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."
Nemerov says he tries to spark "epiphanies" in his contemporaries as they look at art, but wants to do that by setting the work as firmly as he can in its own moment. "The clarity of what one now sees is a clarity of seeing something that is gone, or of a meaning that once was."
Yet the best pictures, Nemerov insists, aren't just illustrations of their moment. They also have an artistic autonomy that makes them interested in all sorts of things that were not topical. "To see the world as other than what it is is a way to see it more clearly," he says. The trick to understanding Hopper's art can be to reveal the very things -- the turmoil of wartime politics, for instance, or the din of radio -- it has so carefully chosen to distance itself from. Its autonomy, says Nemerov, "is always bound up with, or commenting on, the world it so beautifully excludes."
That's the trick that makes Nemerov such an exciting thinker about art: His historical readings of a picture push against the grain of its most visible meanings, rather than simply confirming or explaining them. He wants a picture's history to open it up to readings that are more radical and resonant for viewers of today. Whereas most rigorous art history implies you'd need to be a person living in the 1530s, or the 1930s, to understand or care about an artwork from those years.
"For me, the history is what makes it come alive in the present."
The Context of the Painting: Ancestors
Art historian Alexander Nemerov begins by pointing out precedents for "Ground Swell" in certain sailing pictures by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Yet, where those nautical scenes seem to show a joyful ride, Hopper's is strangely ominous. The only sound is the warning of the bell buoy, which transfixes his sailors. The buoy is also the only dark note in the picture.
A ground swell is often caused by a far-off storm felt even under clear skies -- causing a buoy to ring even when there's no danger. The idea of threat in an idyllic setting has crucial precedents. In a work painted around 1639 by French classicist Nicolas Poussin, shepherds come across a tomb whose inscription -- "I too once lived in Arcadia" -- brings death into their idyll. Hopper's woman and his three half-naked men echo Poussin's rapt figures.
Other Hoppers also mix pleasure and portent. In "Bridle Path," his next-to-last painting before the ocean scene, gilded youths, not unlike his sailors, gallop toward a dark, ominous tunnel.
A Poet Speaks
In late summer 1939, threat was in the air, and artists responded to it. Nemerov cites W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," set on the day Hitler invaded Poland.
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of
. . . The unmentionable
odour of death
Offends the September
Hearing the Warning
The ocean in "Ground Swell" thus parallels those "waves of anger and fear," while its buoy sounds the alarm. The idea of attentive listening in an atmosphere of menace was already present in Hopper's "Cape Cod Evening," painted right before his seascape. It's another scene of static omen, contrasting the light around its figures with the dark of its woods. Only the dog is active, as his ears prick at a sound.
In 1939, the iconic form of listening was radio listening. Radio was a notably new, expanding technology. It was the Internet of 1939. And it was radio that helped launch the "ground swells" of opinion that shaped the era's populist politics.
Waves on water are bound to recall radio waves in the ether. Auden's poem seems to make that link. Radio technology was often explained with ocean metaphors, and had links to Cape Cod, where Hopper painted "Ground Swell." In 1903, inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic message from a point only four miles from Hopper's summer house.
Nemerov asks if the buoy, "with its interior sounding mechanism and its pattern of struts," might even echo the look of a classic 1930s radio.
One of the functions of radio was to bring distant events, and threats, into the American home: news of the invasion of Poland, the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor. Nemerov cites lines from "The Day Is a Poem (September 19, 1939)," conceived by Robinson Jeffers as he watched the moon dip into the Pacific Ocean, only four days after Hopper had finished his Atlantic scene: "This morning Hitler spoke in Danzig,/. . . Heard clearly through the dog wrath, a sick child/Wailing in Danzig; invoking destruction and wailing at it."
Hopper's art doesn't simply transmit the racket of the age of radio. It takes America's noisy pop culture and gives it high art's silent treatment. Where Hopper's predecessors painted cafe scenes full of crowds and din, he depicted clients in America's new automats and cafeterias as still and alone. For Nemerov, Hopper's similarly quiet, private vision as an artist aims to cancel out, or at least transform, the "mass-mediated dreams" it's up against in American society. He wonders whether "Ground Swell" might be about "the magic of transmissible sound itself, rather than its content of jingles and jingoism." It condenses the cacophony around it into the clarity of a single, pristine sound: "That's what painting can admit into itself without compromising its own intrinsic, and therefore important, silence."