Edward Hopper: travellers going nowhere

The metaphor of the journey creates a common theme in Hopper’s painting. He frequently paints his subjects in mid-journey, paused in a hotel room, in a lobby or on a hotel bed. These pauses are often disconnected from both the past and future.

Often Hopper will paint people who are engaged, or appear to be engaged, in the journey as in the Chair Car .

edward-hopper-chair-car

Here a woman is seated in what is ostensibly a railway carriage but which looks more like some kind of vault with a blank door sealing the exit. The characters are flooded with yellow-green light and, strangely, the woman on the right-hand side of the car does not appear to cast a shadow. There is no landscape to be seen outside, the windows giving the impression that the characters travelling through space with no connection to any other reality.

The woman on the left appears to be directing an intense gaze at the red-head who’s reading a book and either oblivious of, or studiously avoiding, the attention. The absence of an exterior landscape makes attention between these two women the central focus of the painting. Like so many of the situations in Hopper’s paintings, we have no idea what’s gone before or what is likely to happen after. The moment is suspended in time.

The next painting, Intermission, is thematically related to Chair Car. The woman, (is it the same woman?)

untitled 7

is sitting at the front of a row of seats, similar to that in an aircraft or a train. There is a stillness and indifference about her that detaches her from her surroundings. The door next to her is neither an exit nor an entrance but this does not matter to her as her indifference appears to isolate her from any sense that she is interested in moving.

Intermission

The final explicit picture of a traveler is Compartment.

compartiment-c-voiture-193-edward-hopper-1938-collection-i-

The tone of this painting is quite different from the others. In Hotel Window, there is a tension between the woman and some unseen point outside. A similar tension exists in Western Motel between the woman sitting on the bed and whoever is entering the room. No such tension exists in Compartment. The young red-haired woman sits relaxed and reading a magazine. There is no tension between her and any point outside the frame of the picture. She is oblivious to the landscape that she is passing through and to the garish green compartment in which she was travelling.

Like the woman in Intermission, she is alone but seems contented and self-sufficient in her concentration on her magazine. Unlike the women in the other paintings, she does not appear to be caught with no apparent connection at some nexus between the past and the future.

An interesting and disconcerting version of a non-journey is the enigmatic People in the Sun

People In The Sun

There are hints of an aircraft or train in the way the people have been arranged as people appeared to be sitting in rows waiting for the plane or train to arrive. There is certainly a sense of anticipation, of people who have dressed for a journey and are waiting to go somewhere (will know where). But, as in so many of Hopper’s paintings, the landscape is devoid of detail and of interest, suggesting that no one would wish to go there only travel through. There’s also an absurd sense of people sitting in a solarium, soaking up the rays. But why are a group of well and fully dressed people sitting out the sun? again this painting is reflection of Hopper’s unique ability to be able to separate his subjects from the past and from the future, and in this case from cause-and-effect as well.

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Bombs, Terror and Facebook

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stated the obvious:

Tony Abbott warns Australians fighting for Islamic State could be targeted by RAAF bombs

The difficulty is he doesn’t actually understand how this is going to play out.

Those who were killed fighting for the cause of the slam regarded as martyrs and as an inspiration to others. Our security forces are probably well aware that each one of these potential matters has a Facebook page on which they may list your achievements their aspirations and the religious ideals. They will also have followers of the Facebook page, how many users impossible to say. What we can be certain of is that their followers will be sympathisers to the cause and highly susceptible to the arguments for terrorist activities.

If you wished to recruit potential terrorist within Australia all you would need to do is log on to the Facebook page of one of those was fighting overseas, see who the most rabid supporters are and contact them.

We do not need these jihadist warriors to return to Australia to encourage home-grown terrorism. Social media will be doing this already and you can be certain that the camp followers will be trolling these websites looking for potential recruits.

We should be in no doubt that the mindset of the people fighting for the glory of Islam. The greatest contribution they can make is to die a martyr and to inspire other people to join the cause in the fight against the infidel (however widely that might be defined).

We can be certain that the combination of this fanaticism, Australia’s engagement in the Middle East and the ubiquitous reach a social media has created perfect storm.

