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The Painter's Voice

Author and Photographer Elizabeth Disney writes about 
a book of poetry to read and treasure.

Triangles of Light, The Edward Hopper Poems
by James Hoggard
Published by Wings Press. US $16

I’ve always loved the work of Edward Hopper: those architectural spaces that speak so eloquently yet silently. And if people are present in the image, they do not inhabit the space.  The human figure only emphasizes the surrounding emptiness – between them, or within themselves, and the stark  surroundings. A dialogue of silence.

Yet I had never had the opportunity to see Hopper “live” until this year when an exhibition of American painting came to my town, Madrid. (Fundación Mapfre, Made in USA, Arte Americano de la Philips Collection). Then, in the bookshop I came across an exquisite gathering of poems by various authors dedicated to Hopper’s images, The Poetry of Solitude, A Tribute to Edward Hopper, collected by eminent Hopper scholar Gail Levin. On impulse (I’m a chronic sharer of things I love), I copied one of the poems and sent it to Ysabel.

A few weeks later a package arrived in my mail box. From Ysabel. I collected it on my way to the bank, and asked the teller for some scissors to open the well-sealed envelope. And there was revealed the jewel within: Triangles of Light, The Edward Hopper Poems, by Texas poet, academic and translator, James Hoggard.

Hoggard goes one step further than describing the paintings. He gives them voice: Hopper’s own – blunt, down to earth, no romanticism or frills; stark, remorseless, just as the paintings themselves are. Just there. Involved. Detached.

 I’m not that man
working at the desk
- he’s a guy I invented…
Office at Night

I shy from the word “loneliness” in thinking about Hopper, as everyone uses it, and it harks back to the romantic image of the melancholy poet. (Well, perhaps he was that, too,  although unintentionally? ) In Hoggard’s words, from his Preface:  (Hopper’s) empty street and sometimes peopleless rooms do not seem lonely; rather, they seem uncluttered, happily devoid of foolishly chatty people.”

In this case there is a certain similarity with Chinese painting where a minute human figure emphasizes the immensity of the landscape. But with Hopper, it’s buildings, constructions: America.

Painting them, I paint
us all – I paint us
Into symmetry,
The speech I know. 

Sunlight in a Cafeteria
Yale University, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903  1961.18.31 

Why Hopper?  Why Hoggard?

The author in his preface describes an early fascination with Hopper, from age ten, born from the fortunate encounter with an exceptional art teacher (Thank you, Mrs. Ruth Dickson) who showed her young pupils slides of European and American painting. The sort of thing that kids take for granted as “normal”, when it absolutely is not – as one realizes long afterwards. Young Hoggard experimented in crayon with Hopper forms and textures. Then came the words, and a poem  entitled “Based on a Painting that Edward Hopper Never Did.”

Then, oh – the magic of intuition, synchronicity, coincidence, plugging into the collective unconscious. Whatever one chooses to call it, it is the veritable magic of a connection that one had dreamed of, invented, perhaps – only to discover that it exists, in the real, palpable world. In this case, of a Hopper painting: I knew my scheme now: Hopper was telling the poems, and standing in for an audience, I followed his observations.(Preface)

But whatever the genre or procedence, all painting is embedded in a tradition. And Hopper’s language is the universal one of geometry. It is not just the immense freeways, concrete slabs, dissections of light and shade. In other words, “triangles of light” – the most stable of the geometric shapes, the five Platonic solids, that the ancient Greeks revered as the building blocks of the universe.

Consciously or unconsciously, Hopper is a Pythagorean, and a “renaissance” painter  - his counterpoint of spaces reflects the  “Golden Mean” proportion  (popularized, for better or worse, by Dan Brown), which permeates the paintings of Piero della Francesco, Leonardo, Dürer – all of whom were also mathematicians.  Geometry as the basis of all things. 

Windows are planes to organize paint      My Roof

Look at Sun in an Empty Room.  Hoggard speaks for the painter:

No, hell no, I was not
Meditating on death
Or notions of emptiness
I meant what I presented:
unadorned slabs of light
On two unaddled walls.

But Hopper’s geometry as Hoggard points out, springs not  from the cultural tradition of gothic cathedrals or the figure of the mother-goddess, Virgin Mary – both of which are absent in the new world of American industrialism, where the machine was the new god of a new age. “One thought of the culture one had been born into, a culture that longed for tradition while defying it.” (Preface)  Into this tradition people fit, not as merging into the landscape, but alienated from and by it, and from each other:

They’ll stay talkless here,
There’s little to say.
Cape Cod Evening

As the poet himself tells us, the painting says it all.

Thank you, Edward Hopper.
Thank you, James Hoggard.

Elizabeth Disney © 2011

 ues18.31 Oil on canvas, 40 3/16 x 60 1/8 in. (102.1 x 152.7 cm)
Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903


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