Edward Hopper and the Dissolution of Pulp
Edward Hopper painted American melancholia, scoping the silent exhaustion and unuttered shame of men and women so isolated and suicidal that one can only wonder at the desperation shadowing them. These mute Hitchcockian scenes (his 1925 painting House by the Railroad is worthy of Norman Bates – incidentally Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, got his early breaks in the pulps) allude to the quotidian horrors of modernity: alienation, the innate disappointments of capitalism, and the loneliness of the city and the plain. The allusive noir of his automats, movie theaters, hotel rooms, offices and facades remind us that these are people at the end of their rope. They are all going insane in filmic stills now riffed on by contemporary artists, writers and film makers. The primary colors that Hopper employed give his paintings the allure of advertisements. Yet, and with his most famous work in particular, they also recall something else: pulp art, the art of the pulp fiction magazines including The Black Mask, Dime Detective, Spicy Detective Stories and dozens of others. Exemplified by artists Norman Saunders, H.J. Ward, and Rudolph Belarski, the pulp magazines nurtured a lurid commercial art. Edward Hopper provided interior line-art for the legendary pulp Adventure in 1919. This much-maligned and apparently disposable art is the hard-boiled modernist analog of heroic paintings, notably works like Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784). I may be alone in making that assertion, but it is true. The pulp era was at its strongest during the 1920s and 1930s, ascendent during the Depression and dying out by the time the United States entered World War II. The ‘classic’ pulp magazine composition foregrounded jeopardy, often with three characters: the hardboiled detective, his blonde/redhead girl in a red dress, and a sinister antagonist (although sadism often reduced the drama to merely the antagonist and the imminent torture and death of the girl). These reds, greens, blues, yellows and greens and black are part of the commerciality of not only the pulps, but of Edward Hopper.
Hopper’s 1942 painting, his most famous work Nighthawks emerges at the fag end of the pulp era with which his ‘fine art’ career coincides, and which had given us perhaps America’s most significant prose stylist Dashiell Hammett. Hammett’s partisans point out that in terms of terse hard-boiled style, although he was not the very first, he certainly got the jump on Ernest Hemingway who is commonly credited as its dean and disseminator. Art historians and Hemingway aficionados frequently cite Hemingway’s The Killers (1927) as the source of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Yet, Hemingway was imitating Hammett, who takes us back to the pulp magazines, their seductive primary palette the trashy heroic counterpoint to Hopper’s decorative despair. For me, Nighthawks is a melancholic allegory for the Dissolution of Pulp: it’s over. These hardboiled men and the lady in the red dress contemplate the ruins of a style; three characters in search of a magazine cover. Hopper’s use of these pulp archetypes, however much parodied, integrated these lurid and dangerous figures within the precincts of fine art. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon had hit the movie theaters the year before, John Huston directing Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. Of course, Bogart like Monroe and Dean have been superimposed over subsequent (pulpy) renditions of Nighthawks. Today, constituting vital Americana and quite spectacular painting, that which survives from the era of pulp magazine painting is being taken seriously, curated and protected. The best, even the worst writing of the era is essential to any understanding of the development of all the major genres in popular culture. Almost certainly, Hopper did not intend or was unaware of the possibility of the allegory I have described, at least in the way I have described it. What is essential, however, should be our awareness that there is an understated relation between the bright inaction of Hopper’s fine art cast and the violent action of an often discredited but equally important anti-canon. Mostly, Hopper painted the quiet desperation of figures who may have been the readers of the pulp magazines, the passivity of the audience for action, but in 1942, he returned directly to the source.
James Reich – Author of ‘I, Judas’ (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011) and ‘Bombshell’ (Soft Skull Press, April 2013). Work has also appeared at/in The Rumpus, Bold Type Magazine, Headzine, The End of Being.com, and others. Also: Musician w/ post-punk band Venus Bogardus; sometime bookstore owner in Bath, England; currently adjunct faculty at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. www.jamesreichbooks.com