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How best to deal with a homegrown terrorist threat

In recent days, the Australian public has seen an increase in ASIO’s assessment of our internal terrorist threat from returning jihadist and the allocation of a $680m budget to combat the effects of some 10-20 young radicals.

We have now seen that the Abbott government is committed to providing ground troops and air strike capability for the US led coalition in the Middle East. We have been warned that “this is not the task of weeks or even necessarily, just a few months” President Obama’s advisers are already suggesting at least three years. Certainly, the cost will run to hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.

Mr Abbott stressed there are "clear and achievable objectives" to their mission.

Mr Abbott stressed there are “clear and achievable objectives” to their mission.

One of the arguments that has been put by the government is that the participation of young Australian Muslims in the war in Syria will further “radicalise” them. One would have thought that the preparedness to take part in an armed conflict overseas, with a good chance of being killed, is a pretty complete definition of radicalised. The concern really is that these young Australians will return home with military skills that could be used for terrorist activities on home soil.

Ironically, this is a problem that is being faced in New Zealand with Afghanistan veterans returning to join Maori gangs with a much better training than could possibly be provided by the ragtag militias in the Middle East.

At very superficial level, this argument is very compelling, but it should be accepted with some caveats. Why would someone who has gone to fight to establish “pure Islam” in the caliphate want to come home? Wouldn’t they want to live in the political system that they risked their lives to establish? It may well be that they will become profoundly disillusioned with life under such a regime and wish to return to Australia. It may also be that they see Australia as the next frontier for the terrorist activities. But we should not accept this assumption purely at face value.

One thing that we can be relatively certain about is that the radicalisation of these young Australians will be far more complete as result of their being attacked by an overwhelmingly superior air capability comprising, in part, of Australian FA-18 Super Hornet fighters.

Sending Super Hornets may counterproductive if all we are concerned about is returning jihadists

Sending Super Hornets may counterproductive if all we are concerned about is returning jihadists

It is unlikely that those that survive this are going to return to Australia to live happily ever after.

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Is there another way of doing things in the Middle East?

Paul McGeough sounds a note of caution in The Age (15/9) “It is not our war to rush in to fight” stating that Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Lebanon have baulked at providing military support for the U.S.-led coalition. It’s an impressive list particularly when most of the participants for this particular enterprise a European nations. Clearly the Arab nations do not think that ISIS is as big a threat to their security as the Europeans do. And clearly not as big a threat to them as it is to the Australians.

One of the worrying aspects of the lack of support for the “degrade and ultimately destroy” mission is the current refusal of Turkey to crack down on the sale of oil on the black market which is providing the funds for IS. Presumably it would be very easy to close the border to the oil tankers that are coming into Turkey. However, Turkey which is a member of NATO, has chosen not to do this.

Convoys such as this are rolling into Turkey where IS is selling oil on the black market (photo: The  New York Times)

Convoys such as this are rolling into Turkey where IS is selling oil on the black market (photo: The New York Times)

There are essentially two different approaches that can be taken to the violence in the Middle East. The first is that being taken by the U.S.-led coalition: to provide armaments and military support for the “good guys”. This particular strategy has one of two outcomes: the first is that you ensure that the good guys win (highly unlikely) or you ensure that the conflict escalates to a point where both sides are eventually completely exhausted and the civilian population completely devastated. This is commonly known as a lose/lose situation.

The other approach is to de-escalate. Cut off the supply of arms to IS. Cut off the flow of funds from oil sales. Starving the militants of oxygen in the form of money and munitions is as effective a process as killing them all and much less wearing on the local civilians. Certainly, doing this will require the co-operation, willing or otherwise, of groups of people who sympathise with the foundation of the caliphate. And this will be no small task. But neither will the “degrade and ultimately destroy” mission.

Underlying the strategy at two fundamental and necessary conditions. The first is equipping and re-energising the Free Syrian Army, presumably to the extent that it can defeat not only IS, but also the current regime in Syria.

