Hi from the Vancouver International Film Festival, in my opinion one of the best film festivals in the world. It is here we have chosen to launch our new film – HOPPER: AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY. And what a first night it was. The film looked, I hope it is not immodest to say, magnificent – a testimony to the many skilled individuals who helped make it – it really was a team effort of people at the top of their game in my opinion. The audience seemed to love it and the Q&A I hosted was very positive. So, a good start. But… do enough people know who Hopper was? Will audiences come to the cinema? Certainly Covid has decimated our audience figures over the past two, nearly three years, and it has not at all returned to normal. We’ll see…
Anyway, more of this to come but I wanted to post here another review by Joe Phelan, an arts reviewer that I hold in the greatest respect in the USA. Here is he reviewing the 2007 travelling exhibition of Hopper’s works. Have a read:
Even people who don’t know the name Edward Hopper (1882-1967) might be very familiar with his images, such as House by the Railroad, Lighthouse at Two Lights or Nighthawks, either in the originals, via reproductions or from the myriad movies they inspired. At the beginning of the 21st century, Hopper’s realistic and representational art, both haunting and iconic, resonates more strongly with our sensibilities than almost any other American painter of his time. “Great art,” he once said, “is the outward expression of the inner life of the artist and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.” A new traveling exhibit focusing on his mature work from 1925 to 1950 is currently packing them in (as Hopper shows always do) at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. This exhibit provides an occasion for some reflections on Hopper’s artistic vision and how he achieved it.
Born in Nyack, New York, a small resort town on the Hudson River which was also the birthplace of another highly idiosyncratic artist, Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper’s earliest memory was of gazing out the window at the house next door: “there was a sort of elation about the sunlight on the upper part of a house”, he once said. A shy, tall boy, who liked to draw and read, his graphic gifts were recognized and supported early by his middle class, well-read parents, who nevertheless urged him to study commercial illustration rather than painting.
Hopper went to school in nearby midtown Manhattan, where he soon came under the influence of two very talented but very different painters: William Merritt Chase, an American impressionist, and Robert Henri, a realist who would soon found the gritty “Ashcan School”. A fellow student noted that Chase “preached art for art’s sake; Henri art for life’s sake. The difference was monumental.”
Hopper stayed a remarkably long six years at the school, winning prizes and honors. Afterwards he traveled to Europe, where for almost a year he visited museums and galleries while spending the mornings painting on the banks of the Seine. Apart from providing an occasion for a close study of Manet and Degas, his time in Paris allowed him to observe the somewhat shocking difference between the “pleasure loving” Parisians looking for “a good time” on the boulevards and in the cafes and the New Yorkers “with that never ending determination for the ‘long green’.”
Two more European trips followed in quick succession in 1909 and 1910. Shortly after his return from the second trip, Hopper painted Summer Interior, one of the few early works in the exhibit. This brooding, intimate work may have been inspired by Edgar Degas’ more sexually daring Interior, which depicts a certain male-female confrontation. The abstract patch of light, here located on the floor, is a compositional device Hopper loved to use in his mature work in order to depict the indomitable light of nature breaking into the human world of a room. We observe his use of this light in such works as A Woman in the Sun, Excursion into Philosophy, and Rooms by the Sea. Hopper once laconically summed up his achievement by stating that “I guess I’m not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.”
Back in Manhattan, Hopper found the city “awfully crude and raw.” “It took me a decade to get Europe out of my system,” he said. At this time Hopper worked as a commercial illustrator, something he later described as a “depressive experience.” This inner struggle between what Hopper did for a living and his highest artistic aspirations is perhaps evident in New York Corner (New York Salon), the impressionism of which strikes us in the background buildings on the left, while we note an urgent sense of form in the simplified geometry of the windows and shades on the right. This heavy, dreary scene is also the most crowded one Hopper ever painted. In later works, such as Drug Store and Early Sunday Morning, the artist would simplify his street scenes by eliminating any suggestion of the “hustle and bustle” that is taken to distinguish urban life.
