Following a very successful series of films relating usually to specific art exhibitions, thirty-one to date, the latest offering, on the American Modernist artist, Edward Hopper (1882- 1967), takes a rather different approach. It has the format of a biopic and it examines, in particular, the under appreciated importance of Hopper’s wife and fellow artist, Josephine Nivison. She promoted his career, offered artistic help and critical support, as well as generally acting as his manager and muse. She was the more established artist of the two when they met; Hopper having spent ten years prior to meeting her unable to promote his work and gain recognition. In many ways it is a familiar story. There are other more well-known examples in art history of female artists sublimating their own undoubted talents and ambitions in the promotion of their spouse. One such example is the relationship between Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner and her work has been recently celebrated. This film feeds into the current debate about why there are fewer female artists celebrated throughout the history of art, including in recent times.
Like other films of this series, it relies on expert opinion from the art world, as well as the use of essays, diaries, archival footage and in this case, statements from the artist himself. The film is unhurried and this gentle pace allows reflection and detailed appraisal of a wide range of paintings and close ups. The film includes less known more surprising works, as well as the usual favourites, such as ‘Night Hawks’ and ‘Office at Night’. Work ranging over his entire career is covered and there is an interesting section on his formative years in Paris and the influence of French artists, especially Manet, on his choice of modern life, everyday subjects and his treatment of them. Other than this brief interlude in Paris, his career was totally based in the States and he favoured a reclusive life, almost exclusively relying on his wife to be his model. The film makes the point that this frustrated his wife both artistically and personally and caused considerable tension and resentment in their marriage.
Hopper, at that point in American Modernism, presents as a singular artist in pursuit of a new realism and not dabbling in any of the modern trends leading away from figurative art to greater abstraction. His particular appeal to a modern audience is usually attributed to the sense of alienation, anomie and isolation that is frequently observed in his work. Hopper, in an interview, distances himself from these interpretations, saying, for example, of a solitary woman impassively gazing out of a window, that he is merely depicting a woman looking out of window. He also attempts to defy any attempt to place his work in a genre category, for example portraiture or landscape. For many, and I include myself, Hopper’s particular appeal lies in an ambiguity in his paintings that lend themselves to a plurality of narratives. Some of the experts in the film gave interpretations and I found myself disagreeing with them.
I was eager to find out more about the work of Josephine Nivison and the film does show some of her early work and juxtaposes it with her husband’s work completed after meeting her and the influence is clear. She introduces him to watercolour techniques. The couple even sat side by side, painting the same subjects and when the completed works are juxtaposed on the screen give an intriguing insight into their differing techniques and approaches. Throughout his career she helps also suggesting sites and subjects for his paintings. I became very curious to learn more about the story of this clearly remarkable artist and woman and so was delighted that she put in a surprise and sparky appearance towards the end of the film and towards the end of their lives. Perhaps there will be a reassessment of her work?
I enjoyed this film and felt I gained a new perspective on Hopper’s work. The case was strongly made that Hopper’s wife had a crucial role in his artistic development and wider recognition as an important twentieth century artist. Although the film does not directly relate to an exhibition, it does coincide with an exhibition of Hopper’s work at the Whitney Gallery in New York and it makes me feel I would love to make the trip to see it. I wish…There are more films forthcoming, which do relate directly to current exhibitions, for example the recently opened Cezanne exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. I would highly recommend this series of Exhibitions on Screen to those who have yet to see them.
October 18th 2022