H O P P E R / Modern Life’s Solitude

Absence of noise, isolation, solitude: no other American artist has more masterfully dissected the monotony and the alienating nature of modern life than Edward Hopper.

Although the critically acclaimed painter was modest and did not speak much about his work, it does not just reveal a master of great talent, but it also suggests a conscious and rather articulated social critique continually imposed by Hopper throughout his five-decades-long career.

His work demonstrates that realism is not merely a literal or photographic copying of what we see, but an interpretive rendering. When interviewed for the Reality Magazine in 1953, Hopper stated that “great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.“

Born in 1882, in New York, the renowned artist came to prominence in the 1920s as a student of Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School. Throughout the years to follow, he witnessed an increasing shift of the American society, from the Great Depression to the post-war affluence of the 1950s. By focusing on the everyday themes mostly found in the urban environment, Hopper focused on various psychological effects caused by the modernization process.

By portraying figures in a slightly blurred manner, juxtaposing them against stark geometric forms, and illuminating them in a specific way, the artist achieved emblematic, mysterious and rather cinematic atmosphere, so it is no wonder that majority of his paintings are perceived as Noir film snapshots in color. The predominant feelings of isolation and loneliness have opened a wide debate on Hopper’s enigmatic vision, whose authentic imagery undoubtedly changed the course of American painting and set the foundation for the upcoming generation of Pop art and New Realist painters of the 1960s and 1970s.

Nighthawks

This intimate and insightful approach is the most evident in his acclaimed Nighthawks painting, an iconic work which has helped define the Modernist movement.

Created in 1942, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is considered the incarnation of existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness symptomatic of modern urban life. While Hopper did not intend to evoke a particular emotional state with his Nighthawks painting, the artist admitted that “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city”. A part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago since only a few months after its completion, Nighthawks remains the most requested and sought after painting in their collection and one of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th-century American art.

The Origins

A stubborn realist throughout the development of a range of abstract movements, Edward Hopper‘s paintings are clean, smooth and almost too real. Consistently restrained and subtly suggestive, his paintings invite the viewer to contemplate the narrative. Depicting individuals who were usually isolated and disconnected from their environments, Hopper focused on the solitude of modern life. Suggesting much about his emotional experience as well as the psychological inner lives of his subjects, Edward Hopper led the way toward Abstract Expressionism.

According to the journal kept by Hopper’s wife Josephine, the Nighthawks painting was completed on January 21st, 1942 in New York, within weeks following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. For that reason, the work is often seen as an expression of wartime alienation. In this turbulent times in history when everyone was paranoid about another attack and New York held blackout drills on an ongoing basis as a way to practice hiding the city in darkness in case another aerial assault ever came, Hopper’s studio lights stayed on.

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting depicts four characters sitting in a sparsely furnished diner at night – a woman and three men. A single light source illuminates the diner interior and spills outward toward the exterior of an empty street where the world seems to have shut down. Placed in ambiguous relationships, none of the four figures in this picture interact with one another. With characters appearing disconnected from each other and the viewer, the Nighthawks painting suggests a chilling revelation that each of us is completely alone in the world.

With its simple setting, dramatic lighting and ordinary stillness, the painting makes it easy for the viewer to place him or herself into the scene, on the city streets. The main character of the work seems to be the diner itself, with strong diagonal lines accentuated by the counter and the stools. However, with no doors to enter, the viewer is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass, allowing the viewer to invade the diner’s private world and his Nighthawks from the street by way of sight only.

As in a classic film noir manner, in Nighthawks Edward Hopper sets the scene for action that doesn’t seem to have taken place yet. Characterized by an open-ended narrative, this painting embodies the artist’s interest in the themes of alienation, melancholyvoyeurism and ambiguous relationships.

Compositions and Light

In the paintings by Edward Hopper, buildings are often situated at angles to suggest that his subjects are both in front and behind windows. Presenting a separation between the inside and the outside, glasses in the windows seem to be non-existent, inviting the voyeuristic look and suggesting that interiors can be penetrated by gaze. This device is also evident in the Nighthawks painting, where the large window creates an implicit barrier between the viewer and subjects. The angle at which the diner is set onto the corner allows Hopper to show the people in a mix of frontal and profile views.

Hopper was obsessed with light and the way it fell on houses and people through windows and the colors it made. Yellowish fluorescent light is a substitute for sun in the Nighthawks, emphasizing the artist’s understanding of the expressive possibilities of light playing on simplified shapes. The light flooding the diner, the only one illuminating the painting, spills into the night through both windows onto both sides of the street corners. The light causes some of the surfaces within the diner to be reflective, which would not be visible in daylight.

The sign above the cafe advertising cigars for $5 and the cash register seen in one of the windows outside suggest a kind of everyday American experience. The Nighthawks scene is silent and serene, further highlighting the intense feeling of isolation.

