The dark side of society in Edward Hopper’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Gregory Crewdson’s images.

When looking at the works of Edward Hopper, Alfred Hitchcock and Gregory Crewdson, it is easy to see a kind of artistic filiation between them. Although the three artists used different media (and I have to say that this makes this filiation all the more appreciable), one can see many similarities. As I have been a fan of these artists for a long time, I have chosen to write you a series of articles which will talk about some of these 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 dark side of society. As you may already know, each of these artists has revealed the dark side of human beings and the world around them.

Edward Hopper (American painter, 1882 -1967) is known for having painted American life in the first half of the 20th century. During this period, people experienced incredible upheaval, including a huge industrial revolution with new machines and new ways of producing.
For many people, this revolution was a good thing but in Hopper’s paintings, we can see that it wasn’t great for everyone. Indeed his paintings - whether of cities, nature or people - show a country full of regrets and nostalgia. An America that says “it used to be better.”

This painting is called “Automat”, and at first glance, one might think that this title refers to the character. But in fact, it refers to the place where the young woman is: an automatic cafeteria where you have to put coins in a machine to get food. A great improvement. Here, Edward Hopper seems to be having fun confusing the viewer because yes, the character really does look like an automaton. Alone in this place at night, looking at her cup, the woman seems sad. Overwhelmed by what she’s going through, she performs a series of automatic gestures.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s (British director, screenwriter and producer, 1899 - 1980) and Gregory Crewdson’s work (American photographer — Born in 1962), the world is full of neurosis and anxieties.

By calling one of his series “Beneath The Roses”, we immediately understand Gregory Crewdson’s desire to show what’s usually hidden.

For both 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 that at the age of 5, his father had him incarcerated for a night in a police station). Living in the suburbs of London, Alfred Hitchcock also 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 the secrets of his father’s patients. As you will see from his photographs, it’s easy to see how he was influenced by this.

The apparent tranquillity of everyday life

In the images of these three artists, the dark side is always gradually revealed. At first sight, everything is normal, but it soon becomes worrying and sometimes even disturbing for the viewer.

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, with the movie “Strangers on a Train”, released in 1951 and produced by Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.

(SPOILER ALERT) Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train starts with a relatively ordinary scene: two men (Bruno Anthony and Guy Hanes) meet on a train. We quickly understand that Bruno Anthony is a fan of Guy Hanes, a famous tennis player. He knows everything about his life, perhaps even too much.
After a few minutes, we fall into something terribly unbelievable as Bruno Anthony proposes a completely crazy deal to Guy Hanes: he offers to kill his wife (who refuses to divorce him and prevents him from getting engaged to another woman) and in exchange, he asks him to kill his father, telling him that he’s mean to him. Bruno Anthony listens to him but doesn’t take him seriously, almost saying “yes, yes, whatever.”
This scene, which doesn’t even last 10 minutes, can be divided into two parts: the ordinary and the unbelievable. This scene has a real importance as it will trigger an upheaval in Guy Hane’s life as in the viewer’s reaction.

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 see a couple. A half-naked woman is lying on a bed and a man is sitting next to her. They turn their backs to each other and the man is thoughtful. The title “Excursion into philosophy” emphasises this idea. And we, as viewers, ask ourselves many questions: is it a break-up? Is the man about to get up and leave his wife? Is it his wife or his mistress?

In this photograph, by Gregory Crewdson, we see a man who seems to have rushed out of his car as one of the doors is still open. The man is looking at his hands and a briefcase is lying on the ground. To me, it looks like an image from a crime film. This scene, which takes place in a quite ordinary setting, quickly becomes very abnormal. It leaves the viewer confused and full of questions.

Characters out of control

You may have noticed that the characters (in the works of theses artists) are either victims of, or responsible for this turn 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, constantly moving America.

This painting called “Sunday” shows a man sitting on a pavement. His posture gives the impression of a passive and dominated man, who has perhaps lost control of his existence and the situation in which he lives. Like a kind of fatality.

It’s a feeling that is also found in Gregory Crewdson’s characters. Many of them are ghostly, with an absent look.

In the photograph “Seated woman on a bed”, the woman seems stuck.
The unmade bed and the fact that she’s wearing a nightie indicate that she has just woken up, but her posture suggests that she’s not ready to start the day.

Hitchcock’s “bad” characters don’t look like the bad guys we usually see in some films or series. They aren’t disguised, they don’t have specific body marks such as burns or scars. In Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the bad guys look like everyone else. They are charming, cultured and… obviously above suspicion.

(SPOILER ALERT) To illustrate my point, I thought of a very famous character: Norman Bates in the film “Psycho”. When Marion Crane arrives at the motel, he’s very nice and attentive to her. But dominated by his illness, he ends up killing her!

Domination is recurrent in Hopper’s, Hitchcock’s and Crewdson’s characters. Edward Hopper’s characters are dominated by the society in which they live and how they feel about it. Alfred Hitchcock’s bad guys act because they’re dominated by illnesses (Psycho), or greed (Dial M for Murder, Suspicion)…
Gregory Crewdson’s characters are dominated by their anxieties, 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 people in the same room. There seems to be 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 is tapping her fingers on a piano. Wearing an evening gown, 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 by Gregory Crewdson, there’s also a sense of distance and 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 certainly don’t have the same postures (the man sitting on the bed, and there’s the woman standing). They don’t look at each other. There’s no discussion, just a coldness between them.

By highlighting worries, anxieties and frustrations, these three artists have taken up the challenge of creating art that is disturbing, impactful and sometimes sad, but it’s precisely by its realism that it moves us. At a time when everyone is creating a fake life on social networks, it’s always good to see an art that doesn’t deny the truth.

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Pauline Le Pichon

I’m a French visuel artist, freelance photographer, instructor and writer.