Helen Charman examines the cultural background to Edward Hopper's bleak, cinematic vision of urban America
Edward Hopper 1882-1967
Considered one of America's greatest modern painters, Hopper was an illustrator by profession. From 1925 onwards he developed his own style of painting. He was married to the painter Jo Nivison and lived on Washington Square.
It is night: three "nighthawks" sit at the counter. Two of them may be a couple, but we can't be sure. Their fingers do not touch and they do not turn towards one another. All three customers seem lost in thought.
Clues as to who they are might be read through their garb which identifies them as types: for the men, their slouch hats, square forms, and tenacious poses, have something of the gangster about them, while the woman, intent on the next drag of her cigarette, with her fitted, loud dress and sleekly styled hair, reminds us of a gangster's moll.
We see a typical American diner of the 1940s, which in mood, characterisation and formal qualities demonstrates an extraordinary affinity with two film genres: gangster films (popular in the 1930s) and film noir (popular in the 1940s).
"Nighthawks" is based on an actual diner in Greenwich Avenue in New York, which artist Edward Hopper simplified by removing any local details. Hopper was an enthusiastic cinema-goer, sensitive to cultural phenomena of his time.
Gangster films arose out of the Depression and anticipated the stylistic development of film noir in the early 1940s. They concentrated on urban America, with the typical American city viewed as a stark, rebarbative, oppressive place (for example, as in Scarface, 1932).
After the Great Depression and the Second World War, noir films of the 1940s delineated the dark side of American life. Such an atmosphere of alienation and unease pervasive in film noir finds its counterpart in "Nighthawks". Noir characters are emotionally and physically alienated from and trapped within a non-responsive urban setting. In "Nighthawks", the characters are trapped within the horizontals of the diner, and on a larger scale boxed within the confines of a strictly urban environment.
The sense of unease we may experience looking at this painting also stems from the way our visual expectations are distorted, specifically by the streamlined window. If Hopper treats his canvas like a film set, we are the audience. We look through the window and inside, to the action. But our perception is confused because the window is abnormal: there is no night reflection. The painting is a scene without scenario; it introduces a narrative full of suggestion but lacking explanation. It is as if Hopper is presenting us with a single cinematic frame, from which a vital clue is missing.
Hopper himself wrote that, "Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in this personal vision of the world..." Yet his paintings are embedded in the iconography of American life, from the 1920s into the latter half of the century. In his quest to represent the events and scenes of everyday life, he appropriated restaurants, gas stations, movie theatres, hotels and train stations. He also painted the landscape of New England, sun-filled and restful, where he spent every summer holidaying with his wife Jo Nivison.
Hopper's art acknowledges the constant presentation and appeal to spectatorship in theatres, in the theatre of the street, and throughout the modern city. But his chosen movements and moods generally run counter to the excited celebration of urban culture and popular entertainment in the work of many of his contemporaries. His paintings offer a modernity often experienced but rarely represented: contemplation, solitude and introspection. Other major themes of Hopper's work are the use of American vernacular architecture, often cropped in a way to increase psychological tension and heighten a feeling of isolation, and the use of penetrating shafts of light - sunlight, moonlight, electric light - to expose isolated figures in sparsely furnished rooms, absorbed in themselves and detached from the world around them.
In their timelessness, his works seem to transcend the hour and place to become meditations on the human condition. It is this quality which has inspired generations of artists, writers and filmmakers including David Hockney, Mark Rothko, Alfred Hitchcock, Todd Haynes and Norman Mailer.
Hopper's work has inspired writers worldwide, from modern love stories to nail-biting thrillers. His works provide fertile ground for whole-class discussion. They invite speculation and supposition with their heightened sense of dramatic tension.
As critic Alfred Kazin said: "Hopper's pictures have often been compared to stages: something is about to happen."
Helen Charman is education officer at Tate Modern
* Edward Hopper at Tate Modern
Exhibition until September 5
Entry pound;9 (pound;4.50 per head for School Groups)
Booking essential with school groups
Tel: 020 7887 3959
For details of film programme selected by director Todd Haynes and poster pack featuring four Hopper works with suggested classroom activities available at a special exhibition price of pound;4.99, see www.tate.org.uk