The hidden side of society in Edward Hopper’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Gregory Crewdson’s images.
When we look at Edward Hopper’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Gregory Crewdson’s works, we can easily observe an artistic inheritance, a kind of filiation between them. Although the three artists used different mediums (and I have to say that this makes this filiation all the more appreciable), one can see many common points. Being a fan of these artists for a long time now, I chose to write you a series of articles which will talk about some of those common points.
The first one I want to tell you about is the one that jumped out at me as soon as I saw their masterpieces. It’s the representation of the hidden side of the society. As you may already know it, each of these artists has, in their own way, revealed the dark side of human beings and of the world around them.
Edward Hopper (American painter and printmaker — Born in 1882 and died in 1967) is known to have painted American life very realistically in the first half of the 20th century. During this period, the population experienced incredible upheavals including a very big industrial revolution with the appearance of new machines and new ways of producing.
For a lot of people, this revolution has been a good thing but in Hopper’s paintings, we understand that it wasn’t great for everyone. Indeed his paintings - whether they depict cities, nature or people at home - show a country full of regrets and nostalgic. An America saying “it used to be better.”
This painting is called “Automat”, and at first glance, we may think that this title (only) evokes the character. But in fact Automat refers to the place where the young woman is : an automatic cafeteria where you have to put coins in a machine to get food. Big progress. Here Edward Hopper seems to enjoy disturbing the spectator because yes, the character truly looks like an automat. Alone in this place when it’s night-time, looking towards her cup, the woman seems sad. Overwhelmed by what she’s going through, she automatically makes gesture after gesture.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s (British director, screenwriter and producer — Born in 1899 and died in 1980) and Gregory Crewdson’s work (American photographer — Born in 1962), the world is full of neuroses and anxieties.
By naming one of his series “Beneath The Roses”, we immediately understand Gregory Crewdson’s desire to show what’s usually hidden, what lies behind beautiful appearances.
For Hitchcock and Crewdson, we know that this desire to represent this dark side may be linked to their childhoods (even adolescence). Alfred Hitchcock’s life was marked by cold and strict parents (he often said that when he was 5 years old, his father had him incarcerated during one night in a police station … an unverifiable anecdote but very appalling in any case!). Living in the suburbs of London, Alfred Hitchcock sometimes attended trials.
Gregory Crewdson draws part of his inspiration from what he heard as a kid: his father was a psychoanalyst and received his patients in the basement of their family home. Crewdson, like many children, was curious and that’s how he heard and listened to the secrets of his father’s patients. As you will see in his photographs, it’s easy to see how he was influenced by that.
The apparent tranquility of everyday life
In the images of these three artists, the dark side of society is always revealed in an everyday life with deceptive appearances. At first sight, it’s a very ordinary everyday life but it quickly becomes worrying and sometimes even disturbing for the spectator.
When we watch Alfred Hitchcock’s films, we know that there’s going to be a fateful event that will make the story completely irreversible. This is the case, for example, of the movie “Strangers on a Train”, released in 1951 and produced by Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.
(SPOILER ALERT) Inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Strangers on a Train starts with a relatively common scene: the meeting of two men (Bruno Anthony and Guy Hanes) in a train. We quickly understand that Bruno Anthony is a fan of Guy Hanes, a famous tennis player. He knows all his life, and maybe a little too much.
And after a few minutes, we fall into something awfully incredible since Bruno Anthony offers a completely crazy deal to Guy Hanes : he offers him to kill wife (who refuses to divorce and prevents the latter from getting engaged with another woman) and in exchange, he asks him to kill his father, telling him that he’s mean with him. Bruno Anthony listens to him but doesn’t take him seriously, almost saying “yes, yes, keep talking.”
This scene, which doesn’t even last 10 minutes, can be divided into two parts : the ordinary and the unbelievable. This scene really matters since it will trigger an upheaval in Guy Hane’s life as in the spectator’s reaction.