Besides earning a living with his commercial work, Hopper began to explore the medium of etching. As we can see in the web feature (see below), it is in this challenging medium, which had at one time or other fully engaged the likes of Rembrandt, Goya and Whistler, that Hopper began to reveal his masterful draughtmanship and his powerful personal vision. We see isolated figures, desolate urban scenes, and nineteenth-century Victorian architecture, all in strong contrasts of light and shadow from unusual and unexpected viewpoints. Hopper seems to be pouring out the darker inner currents which could not find expression in his workaday commercial output. Not surprisingly, when exhibited these pieces were highly praised and quickly sold.
Etching required Hopper to work in his studio, and so he had to rely on his memory or sketches rather than paint from direct sight. He gradually began to invent his subject matter and carefully work out his compositions. If we compare American Landscape with House by the Railroad, or Night Shadows with Nighthawks, we see how much these iconic oil paintings owe to Hopper’s early sketches.
In the early 1920s, Hopper began spending summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small town on the Atlantic coast which had attracted artists since the days when Winslow Homer painted there. Encouraged by his fellow art student and future wife Josephine Nivison, Hopper started using watercolors. While other artists were painting picturesque coastal scenes, Hopper focused on the ornate Victorian mansions built by rich sea captains in the nineteenth century. The Mansard Roof depicts one such rambling mansion which still exists today. Hopper is both accurate in all his architectural details and engagingly abstract in his converting of the substantial building into a pattern of light and shadow.
The art cognoscenti of Hopper’s day were drawn to the new modernist skyscrapers or to the classical measure of colonial architecture, and found the Victorian style (or Second Empire style, as in House by the Railroad) “hideous.” These nineteenth-century buildings were viewed by left-wing modernists as symptomatic of the vulgar deficiencies of the gilded age culture that produced them. But Hopper loved this kind of vernacular architecture, and in his “masculine independence” he stood almost alone among serious artists of his day in painting them. The Mansard Roof, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 where it won a prize and was purchased by the institution, declared Hopper’s independence of prevailing fashion.
As a result of a few big sales, Hopper was able to buy his first automobile, a used 1925 Dodge. The new auto meant that he and his new wife could seek out new subject matter using the car as kind of studio on wheels. Liberated in this fashion to explore the open road the Hoppers drove through New England, discovering the village of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In due course they adopted this location as their summer headquarters, in 1927. Fellow artists were nearby but had not yet discovered the spot, and Hopper remained aloof from them. It was here that Hopper started painting lighthouses, another subject which no one seems to have thought worth painting before him.
Critics soon began describing these utilitarian structures as unattractive, while admiring the artist’s ability to transform them into beautiful images. In the most romantic of his Maine paintings, Lighthouse Hill, Hopper chooses the late afternoon when the sun makes long shadows on the grass, also creating an abrupt contrast between the light on the buildings and the darkness elsewhere. The well-defined forms of the building are contrasted with the bareness of the natural surroundings, inducing a mood of wonder and reflection in the viewer.
Back in New York for the winter, Hopper was living in an apartment in Greenwich Village, and it’s worth noting that many of his painting depict scenes from his own neighborhood. Nighthawks, for example, is based on a long-forgotten all-night diner at Greenwich and 7th Avenue. Hopper’s New York City was not the one celebrated in the art and literature of the twenties. He had no interest in the principal pictorial motifs of the Jazz Age, the skyscraper and the machine, or in their potential as symbols for the commerce, capitalism and power which had overtaken America. As he had done in Gloucester, Hopper found his subjects in the vernacular architecture of the city. He was drawn to the unexceptional and familiar buildings of the nineteenth century, as in Williamsburg Bridge. He used these structures both as backdrops for his quiet human drama and as dramatic actors in their own right who could dominate the scene.