“fine as Homer”

A few short months after Hopper put on the final touches, Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, declared that the work was as “fine as Homer”, referencing the 19th-century American landscape painter. He purchased the Nighthawks painting for the Art Institute for $3000 (around $43,200 today), where it remains still.

Hopper said that the painting “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” additionally noting that he “simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger.” The public has been trying to locate this particular diner in New York for decades, but after an extensive search, it is concluded that it was never a real place. Many people view it as an apt amalgamation of the ordinary and often overlooked sites that make up a modern city such as New York and so many others.

With its carefully constructed composition, lack of narrative and flat, abstracting planes of color, the canvas has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular local, making it an object onto which one can project one’s own reality. Indeed, Hopper’s Nighthawks could be seated anywhere. It is in this inherent universality, that the power of the painting resides.

An important piece of American Realism, the painting also has an ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for an America of a time gone by. However, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper remains relevant even today as a subtle critique of the modern world, the world in which we all live, where an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and a deep desire, but ultimate inability, to connect with those around us prevails.

However much Hopper anguished over the displacement of nature, he never abandoned the city because, in addition to the compassion he felt for those who lived there, he reliably found in the city one remaning natural element – sunlight. With it, nothing was irredeemable.

By Katarina Mirkovic.

B O T T I C E L L I / “Primavera”

One of the most powerful painters of the lyric current was the Florentine Sandro (Alessandro) di Mariano Filipepi (1445-1510), called Botticelli, a nickname meaning “little barrel” that was first applied to his brother. 

Botticelli may have been trained by a goldsmith, but he transferred to the shop of Filippo Lippi, presumably when the latter was still at work on the choir of Prato Chatedral; possibly Botticelli went with Lippi to Spoleto. In the early seventies, he may also have been associated with the Verrocchio shop, as we have seen. Sandro was in Pisa in 1475 to make a fresco for the Cathedral (lost), and in 1478 he painted effigies of the Pazzi conspirators in Florence (destroyed), an assignment similar to one that Castagno had some years before. 

The sketch of Botticelli’s life gives very little direct evidence for a chronology of his work, and any pattern of stylistic evolution among his paintings must be largely based on secondary sources and guesswork. His two most famous paintings, among the most renowned of the entire Renaissance, are both undated and undatable on documentary grounds. We do know from contemporary sources that he was very highly regarded at the height of his activity and was patronised by Lorenzo de Medici and by the other important branch of the Medici family.

Botticelli exposes a contradiction between the spatial thrusts he devises, including a powerful wedge into depth relatively free of figures in the middle, and the silhouetting to individual images, which serves to accentuate the surface. This flattering of rims, only implicitly found in the “Adoration”, becomes a salient feature of the Primavera, which, with the “Birth of Venus”, is Botticelli’s most admired work.

The two pictures, both painted in tempera, do not belong to the same program and appear not to have been painted at the same time, despite certain common features.They are part of a small but significant group of pairings by Botticelli depicting classical mythological subjects. The “Primavera”, unanimously considered the earlier of the two, is composed freely, without a strict symmetrical balance.

The central figure is framed by an arch composed of trees and leaves with a bower of laurel that creates a dark tonality behind her. Above, a blindfolded cupid aims an arrow at one of the three thinly clad Graces. The figures seem to float gracefully on the surface without a formalised harmony. The painting is almost oppressively dominated by the presence of the actors, who are very close to the spectator’s space despite the wealth of spatially unintegrated landscape elements.

The ubiquitous flowers on the ground are emblems of the woman standing next to the draped Venus, who looks out of the picture almost arrogantly, her person overshadowed by the blossoms that she distributes from a vast supply. She is Flora or Primavera from whom the painting has obtained its name.

Beside her is Zephyr and perhaps Flora in another guise, Mercury on the extreme left completes the cast of characters. But if the identifications are clearly established, the meaning of the “Primavera” has been the subject of countless, often conflicting, interpretations and remain something of a riddle.

The overall effect of the painting, with its flat collars and silhouetted forms, is that of a tapestry of exceptional decorative power. The figure style falls decisively within a lyric approach. Flora, a tall, elongated image in a non-gravitational stance, is close to the picture plane, and her richly embroidered dress challenges the implication of her physical presence. 

Modeling as a means to create volumetric form is kept to a minimum. Instead, the fires are created mainly by the edges of the form and by color. The “Primavera” was presumably painted in the late 1470s or in the early 1480d, immediately before Botticelli went to Rome, but a date following his return is also possible. Renaissance artists like Botticelli often had several stylistic modes that they used at the same time, depending upon the category of subject matter, the destination of the work, or the requirements of the patron. 

The allegorical meaning of the painting is better understood only when taking the scene as a whole.  The allusions to Spring and the month of May, the scene of a suitor’s pursuit, the Three Graces – all of these point to the idea of a springtime marriage.  The setting in an orange grove is also noteworthy, since the Medici had adopted the orange tree as its family symbol.  The painting would have been placed in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bedroom and his wife would have seen it for the first time after their wedding, so the idea of Cupid targeting the pure Three Graces with his arrow takes on a particular meaning in light of conjugal love.

