My curiosity was aroused by the news that an exhibition of Edward Hopper's work was making the rounds of Japanese museums, so when I arrived in Japan to lecture in January, I took a bus directly from Tokyo airport north across the plain to Mito, where the show was about to close in the Ibaraki Prefecture Museum. Since Hopper's art has been an important interest of mine for so long, I was eager to discover how it appears to the Japanese and how their perception differs from that in the United States or Europe.
At the exhibition itself, as well as during my ensuing lecture tour, I had ample opportunity to talk with Japanese audiences, who included artists, students, members of the general public and professors of American Studies, which is an active field in Japan.
My first piece of evidence was the story of the exhibition. It began last July at the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo and traveled to museums in Fukushima and Hiroshima before closing in Mito, where I saw it. Its organizers had discovered what is already known to American museums fortunate enough to own Hopper's work: Hopper's mature paintings, which are relatively few in number, are now in great demand.
Hopper's paintings are widely felt to epitomize America of the mid-20th century, with the result that they are sought for inclusion in thematic and chronological group exhibitions about America. This representative or iconic reputation also leads foreign publishers to feature paintings on the jackets of American novels in translation, a practice that generates further interest in seeing the actual works.
The pressure on the mature works meant that the Japanese public had to form its idea of Hopper's mature style from just a few important loans: Mrs. Scott's House (1932), an enchanting view of the simple but elegant Cape Cod vernacular architecture; a great sailing picture, The Martha McKeen of Wellfleet (1944); a superb meditation on sunlight falling on a nearly nude woman standing in the doorway of a Cape Cod house, High Noon, 1949; and an anxious bedroom scene, Excursion into Philosophy (1959).
For the rest, the show's organizers fell back on what has become a usual route: borrowing from the bequest that Hopper's widow Jo made to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Since the Whitney rarely lends anything but the early and unfinished works that constitute most of its extensive holdings, this part of the show did little to justify Hopper's international reputation.
Beginning with some conventional watercolor illustrations Hopper produced at the age of 17 in 1899, when he first studied in a commercial art school, the show went on to offer a glimpse of his art education with a still-life study painted in William Merritt Chase's class in 1903 and nude figure studies made from life in classes taught during the next few years by his favorite teacher, Robert Henri. There followed a selection of the charming watercolor caricatures, charcoal sketches and canvases that Hopper produced in Paris during visits in the period 1906-1909; then experimental works painted in America during the 1910s before his mature style crystallized, along with some of his etchings from these years.
Yet showing Hopper's student work in Japan would have a point, which this exhibition overlooked but might well be made in another show: when Hopper was studying at the New York School of Art with Chase and Henri, one of his classmates was Morie Ogiwara (1879-1910). Ogiwara later changed his name to Rokuzan and led the way to the modernization of Japanese sculpture, introducing the style of Rodin to Japan. There is a museum dedicated to his work in Hotaka, his picturesque home town in Nagano Prefecture in the Japanese Alps, not too far from where the Winter Olympics were held a few years ago.
Interviewing the director of the Rokuzan Museum, Keiichi Chida, I learned that I had inadvertently made an important finding for Rokuzan studies. Previously it had been assumed that Rokuzan discovered Rodin when he first went to Paris in 1904, but in my biography of Hopper, I reported that he, Ogiwara, and several other students had gone to a Rodin show held at the National Arts Club in May 1903. Henri, who believed that Rodin had "unusual understanding," had given them the tickets to the show and encouraged them to see it. Afterwards, Hopper and some of the others produced "some burlesques" of Rodin.
It took a lot longer for Hopper's work to reach Japan than Rodin's or Rokuzan's. One watercolor appeared in 1955 in an international art exhibition held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. It was then more than 20 years before the Whitney Museum sent six works to a group show of American art held at the Isetan Department Store Museum in 1976.
The first book on Hopper appeared in Japanese translation the next year. Written by Lloyd Goodrich, who organized two retrospective shows of Hopper's work during the artist's lifetime, this volume appeared in a series called American Nostalgia. Picking up on that same idea, the recent exhibition work was captioned, "Edward Hopper: Nostalgic American Scenes."
