Edward Hopper at Le Grand Palais


The queue we didn’t have to join

It’s almost like a dance, a silent ballet of people first waiting in line and then promenading around the exhibition, and in truth, sometimes, in exhibitions, I find the people watching as fascinating as the art itself.

This was definitely true of my visit to the ‘blockbuster’ Edward Hopper exhibition currently on at Le Grand Palais in Paris. The space is huge, so that even though there are many hundreds of people passing through the rooms, there is still space to stand to one side and watch. It’s like one of those experiments where coloured balls have to circulate in a box without touching each other. People walk without looking where they’re going, their eyes on the paintings on the walls, or half closed listening to the soundtrack playing through their audio guide clamped to their ears with one hand, and they still manage to skirt around each other.

It was a surprise that the Hopper exhibition would be so popular in Paris  It can’t be solely tourists who have bought up all the tickets; it seems that in February or March they may open the show 24 hours a day to accommodate all the visitors who want to come. The accompanying texts may account for some of the popularity; there is heavy emphasis on the influence of French artists on Hopper, (when I told my friend G that I’d not heard of one of them, she pointed at one particularly uninspiring example and said she wasn’t at all surprised) as well as the significance of a brief sojourn by the artist in Paris around the turn of the 20th century.

Before we arrived at the well known images of The Nighthawks, and The Hotel Lobby we were waltzed through early Hopper etchings and then to the watercolours which made his early reputation.  Once again I found myself in a major exhibition of a well regarded artists wondering what was so special about certain of the works; asking, if I saw one of the watercolours of a seaside clap-board house how I would be able to tell it apart from that produced by any Sunday painter.  But I take it on trust, that if I carry on through the chronology of the show the genius will burst through and I will understand.

So many of Hopper’s paintings are images engrained in popular culture, we’ve all seen postcards and reproductions in books and magazines.  They’ve been widely copied and parodied and inspired graphic representations,  so what more is there to learn by seeing the originals?   It was a bit disappointing to feel that there wasn’t anything extra to see on the surface of the canvas.  They have a strongly illustrative quality, something about the pictures in the old Ladybird Books from my childhood about them; a bit Norman Rockwell, a little bit Jack Vettriano.  Having said that, Hopper’s faces, and the way he paints women’s footwear are particularly disappointing – both the women in The Hotel Lobby have awkward looking shoes and feet, something you’d never find in Vettriano with his shoe fetish.

It’s the Hopper compositions which stick in the mind, those enigmatic people in nearly familiar but cold looking places; but don’t worry if you’ve only ever seen the postcards.

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