Director: Phil Grabsky
Edward Hopper is one of the great artists of the early-to-mid twentieth century, a master of storytelling and atmosphere who captured the complex essence of human life with a grand but intimate cinematic style that both reflected and shaped the development of both media. Far less is known about the influence of his wife Josephine Nivison on Hopper’s work, the artist who sacrificed her own career to support her husband. Exhibition on Screen’s latest documentary Hopper: An American Love Story which coincides with a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, until March 2023, seeks to restore Nivison to her place in art history while looking at Hopper’s influence on his contemporary world.
Combining perspectives from a variety of US academics, curators and art history experts, Phil Grabsky’s documentary is a fascinating re-examination of a valued artist whose work so vividly captured the American condition over several decades. From his formative years as a student in Paris in the early 1900s, Hopper, this film argues, eschewed the vibrant Montmartre set for a more sober life where he was advised to go out and paint the streets. As the progression of his work featured here demonstrates, it was advice he never forgot and soon mastered.
The documentary’s biggest contribution is the side-by-side examination of work by Hopper and Nivison who he met after a disastrous love affair with another woman. On screen we see examples of scenes and finished work completed by the couple who clearly sat next to one another to paint, and the examples of Nivison’s more fluid, buoyant work contrasts the pinpoint accuracy and realism of Hopper’s. And the talking heads go on to say that it was her bolder palette that would eventually come to shape her husband’s more famous work, about which she kept meticulous diary records.
It is the art that Hopper: An American Love Story uses to illustrate, giving the audience what they want to see, along with expert analysis, while introducing the viewer to pieces they may not know, particularly the drawings and watercolours from his early career, all the while charting both the professional development of Hopper’s art and his thematic interest in everyday places, especially the vast number of houses that the artist painted with their fascinating architectural shapes and tonal imposition.
It is the ambiguity in his art that continues to captivate us, several contributors argue, noting the narrative inherent in his pictures of people caught in intimate moments that so many interpret as loneliness or despair, but could equally suggest a happy time of quiet reflection. What Hopper gives you is questions in every painting, an enigma each viewer tries to solve which Grabsky links to the artist’s own morose personality, splicing in a brilliant chat show interview in which Nivison complains about men while her quiet husband sits right next to her.
Ultimately though, it is all about the art and since it has been close to 20 years since the Tate Modern hosted its spectacular retrospective, it has certainly been too long since UK audiences have been able to view these works up close. Without a trip to the Whitney in New York, this may be the next best thing.
Hopper: An American Love Story is out in cinemas nationwide on 18 October 2022.