It must be stressed that Hopper and his wife did not turn their backs on the twentieth century. They loved theater- and movie-going. It is no accident, then, that Hopper approached the composition of his mature works, such as Chop Suey, Early Sunday Morning, New York Movie, Room in New York and Nighthawks, as a theatrical director might set the scene of a play. The specific mise-en-scène might be a lunch counter or filling station at night or a hotel room early in the morning. Although Hopper spoke disparagingly of it, his commercial work had taught him to compose images with an implicit story line. He included just enough detail to tempt the viewers to devise a narrative of their own.
Yet these very story-telling details are minimized in the context of Hopper’s broad optical contrasts, designed to secure maximum emotional power from a relatively small number of visual elements. Hopper presents these scenes in such a way that the pictorial drama is constituted almost entirely by the play of light and shadow across the canvas. It is Hopper’s skill in shifting the center of expressive gravity, away from the directly anecdotal and onto the more purely visual drama of light and shadows, that elevates his art above the simple theatricality of the American Scene painters or Norman Rockwell.
“Hopper is always on the verge of telling a story,” observed John Updike. If so what’s the story? Hopper, as I’ve said before, was famously close-lipped about the meaning of his work. The first great essay about Hopper, by Alfred Barr, dates from the 1930s. Interestingly enough from our perspective today, Barr never uses the word loneliness in connection with Hopper’s work. Rather he talks about Hopper as painter of light and architecture. But today Hopper is popularly thought of as a painter of loneliness. What might explain this shift in interpretation is the appearance of David Riesman’s groundbreaking book The Lonely Crowd in 1950. This was a remarkable book on the American psyche that attempted to document the tension between our consumer-oriented, economically ambitious and increasingly prosperous culture and the human and spiritual doubts which are obscured by the power and wealth such a culture produces. The ideas and terminology of Riesman’s book soon began to appear in connection with commentary on Hopper’s work. Riesman’s idea of the deep and abiding loneliness at the heart of the urban dynamo seemed to fit the vision at the core of Hopper’s work perfectly. In the decades since Riesman’s book was published, commentators have tended to describe Hopper as the man who made The Lonely Crowd visible. But although this connection between Hopper and the twentieth-century American experience of urban alienation and isolation was understandable in the light of some of his chosen subject matter, the artist himself did not wish it to dominate his reputation. “The loneliness thing is overdone” he once commented dryly. As curator Carol Troyen points out in her podcast and catalogue essay, Hopper is perhaps best seen as the painter of solitude and serenity.
More troubling to Hopper’s career was a new style of painting on the rise even as New York was coming to dominate the world of art. The notion of “pure painting” independent of life or nature, as practiced by Jackson Pollock, was gaining a foothold in the most avant-garde circles. The brilliantly ferocious champion of Pollock, Clement Greenberg, dismissed Hopper’s methods as “second-hand, shabby, and impersonal,” and thought him “simply… a bad painter.” But for his part, Hopper would remain steadfast in his commitment to realism. Where Hopper’s sentiments truly lay is indicated by the pleasure he expressed on learning that the film director Alfred Hitchcock had said in various interviews that his later films Rear Window and Psycho were to some extent inspired by the painter’s work.
In 1963, four years before his death, Hopper painted a picture that could serve as his final testament. Sun in an Empty Room is one of his most mysterious and beautiful works (and surely an inspiration for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series). It takes the form of a breathtaking recapitulation of the themes and concerns that had emerged throughout his career. This late painting is evocative of his earliest conception of a figure in a sunlit room as seen in Summer Interior. The painting shows a room which is either not yet occupied or perhaps recently vacated, we cannot tell for sure. But given Hopper’s age at the time, most likely it is a room recently left empty. When asked what he was after in the painting, Hopper responded, “I’m after ME.” At bottom, Hopper’s obsession with painting light on the side of a house was at the same time an obsession with trying to represent his own inner light on canvas.
