Wide Angle | Dissecting 'Ground Swell'

Edward Hopper and the Rising Tide of War

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Edward Hopper painted "Ground Swell" in late August and early September 1939. It shows friends out sailing on a sunny day, watching a bell buoy bobbing in the waves.

Look longer (the picture belongs to the Corcoran Gallery of Art but is now in the National Gallery's big Hopper retrospective) and you notice standard Hopper themes -- mystery, loneliness, alienation.

Sure, says Alexander Nemerov, a 44-year-old maverick from Yale, that textbook view is "correct in a general way, I suppose." But when he looks at the painting he also sees Hitler's invasion of Poland, a vintage Atwater Kent radio and a wartime poem by W.H. Auden.

Such unlikely pairings -- a German dictator's attacks used to elucidate the peaceable pictures of an apolitical American, and pop technology enlisted to explain high art -- have pushed this art historian to the top of his field.

For a decade already, Nemerov has managed a unique marriage of the excitement of devil-may-care criticism ("try this bizarre reading on for size") with the rigor of historical research ("here is the archival evidence to back it up").

His essay for the Hirshhorn Museum's current Morris Louis show recasts that painter's lofty abstraction as court art for the Kennedy administration -- by revealing, for instance, that on Oct. 21, 1961, eager Democrat and author James Michener became a rare Louis purchaser. Nemerov's latest book takes the closest of looks at the 1940s horror flicks of Val Lewton, then bills them as "icons of grief" for a nation at war.

Nemerov hopes his counterintuitive ideas "will go off as a trigger, as an illumination," making viewers see the work "as though they've never seen it before."

A few weeks ago, in a talk he gave at the National Gallery, Nemerov gave Hopper's "Ground Swell" the full treatment for an hour. Sparks flew and light was shed, and it's hard to imagine that anyone left the room without some new vision of Hopper. (We've distilled out some of the most startling claims for readers of this section.)

Nemerov has an elegant, almost patrician bearing. (He was born a cultural aristocrat: His father was U.S. poet laureate; his aunt, Diane Arbus, took some of the country's most iconic photographs.) His mild-mannered eloquence can make even his most unlikely readings feel as reasonable as the weather report.

In Nemerov's take on "Ground Swell," for instance, Hopper's unruffled scene becomes an image of the gathering storm of World War II. The painting didn't just happen to be made in the weeks of Hitler's first onslaught. Many details in it point to this difficult moment, and any good reading needs to take account of its full cultural context: of the spread of radio in the 1930s, of the poetry being written around the time of "Ground Swell," of all the other pictures Hopper was painting or looking at.

Hopper himself might not have paid attention to all this. He almost certainly would not have used it to explain his painting. But Nemerov isn't interested in what Hopper might have thought; he wants to understand what "Ground Swell" itself had, and has, to say.

The challenge, Nemerov says, "is to see something new in this work, to say something new, too, and to do so in a way that brings us closer, better, back into the world of Hopper in 1939. Back to a thicker, denser, and more surprising story of what it meant for the artist to make a painting that year."

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