Wim Wenders casts Edward Hopper’s lonely figures

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, 1950 Smithsonian American Art Museum

To coincide with a major show of Edward Hopper landscapes, director Wim Wenders has found inspiration in the artist’s enigmatic portraits – and brought them to life in a 3D film.

This content was published on February 2, 2020 - 14:00
Michèle Laird in Riehen-Basel,

Hopper’s images of ordinary people frozen in unfinished stories come to life in Wenders’s tribute to one of the most important American painters of the last century. The 14-minute film – on view at the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen-Basel – bears witness to Hopper’s love of movies as well as his influence on Wenders’s work. 

A Fresh Look at LandscapesExternal link concentrates on a lesser-known aspect of Hopper’s work – certainly less hypnotic than his portraits of lost souls. But these landscapes hold the key to understanding the secretive and remote artist. 

Edward Hopper, Lighthouse Hill, 1927 Dallas Museum Of Art

The striking collection of paintings of the golden fields of America, the beauty of its shores and byways, the slicing light of the beginning or end of the day reveal Hopper’s closeness to nature. 

“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature,” Hopper wrote in Notes on Painting in 1933. 

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) turned away from a successful career as a graphic illustrator to become a painter who produced relatively few works. While his contemporary Picasso (1881-1973) churned out almost 2,000 paintings, Hopper did fewer than 400. 

Hopper also loved the houses and lighthouses of New England on the northeastern coast of the US where he lived, of which many have entered his landscapes, some of them curiously out of proportion, as if sliding down a hill. And none of them has finished windows or doors, the show’s curator, Ulf Küster, has pointedly observed. On the darker side, he also likens the thick bands of forest or opaque vegetation that block the background of many of Hopper’s paintings, as in Gas or Cape Cod Morning, to Hopper’s own hermetic personality. 

Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940 © Moma, New York/scala, Florence, 2019

Hopper’s wife Jo, whom he met and married when they were both past 40, said of her husband’s introversion that “sometimes talking to him was like throwing a pebble in a well, except that you wouldn’t hear it hit the water”.

Beyeler Foundation Director Samuel Keller, who knows the US well, sees in Hopper the melancholia of the American dream, which, he said, is very important for the identity of Americans. Keller founded Art Basel Miami when he was still head of Art Basel before moving to Beyeler 12 years ago. 

“But I also think that Hopper has hugely influenced how Europeans see America, especially through the eyes of the many great filmmakers that he has inspired,” Keller told at the exhibition opening this week.

Edward Hopper, Portrait of Orleans, 1950 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Wim Wenders 

One of those filmmakers is Wim Wenders, whom the Beyeler Foundation invited to contribute to the Hopper exhibition. Wenders, the German director of the cult movies Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, chose to use pictures that are not in the show (save Gas, see above) as storyboards to a personal short film that he entitled Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper. 

“I didn’t even know who Hopper was when I first came across his work at the Whitney in the early 1970s,” admits Wenders. “It was one of the most surprising discoveries of a visual artist that I have ever made.” 

Wenders was in Basel to premiere the film that runs in a loop at the heart of the Hopper exhibition and that adds mysterious, silent and troubling narratives to the suspended plots of some of Hopper’s key paintings. The film is silent, except for the powerful music of French composer Laurent Petitgand.

“The greatest mystery is how Hopper manages to make us wonder what is going on and what is going to happen next,” Wenders explained. “His characters are in a state of expectation.” 

Wenders does exactly the same thing in his film based on several well-known Hopper paintings, except that he adds an element of menace and foreboding. The blonde in the pink slip in Morning Sun (1952) is brutally yanked away from her cigarette break by her boyfriend – or is he a brothel owner? The man sitting on the edge of the bed in Excursion into Philosophy (1959), may have tasted the pleasures of the flesh and is looking forward to breakfast. Or has he strangled the woman limp by his side?

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“It’s just as well that Hopper never explained his work; he left us to complete the scenes with our own imagination,” Wenders enthused, adding that Hopper’s paintings are like a film that is about to begin: “Even the camera is in the right position!” 

Many of Wenders vignettes start by reproducing a famous Hopper scene, but then suddenly the figures step out of the picture as if regaining their lives. 

To capture the America of Hopper’s time, Wenders returned to Butte, Montana, a ghost city since the closure of the mines, and where he had already made Don’t Come Knocking with Sam Shepard in 2005. The wide deserted avenues and glassless windows were already pure Hopper – and so much easier to film with missing windowpanes, said the director. Also Hopper-esque: the figures of a young woman in a summer dress and the sinister-looking scar-face who is silently observing her. 

Tallulah Jones plays the young woman representing Summer Evening (1947) in the Wenders film. “There is a weight to making the picture come alive with you,” she told at the opening, having just seen the film for the first time. The long discussions with Wenders on what had just happened in a Hopper picture, or was about to happen, were the best part of the journey, she recollected. She pointed out that the music, like in all Wenders films, is what holds the scenes together. 

© Whitney Museum Of American Art/scala, Florence, 2019

Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper was made in 3D to be shown in a museum environment because Wenders wants viewers to experience the immersive film as they might a painting. 

“It is always a unique experience when you are in front of the original and not its reproduction: the connective tissues of our brain are solicited differently. It’s a dream for me to show this film-installation at the centre of this wonderful exhibition,” he said.

Edward Hopper, A Fresh Look at Landscapes, runs until May 17, 2020.

Directors’ Movie Night and talk with Wim Wenders and Wes Anderson in Zurich

On March, 23, 2020, the Beyeler Foundation will screen Wim Wenders’s 3D short film Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper (2020), as well as a short film by Wes Anderson that has yet to be announced. A conversation with the two directors, moderated by Christian Jungen, artistic director of the Zurich Film Festival, will follow.

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