Alfred Hitchcock truly knew how to play with the absence of suspicion. He even said in “Directors in Action” (book by Bob Thomas, released in 1973 and published by Bobbs-Merrill Co) « I think that the murder must take place on a beautiful summer day at the edge of a chirping stream (…) During a party, the most playful guest may be a psychopath. » (->this is my own translation from french to english)
Everyday life isn’t quieter in Edward Hopper’s and Gregory Crewdson’s works. Although we’ll never know what happened before or what will happen after the scene, we always feel a lot of tension.
In the painting “Excursion into philosophy” (painted by Edward Hopper in 1959), we are faced with a couple. A half-naked woman lies on a bed and a man is seated next to her. They turn their backs and the man is slouched and thoughtful. The title “Excursion into philosophy” puts in relief this idea. And we, as spectators, ask ourselves many questions : is it a question of breakup ? Is the man about to get up and leave his wife ? Besides, is she his wife or his mistress ?
This scene is far from being banal and resolved.
In this photograph extract from the “Beneath The Roses” series, produced in 2004 by Gregory Crewdson, we see a man who seems to have rushed out of his car since the door is still opened. He looks at his hands and a briefcase is on the floor. For me, it looks like an image from a detective movie.
This scene, which takes root in a completely ordinary setting, becomes with a few details completely abnormal. Leaving the spectator confused and full of questions.
Characters who lose control
You may have noticed that the highlighted characters (in the three artist’s works) are either victims of, or responsible for this turning point in their daily lives.
Hopper and Crewdson’s characters are often static, as if they were waiting for someone or something. And it contradicts the idea that we have of this hyperactive America, constantly in motion.
This painting called “Sunday” shows a man sitting of the edge of a sidewalk. His posture gives us the impression of seeing a passive and dominated man, who may have lost control over his existence and the situation in which he lives. Like a kind of fatality.
It’s a feeling that we also find in Gregory Crewdson’s characters. Many of them are ghostly, having an absent look.
In the photograph “Seated woman on bed”, the woman seems froze.
The unmade bed and the fact that she’s wearing a nightie indicates that she just woken up but her posture lets us suppose that she’s not ready to start this day.
As I said before, Hitchcock’s “bad” characters don’t look like bad guys that you can usually see in some movies or series. We’re far from the clichés. The bad guys aren’t disguised, they don’t wear identifiable outfits or make-up. They don’t have specific body marks such as burns or scars. In Alfred Hitchcock’s films, bad guys look like everyone else. They are charming, cultivated and…obviously above suspicion.
(SPOILER ALERT) To illustrate my point, I thought of a very famous character : Norman Bates in the “Psycho” movie. When Marion Crane arrives at the motel, he’s very nice, attentive with her. But dominated by his illness, he will eventually kill her !
Dominance is recurrent in Hopper’s, Hitchcock’s and Crewdson’s characters. Edward Hopper’s characters are dominated by the society they’re living in and by what they feel about it. Alfred Hitchcock’s bad guys act (or could act) because they’re dominated by states or feelings such as illness (Psycho), or greed (Dial M for Murder, Suspicion)…
Gregory Crewdson’s characters are dominated by their neuroses, which are far too heavy to bear.
Edward Hopper’s and Gregory Crewdson’s characters also have the specificity of being isolated, of living in their own worlds even when there are several persons in the same room. One has the impression that there’s a moral distance between them. There’s constantly a form of incommunicability.
In Hopper’s painting “Room in New York”, the husband who has probably just returned from the office, is reading a newspaper. His wife taps her fingers on a piano. Wearing an evening dress, she’s ready to go out. They obviously have different desires and we can easily perceive a total contradiction between both characters.
In this photograph taken by Gregory Crewdson, there’s also an impression of distance-and we can even say- of silence between the characters. We don’t know what situation they’re dealing with, but they don’t seem to handle it in the same way. They surely don’t have the same postures (the man sitting on the bed, turned to the right of the image and on the other side of it, there’s the woman standing). They don’t look at each other.There’s no discussion, just a coldness between them.
By highlighting the worries, anxieties and frustrations, these three artists have taken up the challenge of creating a disturbing, impactful and sometimes sad art but it’s precisely by its realism that it moves us. At a time when everyone is creating a falsely perfect life on social networks, it’s always good to see (again) an art that doesn’t deny the truth and in which we can all at one time or another recognize ourselves (except the villains of Hitchcock ;)).