easily recognizable images are those of heavy figures set in dramatically lit and lonely interiors.
He loved Paris, where he had studied as a young man.
But the works of Hopper are not well known in France, and, as is the case with most of the American realists, they are not well liked. In fact, none of the drawings, paintings or illustrations comprising Hoppers massive output hangs in permanent collections in France today. Of the Lourve, the Musee d’Orsay, the Pompidou Centre, any of the great museums of France that have helped define Western world’s thoughts on art, none of them have sprung for a Hopper.
So it came as a surprise to many when the show started drawing record attendance. Parisians flocked to it, attracted both by the strong formal elements of Hopper’s works, as well as the power of the characters within them.
How do you feel about Hopper’s works?
Let’s take a look at Nighthawks. Painted in 1942, this picture is probably Hopper’s most famous painting and the poster work for the show.
It’s a scene that grabs you. Even if you didn’t live through the forties, it’s a very real, recognizable scene – maybe from the movies, a book or a photograph. But even though it’s easy to understand the scene in a general way, the glass that stretches across the composition keeps us firmly away from the figures that populate it. We’re not part of the scene, we’re looking in on it. Even behind the glass the people seem melancholy and detached from one another. It’s a sort of brightly coloured half-second of film noir.
In film noir, though, there’s usually someone to root for. Or a villain about to burst in with a gun, a sophisticated lady in sophisticated distress, a soul to be redeemed.
The figures won’t move. There’s no saying what their connection to each other is – in fact, it seems like there probably isn’t a relationship to write home about between the four of them. It’s simply a moody moment.
But, the fact that each painting conjures and sensation rather than a story seems to be one of the things the French viewers of the show enjoy so much. And, as Didier Ottinger, the curator of the exhibition, explains, each painting can become a vehicle for the viewer’s own emotions.
Which I guess gives me a little more confidence for my own future. If the Parisians can embrace Hopper, I can definitely get used to custard.