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Alone, But Not Lonely: The Tate’s Hopper And The Jewish Museum’s Modigliani

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Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” explores tragically unrequited anticipation. This play contributed a new aesthetic perspective to the art community by demonstrating that art can successfully navigate gaps and spaces surrounding characters, rather than having to address “positive space.” Where classical tradition held waiting as a means to an end, to Beckett waiting merited an artistically noteworthy platform in its own right, even when stripped of the expected aspiration. And yet, Beckett certainly does not sit alone in the tradition of artists who explore loneliness. Two influential painters – Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) – explored themes of paralysis and isolation.

Modigliani was a Jew; Hopper was not. This sentence holds true on both the literary and the aesthetic levels. Clearly Modigliani paints Jews at times and Hopper does not, but the difference between the painters proves far deeper than simply subject matter. Hopper’s feelings of paralysis are perceived as particularly devastating, whereas Modigliani – even when he casts his characters on the empty stage – manages to maintain a messianic promise of redemption and of forthcoming alleviation of exile.

Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942), perhaps his most renowned work, shows a corner diner at night with three customers basked in ocher light as an attendant waits upon them. At first glance, the scene conveys a social context: four individuals collectively passing away the night over drinks. Many subtleties complicate this model, though. First, in Hopper’s paintings, characters seldom look at each other, let alone dare to communicate.

“Nighthawks” yields no exception. Though the female character appears in the company of a man, they hardly seem aware of each other; though the waiter seems to serve the customers, in fact his body turns away from them; and the final character sits with his back to the viewer, rudely indifferent to his surroundings. Hopper’s scene depicts four individuals hopelessly lost in private worlds, unable or unwilling to interact with their surroundings.

If the figures stand alone, the backdrop feels far too rickety and sharp. The triangular, black shadow underlining the diner floor is simply not a believable form. The perspective is entirely wrong, a move which flattens the space immensely. Indeed, the inner wall follows suit, with an ocher door awkwardly thrown atop the cadmium yellow wall with angles that fail to parallel the rooflines. The perspective of the corner panel does not fit with either of the other two perspectives, and the entire diner suffers from poor drawing and unconvincing form.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between Hopper and Modigliani (Modi, as he is affectionately called). Modi is a true painter, while Hopper is an illustrator. By this, I mean that Hopper conceives of the picture space, literarily. Narrative, to Hopper, outweighs particular form. If two of the figures in Nighthawks were inverted, the painting would not change much. The form is elastic, and only serves to tell a story.

Modi, conversely, buttresses his paintings with an internal logic that functions much like a human skeletal structure. All of Modi’s portraits feature spinal structure. “The Servant Girl” (1918) shows a girl dressed entirely in black, standing in the corner of a room. Her neck is long – a la the Mannerist Madonnas – but unlike the Mannerists, Modi invokes every decision for specific, formal reasons. The eyes – always a fascinating component of Modi’s paintings, for if they appear at all, they rarely appear naturalistic – are blue-gray because they must be, to complement the background and to set off the sienna floor tiles.

The hands grasp each other in just the right way to create a circular motion, which neutralizes the extreme verticality of the canvas and of the figure, with help from a diagonal beneath the left arm and another diagonal at the right thigh. The head rests at an angle, measured carefully to correspond to the angle of the feet.

“Jeanne Hebuterne” (1919) further illustrates the point. The model’s left arm forms a sharp triangle, but it also forms a circular motion with the right arm and the couch arm. The ocher skin mimics the ocher fabric, and the sienna hair refers to the shadow beneath the chair and the dark umber in the bottom shadow. The angled head lies perpendicular to the body, which allows the arm to float somewhat, while keeping it well grounded. Every shadow in the shirt contributes to the overall composition. Like Chagall, Modi manages to allow his forms to dance about but to remain credible forms with weight.

Modigliani’s concern is painting, not illustration. If we tilt Hebuterne’s nose to the right, or her left index finger to the left, we tear the entire world asunder. The drawing is so tight that any change yields an entirely new world that would not hold up. This specificity and necessity of form eluded Hopper, who settled for the story and never thought to dig deeper to unearth the meta-story.

With a malleable skeleton, Hopper decorated his compositional flaws with technique and narrative. For this reason, Hopper’s figures have no hope. Double-jointed and rubbery, they sit in front of a dreary, isolated backdrop, without any underlying meaning. Devoid of internal structure, they lack tools to negotiate the loneliness that confronts them. Perhaps it was the Jew in Modigliani who could not accept unending exile. To the Jew, exile only implies “hester panim” (G-d’s turning away His face), and eventually order will reemerge. Modi locates this tension in an outer painting that feels lonely, hopelessly wrestling with an internal soul that refuses to reject order.

The narrative voice in Mary Stevenson’s “Footprints in the Sand” observes sets of footprints in the sand that suggest G-d as a walking partner, but specifically at the most troubling and fearful moments in the life-as-walk on the beach, only one pair of footprints emerge. The narrator complains to G-d, charging Him with defecting precisely at the most necessary moments. G-d replies, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.” In Modi’s paintings, the viewer senses a Divine presence carrying the characters.

Hopper’s characters slouch and refuse companionship because they don’t know better and because they only see one pair of footprints, but Modigliani’s figures address the viewer suggesting that they may sit, temporarily stuck – temporarily oppressed and uncomfortable and lonely. But the strength of the backbone holding them up clearly points to better times and to hidden meaning beneath troubling surfaces. In this manner, Modigliani is truly a Jewish painter, and Hopper is decidedly not one at all.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

For more information on the Tate Modern see http://www.tate.org.uk/home/.


For more information on the Jewish Museum see http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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