The Free Syrian Army may need a lot of  support to become a force capable of taking on both IS  and Assad's regime

The Free Syrian Army may need a lot of support to become a force capable of taking on both IS and Assad’s regime

No one has a very good track record so far at raising the standards of local militia and providing unreliable allies with significant firepower has backfired particularly badly in the past. Think the Taliban and Afghanistan.

The second operation is the establishment of an “inclusive” government in Iraq. Such a government would embrace both Sunnis and Shi’ites as well as the Kurds who would work together to forge politically stable Iraq. You can almost hear the angels weeping. No one has yet grasped the particular nettle that Iraq needs to be partitioned if there is going to be any lasting and stable peace there.

Whichever way you look at this problem, the solutions are always going to the political ones. Ultimately, military intervention is only a stopgap in the hope that the situation can be stabilised to an extent that the green shoots of stable government can be established. Again nothing in the of immediate history of this region suggest that this will be the case.

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Hopper’s travellers (ii)

Edward Hopper’s paintings of travellers portray people who are caught in the antithesis of Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment: the non-decisive moment. The woman in Western Motel sits waiting for someone to come through the door. The expression on her face seems to indicate that there is an element of uncertainty in the situation in which she has been placed. But unlike so many of Hopper’s subjects, she looks directly at the viewer, as if asking them a question.

Western Motel: waiting for the next moment

Western Motel: waiting for the next moment

Hopper used his wife Josephine as his model for many of his paintings. This gives a disconcerting sense of continuity about the women in many of his paintings and that the journeys that people undertake have an archetypal similarity. This is not only true of the similarities between the women in the paintings but is also true of the background for many of the paintings.

Josephine Hopper painted by, and sitting with, her husband

Josephine Hopper painted by, and sitting with, her husband

Another of Hopper’s travellers is in Hotel Room where a young red-haired woman sits on a bed, reading a letter, with her luggage strewn around her.

Hotel Room

Like the woman in Western Motel, she is in transit and we see her at the moment that has ambiguous connections to both her past and future journey. It appears that she has only just arrived in her hotel room and has begun to get undressed but is now reading a letter. The fact that she is half undressed suggests that the letter has just arrived. From her body language it appears that the contents of the letter have had some considerable emotional impact on her. Hopper appears to have caught her at the moment before she must make a decision, perhaps to go on or to return. But at this particular moment she seems quite disconnected from both of these. The sense of being poised motionless at a tipping point adds to the particularly poignant emotion of this painting.

The next painting that is linked to the Travellers theme is Hotel Window

hopper_hotel_window

Here a woman sits in a hotel lobby looking down the street outside. Perhaps she is waiting for someone to arrive or perhaps she is watching someone depart. Again, Hopper makes it difficult for us to construct any narrative around this painting.

The bright interior light washes the colour out of the woman’s face and her clothing, which merges with the bottom of the column outside in the same way that the mudguard of the car merged with interior furniture in Western Motel. This has the effect of placing the woman at once inside but also outside the hotel lobby. She is between the two spaces in much the same way as she is between the two narratives, one pointing back another pointing forward. Is she watching someone, who has been with her, depart? Or is she looking for someone who will arrive sometime in the future? Hopper places her in a both physical and temporal limbo.

In all three of these paintings, the women are sitting framed by the interiors of the rooms but they are also framed by the windows which provide large flat expanses of colour behind them. The tension between the interior and the exterior is strongest in both Hotel Window and Western Motel and it is a tension that is present in many of Hopper’s other paintings.

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Edward Hopper’s Travellers

This is one of Edward Hopper’s most famous quotes

quote-edward-hopper

Perhaps what Hopper meant here was that his work was designed to express an emotional and aesthetic response that he could not evoke in words. Perhaps he was endeavouring to draw the distinction between what the artist can do with painting and what the writer can do with words and is saying in effect “Here’s my painting, look at it, you can’t do that with words.”

Yet if we wish to communicate our response to Hopper, we can only do it through words and in doing so we should be mindful of his admonition.

There is a small part of his work that deals with what I term the “Travellers”, people who are moving from one place to another Whom Hopper portrays during the journey or when they have come to rest at some point during that journey. There is always a sense of something uncompleted. Amongst these paintings are Milano, Western Motel, Compartment and Hotel Room. All of these paintings are thematically linked to other parts of Hopper’s work but discussing these a group provides an interesting entry to discussion of other parts of his artistic output.

