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Throughout the years I have been inspired by many artists whether it be Van Gogh, Dali or Andy Warhol but there is one who really stands out and truly inspires me every day I pick up a brush. His name is Edward Hopper; an American born in New York in 1882, died in 1967. I am fascinated with his painting style even though he worked in oils most of his life and it isn't a medium I work in often. One of the reasons I love his work so much is because of his subject matter. He paints America, the houses, cars, people, landscapes, cityscapes, coastlines, everything we expect America to be and look like. Except if you look a little closer beneath the brush strokes you see the flaws of American civilisation.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery. I went with my mother in law who is also an artist. She wasn't keen on his work as she thought it was depressing but I loved it and picked up the book I am going to review.
HOPPER, written by Rolf G Renner and published by Taschen is a great collection of pictures and historical art facts about this painter. 96 pages, packed with intricate detail about the man's life and work split into eight sections including Notes. Be warned it is full of art jargon and can get tiresome at times. Artists don't really pontificate and analyse every painting - it is only critics and writers of art who do this. Artists like to paint not talk about their work. In my opinion there is too much talking in the book and over emphasising.
Having said that the first chapter/section is very interesting. It isn't as wordy as the other chapters and tells me about his life in New York with his wife who was his manager and critic, also a painter. He lived a quiet sort of life and even though he had a lot of fame in the 1920s and onwards this never made him big headed. He always kept his discipline and surprisingly, his sanity. I think you can see these traits in his work. They definitely have a sense of order and desolation. The chapter is called European Beginnings and deals with his two trips to Paris where he was influenced by Impressionism and the pictures painted in this period of his life all dealt with subjects connected with the world of painting. For example: life of the artist and the studio. Photos of his paintings of this era are included amongst the text and interesting to see the transition from his French period to an early American one. I wasn't too keen on the early Impressionist paintings - they were too dull, very similar to early Van Gogh paintings - you know the ones in the fields where the workers are all wearing floppy boots. Hopper's painting style here like Van Gogh's was very crude.
The chapter titled Pictures of the New World is short and sweet and it is here we learn about the gradual transition from French to American art. At first you can still see the Impressionist trademarks but then because of the newly introduced American natural subject matter you are able to pick up on the distinctions of light and shadow, water and land. The pictures are more dynamic with lots of demonic shadows. The colour of the land in the foreground is red, burnt and distinctive. I was interested to see the use of images from modern technology come creeping in paintings within this section. Cars, rail tracks and signs. Everyday signs like Ford and a favourite one of his was Mobilgas. These are ordinary brand names - that stand out because of their motifs and bright colours. Rolf Renner continuously mentions the symbolism of these signs which I find a bit boring. They are symbolic because they are part of American culture and for Hopper to use them all the time it's my guess he liked them as I do. End of lecture.
My favourite paintings covered in this section are the Drugstore in 1927 and then the one of the Gas Station in 1940. Both these paintings are quite crudely executed, painted in oil on canvas but the primitiveness has a Hopper charm and one I have always admired.
Chapter three, The Frontier of Civilisation and chapter four, Man and Nature really come to life in pictures rather than text. This is where I tend to skip the very 'arty talk' which is very pretentious, way above my head and boring. However, I do love the collection of pictures in both these sections. The size of pictures vary from covering a quarter of a page to a half-page and some take up the whole page. In both chapters the colours are more dramatic. One painting that the writer mentions a lot is called, Railroad Sunset, painted in 1929. The way he has used oils to emphasise the naturalness of light is outstanding. You are able to see the rail track shining in the light of the setting sun but at the same time you can see how the dusk has produced a curvy green line along the tops of the hills. This modern style of applying colour to a natural scene is noticeable in his city scenes too - it's one I approve of and I try to recreate this in my own work.
The chapter Man and Nature like the following chapter, Self and Other show the transition to a more modernist style. We see people in these paintings rather than landscapes. The 40s fashion where men and women always wore hats is very recognisable. The colours of the coastline are natural and the paintings depict loneliness; one man/woman alone on a porch, on a seat of a train, in an office. Like in the painting, Western Motel, the colours are blocks of paint rather than strokes and the contour lines between the outside of a room and the inside are bold and strong.The sole characters of his paintings are well drawn and his sense of perspective is awesome. Both of these chapters are beautifully illustrated with lots of full page photos of his more famous paintings. My favourite being, Nighthawks painted in 1942.
The final chapter shows the transformation of Hopper into a fully fledged modernist. It is even called, The Transformation of the Real Hopper as a Modernist. It's an interesting section and I really noticed how his paintings in the 50s became more angular with very few colours, more like photographs.
Finally a black and white chronology from 1882-1967 and a back page of Notes.
I paid £4.99 for this book about 9 years ago. It's a well presented book and attractive. The front cover shows a glossy picture of Nighthawks and the back cover a self portrait. The quality of paper is good, slightly shiny and very strong. Text size is small so this doesn't suit me and there is too much information. A lot of it is repeated in all the chapters in the way the writer scrutinises every brush stroke and colour Hopper used. The writing style is very, very pretentious but then art critics are. I skip a lot of the text and just look for the bits about his personal life and his influences. The replication of his paintings is very good and I can't fault this. The colours are as I can remember the paintings and not at all muddy or hazy. It's good that there is a small description of each painting telling the reader the title, year and which gallery the painting is exhibited.
This series of basic art books by Taschen are very good value and I own quite a few of other artists and have always found the books useful and a joy to look through. They are not all as jargonistic as this one. I think the book is worth 4 stars - 1 taken off for the writers style. Recommended.
Price: £5.55 from Amazon.co.uk