In any case, the painting is a testament to humanist interests in classical subject in the Renaissance, as well as the courtly desire for lavish themes and graceful figures.

 

By Katarina Mirkovic.

R A P H A E L / ” The School of Athens”

With Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), known in English simply as Raphael, we are dealing with the model third generation monumental painter. 

Despite his short life of only thirty-seven years, he left a large body of works from almost every year of his career, so that his total contribution and far-reaching influence can be efficiently gauged.

Born in Urbino, where his father had been painter and head butler for the court, Raphael was an orphan at age eleven but must have had training as a painter already before that age, since he was commissioned in 1500 for an altar-piece dedicated to St. Nicholas of Tolentino for the church in Città Castello. Only fragments of the work, which was finished in 1501, survive (Capodimonte Museum, Naples), but drawings have also come down giving us unshift into his earliest efforts as a draftsman.

After spending several years in Florence fulfilling his stylistic implications, Raphael arrived in Rome in year 1508. Here he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to redecorate his suit of apartments. The Stanza della segnatura (“Room of the Signatura”) was the first to be decorated by Raphael’s frescoes: it was the study housing the library of Julius II, in which the Signatura of Grace tribunal was originally located. In addition to the ceiling with biblical and classical subjects and personifications, the side walls contain the famous frescos, the Disputa, the School of Athens, Parnassus, and the less well known “Gregory IX Approves the Decretals” as well as grisaille decoration all’antica.
Raphael has united three basic ingredients of his early maturity: (1) the native Umbrian qualities derived from Perugino especially but also from Signorelli and Pinturicchio and that recall the more distant Piero della Francesca; (2) the impact of what he saw and absorbed in Florence; and (3) the massive injection of impulses for his figural vocabulary that he found in Rome, ancient and modern. 

The “School of Athens”, done in 1510 and 1511, marks the high point in Raphael’s development and in the evolution of narrative painting in the Renaissance. The clarity of the expression, the rigorous composition, the satisfying architectural spaces, the descriptive, dignified color, and particularly the integrity of the individual figures as they relate to each other and to the space they occupy belong to the tradition first stated by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel.

The main action is concentrated in a zone atop four high marble steps, where the figures are arranged horizontally with a gradually increasing stress given to Plato and Aristotele, isolated by a distant arch on the central axis, much as Christ is separated from the Apostles in Leonardo’s Last Supper. Below, individual personalities and groups are carefully orchestrated to add excitement, interest, and diversity to the overall composition. A classical structure is archaeologically reconstructed with coffered marble vaults, a great open dome, and marble reliefs and statues.

The figures are conceived in various poses: running, standing, bending, sitting, and reclining; their expressions are restrained as they concentrate on activities of teaching or explicating, studying or meditating. As part of the carefully conceived program (though apparently not Raphael’s invention), the School of Athens stands for Philosophy and is placed in conjunction with three others that represent Theology, Poetry and Law. 

The cool crisp color, the clear sharp air, and the earthbound emphasis of the composition are elements consistent with the theme of the fresco. 

Raphael as effectively as any painter of the Renaissance, was able to integrate meaning and form. And if Raphael’s mode, like Michelangelo’s, was basically figural, he located his actors more specifically within an environment, which he manipulated with facility. 

Of all the painters of the third generation, Raphael is perhaps the most satisfying because of the rationality of his compositions and the inevitability of his figures. He was a consumate draftsman on paper and in his painting, giving a surety of form. His art became the backbone of academic instruction for centuries; nord did his reputation ever suffer the ups and downs of Michelangelo’s.

 

By Katarina Mirkovic.

Photography – testimony to an eternal moment

On April the 15th our BSAS association organized an interesting event about photography and some of its aspects that people usually ignore, or of which are not well informed.

We invited two external guest, Angela Saltarelli and Roberto Mutti, respectively a lawyer specialized in art law and cultural heritage, and a photographic critic and curator. There was also another guest, professor Maria L. Montagnani, invited as a mediator of the conference.

Continue reading “Photography – testimony to an eternal moment”

Bocconi: not just a university… but also a piece of architecture

Every day, hundreds of students pass by our university; but few of them really appreciate the architectural peculiarity of our campus’ buildings.

The main building is located at the corner of viale Bligny and via Roentgen. It is home to most of the university’s main events, and, being the largest of the Bocconi buildings, it is the most noticeable.

Continue reading “Bocconi: not just a university… but also a piece of architecture”

Street art: vandalism, art or marketing strategy?

By itself, the term “street art” is actually quite broad and nebulous; it goes from the more traditional spray-painting to mosaics, stickers, flash mobs, video projections on buildings, “yarn bombing” (covering a surface with knitted wool) and other public displays. It is one of the most innovative and rapidly changing forms of art, especially due to the significant increase in its quality, and thus popularity.

Continue reading “Street art: vandalism, art or marketing strategy?”

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