The first of the Traveller pictures is Western Motel

Edward-Hopper-Western-Motel

In discussing this painting it is worth going back to Hopper’s quote which hints that there is a dimension to his work that is not well captured in words. One of the things that is well captured in words is narrative. Paintings are rarely able to tell stories but often they are able to capture part of the story and, if the story is particularly well-known, the painting can be interpreted in the light of the story, most frequently a well-known myth or legend.

In the numerous paintings of Susanna and the Elders the most commonly depicted part of the story is when the two lascivious elders put their odious proposition to Susannah.

Peter Paul Rubens: Susannah and Elders

Peter Paul Rubens: Susannah and Elders

Those who are familiar with the biblical story, and I assume that most people who view this painting are, know what has happening beforehand and what is going to happen. So the viewer is able to provide the narrative that gives context to the painting. This is true of a great many paintings that portray biblical or mythical stories.

Because we know the story, the departure of Adonis from Venus is made all the more poignant by the fact that we know in a short time Venus will find him gored to death by a wild boar he was hunting.

Titian: Venus and Adonis

Titian: Venus and Adonis

So sometimes it helps us understand a painting if we are able to locate it within a narrative structure. But with Hopper this is always difficult. In Western Motel there is no convenient, accessible or well-known narrative. Clearly, the woman is travelling somewhere but we cannot be certain whether she is arriving at, or leaving the motel. Her bags are packed so she could be waiting for someone to take them to the car which is parked outside. But equally she could have just arrived at the motel and is waiting, seated on the bed, for their return. Hopper does not provide the narrative and the viewer is left with the question, as with so many of his paintings “I wonder what’s going on here?”

Unlike many of the subjects in Hopper’s paintings this woman looks directly at the viewer, or perhaps someone who is about to enter through the doorway. the way that Harper has structured the painting places the viewer in the position of the person was about to come through the door. The woman’s posture and body language give the impression of someone who was ill at ease in the situation. She sits upright and formal somewhat at odds with the ordinary surroundings of the motel room.

The depiction of the car merges it with the interior of the motel room by making the front mudguard appear to be the back of a chair inside the motel room. It is as if the journey and the destination have merged in some way at the particular moment that Hopper chooses to portray. As is the way that Hopper chooses and portrays this moment that is particularly interesting.

Photographer Cartier Bresson took his keynote text for his book Images à la sauvette, whose English edition was titled The Decisive Moment from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz: “Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” (“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”).

 Three of  Cartier Bresson's "Decisive Moment" photos

Three of Cartier Bresson’s “Decisive Moment” photos

Cartier Bresson’s photos are easy to place in a narrative. The two children under the coat of friends sharing a joyous journey. The young boy who has been sent out to purchase the wine is smilingly proud of his appointment as the wine bearer. The man jumping off the ladder is going to fall short and land in the puddle.

Many of Hopper’s paintings are a direct contradiction Cardinal de Retz’s assertion. Western Motel does not portray a decisive moment. It is difficult to construct a narrative around this painting as we have no indication of what might have happened beforehand or what is about to happen. There is certainly no hint in the painting itself. Hopper paints a moment that has no clear connection to any other point in time and appears to be portraying the points between the decisive moments, when the journey and the destination merge and the world pauses for a moment, waiting for something to happen.

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A lesson from the past

Robert Strange McNamara (June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009) was the eighth Secretary of Defense, serving from 1961 to 1968 under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, during which time he played a large role in escalating the United States involvement in the Vietnam War

Robert McNamara -  Official portrait

Robert McNamara – Official portrait

In 1995, he wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam in which he set out the 11 lessons from Vietnam in which he sits out a remarkably candid assessment of the Vietnam war which should be compulsory reading for all members of the Australian Security Council contemplating yet another military incursion overseas.

We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.

We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.

We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.

Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.

We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.

We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.

After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.

We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.

We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.

We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues

And I will add my misquote of George Santayana’s famous phrase “those who do not learn from mistakes of history are bound to repeat them.”

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