In one of his few programmatic essays on art, written early in his career, Hopper quotes from an author and an essay he loved throughout his life: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Hopper’s adoption of the outmoded, the unexceptional, the stark and the seemingly uninteresting in terms of subject matter enabled him to record the compelling tension between the Victorian world of his childhood and the uncertain modern world that had arisen since. One can conceive of Hopper’s “contrarianism” in this context as a reflection of his Emersonian philosophy. He was seeking to make the “great refusal” in art that Emerson had made in letters. He had to reject “pure painting” and so many of the demands of “progress” and “fashion” in order to produce an art that would reflect his immersion in life as it is lived and nature as it is experienced first-hand.
APOLOGIES! I have been so busy editing my Edward Hopper film I forgot to post this blog from May! I hope everyone is enjoying their summer – it is scorching in Europe but we’re indoors in the edit suite anyway. All goes well. Hopper will be finished by September – and also we will be returning with our popular Painting of the Week podcast soon. Take care, Phil
I have recently returned from Boston having concluded the final shoot for the next EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film which focusses on Edward Hopper. I have to say it was a tremendously busy week that went to plan. I will talk about the shoot shortly but, first, I have to say the past few weeks have been fantastic. I don’t like to play things down when good things happen. One needs to enjoy them and enjoy talking about them. Why not? There are plenty of day-to-day struggles, so we need to recognise and celebrate some of the great moments we all work so hard for.
Let me begin with My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan being accepted into a lot of festivals. One cannot possibly attend all of them but when I received an invitation to go to Kathmandu and have a special screening at Film South Asia, well, that really was too good an invite to turn down. I’m always busy and it’s expensive to get there (and I have reduced the amount that I fly these days) but Kathmandu has a special place in my heart. In 1984, 38 years ago, I went there with my brother and partially filmed my very first film about the Dalai Lama. It was a fantastic trip. Then in 1991 it was the first location that my wife Amanda and I went to as a team working for our company Seventh Art Productions. I had moved out of London (having split from my previous excellent producer Michael Whiteley) and we started working together in the back bedroom of our small new flat in Brighton. We decided that the first film we wanted to make at that point was about Nepal and its first democratic election.
That 1991 trip to Nepal was particularly memorable trip because I was providing news footage back to a couple of UK-based news agencies. One asked me to present on camera and the experience of that alone convinced me that it was something I wouldn’t do again. Nor did I ever again want to file news footage where you are running around looking for trouble spots, going to hospitals for people who might have been injured at a polling station even if, as was the case in Kathmandu that day, that was frankly a distortion of the story. Basically, the democratic elections passed off almost entirely peacefully, but the news agencies were only interested in (and willing to pay for) conflict. One funny thing did happen on that trip – the ruling party officials, including the prime minister, just assumed I was BBC. I did not dissuade them of that belief. I got interviews as a result – but I don’t think the BBC reporter (Mark Tully) was thrilled when he turned up…!
Anyway, back to 2022. On this trip back to the festival, my brother was able to fly in from the US, and Amanda could come too, and my son who is the age I was when I first went, camera in hand.
Kathmandu is extraordinary – and we had the best time. Unfortunately, its own excessive traffic and lack of will power to do much about it puts it in a completely unsustainable long-term position, but it’s still a wonderful place to go. What landscapes to explore, what lovely people, what an exciting place. The film was very well received at the festival too – which made it even nicer.
We cut the travel times very fine – and could not afford any delays if we were to get back in time for the first of two BAFTA awards ceremonies that we’d been invited to. The first was in BAFTA Crafts where my and Shoaib’s cinematography was up for an award. Needless to say, on arrival at Kathmandu airport, we were told there would indeed be a two-hour delay and we would possibly not make our connecting flight in Qatar. Well, a shout-out here to British Airways who waited for us at the gate on arrival and sped us through… onto the flight back to London where we had to go straight home to change from hiking gear into our fancy stuff and rush up to London for the ceremony.
