A night out with Hopper’s Nighthawks

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A few weeks ago they asked me to write an article on a painting by Hopper, the Nighthawks, and I, as a good researcher, went to inform me. Because it is known, or at least is learn by experience, that to understand a painting, one must know its history, the author and above all the context in which he painted it. Art is certainly something universal, transversal to time and space, and therefore readable after centuries. The interpretations, however, change, along with how society and the world change, and what previously could be clearly seen, perhaps years later, is no longer so obvious. What was not considered before, today could reveal the work to us in a completely different way.

Re-meaning a work through time

This is a bit like what I think happens when you look at Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, closed at the bar, late at night, in that window wich looks like a fish tank, in the position of characters observed.

I believe that in this painting, Hopper wanted to give space to the viewer, inviting him to observe the silent, detailed and calm scene given to us by the night.

This space, conceived for an active viewer, is perhaps the keystone, which allows the painting to be reinterpreted over time and consequently to be timeless, immortal, modern, even very contemporary.

The work, created in 1942, is not immediately attributable to a precise historical moment, but it seems that its dating is changeable with the change of the viewer, depending on the time in which the work is observed.

In my opinion this is the key to reading, the space dedicated by the observer that Hopper wanted to create.

I’ll explain.

Researching information and news on Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, I was able to observe how many describe it by highlighting these elements:

“[…] the loneliness, the sense of emptiness of a world whose shimmering patina begins to give way […] The uniquely commercial essence, the false myths take off their masks and show a displaced reality, without valid points of reference , immobilized by uncertainty and lack of conscience. “

Night and transformation

I think this interpretation is partial, that is, it is an interpretation given by the social context and by the dating attributed to the work: the United States between the 40s and 50s, during the economic boom that was redefining the social and cultural assets in the life of people, a society that is even a bit bourgeois, where night bars are seen as places of loneliness, despair and existential emptiness.

This is somewhat true and somewhat not.

The first time I saw this painting, without having studied, it gave me a lot of joy and peace, with its bright contrast and its nocturnal stillness.

Maybe, coming from a large busy and noisy metropolis, the night is one of the moments where I can enjoy the city more calmly: fewer people around, fewer cars, less noise, more spaces between the streets to appropriate, where to stay , under the starless urban sky. The night has a very different meaning for me from those who frequented bars in the United States during the 40s: when the sun goes down the city changes its face, the streets become more free and easy.

We cannot ignore how society has transformed itself in more than half a century of cultural and social changes, between Pop and Rock culture, between the psychedelic movement and the 2000s.

Personally, as a daughter of the 90s, I grew up also at night, and by growing up I mean all the “formative” experiences that the night gave me. For me it is always normal to go out in the evening, often walking around the neighborhood, and on Saturdays looking for the best party, dancing until dawn, riding a motorbike or car to find the last open bar where to get the croissant or hot pizza, where to drink the last glass and smoke the last cigarette before dawn came. Perhaps from the 80s onwards, the night stopped frightening those who stayed at home (let’s not forget the jazz movement, anti-prohibitionism and even the Cursed Poets, all perfect night owls) and it has become the cradle where many personalities of society find the peace and comfort of other nighthawks.

Hopper’s contemporary realism

Nowadays Hopper’s painting reminds me of many scenes of real contemporary life, and makes me almost proud and in any case sympathetic, with the last three characters, who exchange a chat while the bartender cleans the bar to close a day and open another. Those nocturnes seek rest in the silence of the nocturnal company, meditate on their lives observing them through a glass and gather as a tribe of the night, accepting everyone and judging no one. It is no coincidence that in the most ancient ancestral civilizations such as the Indian one, the hour and a half before dawn is called Brahmamuhurta, or time of Brahma, the best time to devote oneself to meditation, prayer, study and introspection. In this space of time the energies are more acute, intense but of a calm, spiritual intensity.

I see no solitude or emptiness in Hopper’s painting; I found more among the gentrified streets of the night quarters, since even the right-thinking people started going out in the evening.

So that, even the oldest and most popular neighborhoods had to be transformed into consumer showcases; and the spontaneous aggregations of people in the square had to rearrange themselves in line, waiting for their turn; and the music of the drums on the side of the street was silenced by the police sirens. That scares me today, that the night is desnatured by its sacred timeless atmosphere, by its being a moment of aggregation for lone wolves, and becoming another uncover productive gear of the system, demanding clarity and respectability even from the darkest corners of the city.

Nighthawks Artwork

Author Details
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Paola D'Andrea
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
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