The "American Nostalgia" series also included the illustrator, Norman Rockwell, whose work so often appeared on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. The decision to place Hopper in such a series helped to position him in Japan somewhere between illustration and Andrew Wyeth, who is also popular there.
The Japanese thus preceded the Americans in placing the illustrator Rockwell among the century's best artists. A large touring show of Rockwell is due to land at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This positioning is more than ironic, given the Guggenheim's origin as a citadel of abstract art, named "The Museum of Non-Objective Painting," in 1937.
In the catalogue of the recent Japanese show, one critic, Toshio Shimizu, has joined a series of writers who have tried to link Hopper's use of light to that in Vermeer and de Chirico, and he has now added Caravaggio and Foujita to the mix, claiming that "they all filled the space of their paintings with supernatural light." Shimizu argues that Hopper found an inner light, which he then compares to that described by James Turrell before asserting that this "supernatural light" enabled Hopper to face his own death.
I would challenge the term "supernatural," given that Hopper, who had been raised a Baptist, completely rejected and mistrusted religious practice and did not subscribe to belief in supernatural powers. A comment he made to his wife (which she recorded in her diary) after the funeral of Tommy Gray, the handyman for their house in Truro on Cape Cod, helps to explain what light meant to him: "Tommy Gray can't see this sunlight."
Hopper had said something similar after the death of Whitney Museum director Juliana Force. Light clearly signified the vitality of life itself for Hopper, for he admitted it enabled him to "convey the structure of reality," but he did not go in for things spiritual or supernatural.
The response from Japanese artists has been more astute. The Neo-Dadaist Ushio Shinohara, who has lived in New York since 1969, but frequents Japan, thinks that "Hopper is like theater" and places his own actors on Hopper's stage. Shinohara, who has lifted passages from Hopper's paintings such as Early Sunday Morning, Second Story Sunlight or Four Lane Road and mixed them with Japanese figures from tea ceremonies to Kabuki actors to a noodle waitress, was interviewed for the show's video presentation.
Years ago, Shinohara explained to me that he found in Hopper the same sense of isolation that he experienced when he first arrived in the United States. For him, he claims, "Hopper is like Haiku -- small words but big meaning."
More recently, Takashi Homma, a young Japanese photographer living in Japan, has been taking Hopperesque photographs of subjects Hopper himself might have depicted if he had been living there. A recent magazine article in Japan called Homma's work "super-flat landscapes," but Homma himself refers to his series of suburban images as "Kill the landscape." He strives to find locales in Japan that look like Hopper's American scenes and even goes as far as posing solitary figures in empty places to evoke the work of the American master.
Hopper's work was also recently featured in a superb survey exhibition held at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya. Called "A Century of the American Dream," this imaginative exhibition included Hopper's canvas, City Sunlight, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and two of Hopper's etchings from 1921, Night Shadows and House Tops, which were borrowed from Japanese private collections.
Before the economic "bubble" of the 1980s burst, the Japanese were evidently very busy buying American art. A lot of those acquisitions made their way to this fascinating exhibition, including a Model T Ford, early refrigerators, a fabulous collection of early 20th-century neon signs, as well as wonderful paintings and prints. The artists in the show ranged from John Sloan to Pop Art.
But the Japanese fascination with American products prompted the inclusion of early Coca-Cola advertising and memorabilia on loan from the corporation's museum in Atlanta. Yet even in this survey exhibition, Hopper is utilized to convey nostalgia for an America that has past, rather than as a complex and fascinating painter in his own right.
While a comprehensive show of Hopper's best mature work may now be nearly impossible to tour abroad, Japan and America alike would benefit from an authoritative look at Hopper, Ogiwara, and their American and Japanese classmates at the New York School of Art: George Bellows, Patrick Henry Bruce, Guy Pène du Bois, Glenn O. Coleman, Arnold Friedman, Randall Davey, Rockwell Kent, Gifford Beal, C.K. Chatterton, Walter Tittle, Walter Pach, Edmund William Graecen, Emma Story, Josephine Nivison, Vachel Lindsay, and Tobari Kogan, among others.
GAIL LEVIN is professor of art history and American studies at Baruch College
and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is the author of many books on 20th-century art, including Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.