We didn’t win but I genuinely feel honoured and delighted to have received a nomination: that alone allows you to put the BAFTA mask on the poster which hopefully will drive some people to go see the film or buy it from our website. To be nominated in both Best Cinematography and also Best Single Documentary is superb and I think they are actually the two best awards to be nominated for because those are the two things that I think will actually encourage people to watch the film.
Soon thereafter Amanda and I were deep into preparing for the 3rd and final Hopper shoot in Boston, Cape Cod and New England. As with any film, so much of it is in the preparation, preparing and organising your interviews, arranging the interview locations, choosing the exact location shots you need, etc. I’ve done this hundreds of times and you must think it all through, in advance, minute by minute: where am I going to be, what am I trying to achieve, where am I going next? It’s complicated and why I’m very fortunate to be working on this occasion with an excellent co-production team out of Washington DC: Michael and Cynthia Cascio.
Between us I think we had the call sheet very well organised but, before catching the flight to Boston, there was a small matter of the second BAFTA. This was a much bigger affair being held at the Royal Festival Hall. I won’t tell you how much tickets cost to attend the BAFTAs. An insane amount. Nominees do not automatically get free tickets. I’ve been offered less by small TV stations to licence my films than these tickets cost, so enormous gratitude is due to ITV, our UK broadcaster, for inviting me on their behalf – and not only me but all four named nominees for the Best Single Documentary award namely myself, Amanda (co-producer), Shoaib Sharifi (co-director), & Clive Mattock (editor).
There are three previous films of mine that were voted for by BAFTA members as one of the top four films of that year, namely Muhammad Ali – In the Eyes of The World,The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas ofBamiyan and In Search of Beethoven. The four films voted for by the members are then put to a jury, but at that point the broadcasters (BBC, ITV, channel 4, 5 and Sky) can resubmit a film that they feel has been overlooked. Thus, the jury gets to watch around nine films to then choose four as official nominations and of course one of those is chosen as the winner. On those three previous occasions we did not even get a nomination – partly I feel as jury members (from the main broadcasters) really were not comfortable with single filmmakers out there with the new small, cheaper cameras. But almost no-one thinks like that anymore so My Childhood, My Country had a better chance this time – but still no guarantee. So, we were absolutely thrilled to have been nominated.
As an aside, I must be honest and say I think that it should just be based on the members’ votes alone but, anyway, it was super that this year that we received those two nominations for Cinematography and Best Single Documentary.
It is very unlikely that an EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film would be nominated as the BAFTAs, as far as documentaries go, really focus on social docs or natural history. So, with the thought that this may never happen again, we therefore decided to take the entire office. BAFTA kindly agreed to supply more affordable tickets if my colleagues didn’t attend the gala dinner (they were eventually much happier at a nearby Italian), but the ceremony and the after-dinner party were OK.
So, on a beautiful sunny Sunday, all 17 of us (my two children came too as they had grown up with this production) found ourselves standing on the red carpet, in front of the BAFTA backdrop, having our official portrait photograph taken. Everyone looking gorgeous. The ceremony itself is 4 hours long (2 hours too long frankly) and begins around 3:30pm. At 6pm the BBC start showing the ceremony on TV having made cuts along the way. Our award came up about 4th and I was 100% sure it was going to another film (a very good film on Grenfell which is both very moving and very well made). So, when the presenter opened the envelope, I was genuinely expecting her words to be ‘And the award goes to Grenfell…’. So, imagine the shock and horror and happiness all the same time when the words that came out were: ‘And the award goes to ‘My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan’. All the nominees have cameras pointing at us and so ours caught Shoaib jumping up in delight and Amanda, Clive and I looking stunned. My first memory thereafter is the noise my team were making from their seats! We made our way to the stage and en route I prepared myself to make a short speech. Only two days before the Taliban had seemingly announced that all Afghan women now had to wear a burka outdoors; they could barely leave their houses without being completely covered – a completely illogical, retrograde and disgusting decision. I then found myself standing in front of hundreds of the leading lights of television actors, actresses, commissioning editors, producers, etc. And half of whom were women. I was able to make a short speech to point out that most of my company are women, that the four commissioning editors that helped my project from the start were women, but in Afghanistan today women simply can’t leave the house and they certainly can’t work in television, so I requested that commissioning editors & film makers in the audience please don’t forget Afghanistan. I can’t tell you the numerous times over the past 20 years that broadcasters nationally and internationally have said to me that they were not interested in the film because they believed their audience was tired of Afghanistan. I don’t understand how with 160,000 Afghans having died, 3600 international military service people having died and $2.3 trillion spent, how can you not be interested? My film is also a universal story about youth.
Amanda Wilkie, Clive Mattock, Shoaib Sharifi, Phil Grabsky, winners of the Single Documentary Award for My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan
After the speech, we then went backstage where, after being photographed by about 40 press photographers, we were delighted to discover that we didn’t just receive one BAFTA trophy but four, one each. I was so happy that all four of us could now try to find some space for what is a very heavy & impressive trophy. In our case, two of them. My only disappointment is with the BBC who decided that they would rather keep some of the frankly rather weak elements of the BAFTA show, rather than give any time to best single, best news, best documentary series, best live event. All of these went to the end of the TV programme in a rapid sum up under ‘other awards’. So, my speech never made it. It’s appalling really – this default to celebrity vacuity in place of a little bit of respect for docs and news. They would argue that they are responding to the audience – I think that’s rubbish and, anyway, you can work to create an audience. The BBC putting it at the end is creating the sense that docs & real life are simply not as important. So that is my one gripe of the day.
Anyway, the speech did make it to You Tube and Twitter where it has been seen by many thousands of viewers, but how much more powerful it would have been on the BBC.
Anyways, after the ceremony was over… we had the gala dinner and, much more importantly, the after-dinner disco which went on for 4 hours – and we danced every minute of it! I didn’t dare put my trophy down, so I had a sore arm for days…. I had an absolute ball, and we were literally the last people to leave at 2.30am. We got to bed at 3.30am only to be up again at 5:30am to make our way to Heathrow airport to fly to Boston for the afore-mentioned Hopper shoot.
I didn’t manage to sleep on the plane – I was still too excited at the BAFTA and nervous about the week’s shoot ahead. We had to go now as any later and New England becomes too busy. It was great that Amanda could come too (as she always used to, before kids) and, in short, we had a very successful and enjoyable week of travelling and filming. All the interviewees were tremendous (and tremendously helpful) and all the locations stimulating to film. I can certainly see the appeal this area had to Edward Hopper. It was very hard work trying to keep on top of every moment, making sure to not miss anything but in short it all went to plan.
Now we are editing what I believe will be a very strong film about a genuine American master. There are many pros and cons to running your own company – self-funding your own films, producing your own films, distributing your own films. It is hard, and finance is always a challenge, but what a benefit it is to choose which projects to work on, which festivals to attend, and all with wonderful, smart, loyal colleagues with whom, from time to time, you win a big award and have a fine ol’ party. Our films entertain and they educate to an extremely appreciative audience. Over these past few weeks, we’ve also finished two new Exhibition on Screen films – one with the exemplary Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (about Camille Pissarro) and the second, a fabulous biography of Mary Cassatt, perhaps a somewhat overlooked member of the impressionist group but one with her own voice which was significant and very impactful.
What a few weeks we have had. Even covid has been put to the back of our minds a little (though I still wear my mask on trains and planes) and for now it is all things Hopper – and, come September, our limited cinema release of MY CHILDHOOD, MY COUNTRY – with a special update and Q&A. It never stops but that’s fine by me!