When no one is watching
Perhaps you've had a chance to see the current exhibit "Edward Hopper's Women" at the Seattle Art Museum. The painter of such iconic American images as "Nighthawks," "Chop Suey," "House by the Railroad," and "Morning Sun" is featured in an intimate show that takes up only two small rooms but spans a vastness of meaning.
Hopper described the time he spent in France like this: "I used to go to the cafes at night and sit and watch." And he not only watches, he sees. Hopper had the ability to capture with his brush a moment crammed with meaning, a moment that defies reduction or simplification. It is there in the expression, in the way people look at or past each other, in the architecture of the composition. He liked to watch, but his paintings quickly transcend the self-indulgent moment of the voyeur for the existential power of the poet.
The power of his images is to invite our own self-reflection, to uncover the enigmatic depth of our own lives by virtue of a single moment. His compositions are surprisingly spare on the outside - the center of the Seattle exhibit is his 1929 piece "Chop Suey", which depicts a restaurant with no food to be found on the tables. In their simplicity, precisely in their simplicity they evoke a mysterious and complex richness within. Desire and vulnerability, hunger and reticence, emotional density and barrenness coexist within the architecture of the paintings, refusing to be resolved. Thick beams isolate individuals lost in thought. Shadows evoke emotional distance. For Hopper, even beams of light can function as a cage for his subjects.
It is an interesting dynamic, looking at these paintings. The power of them for me is that they invite our own self-reflection; the spare compositions invite us to find our way through the dense interior of our own lives, both for good and ill, strength and weakness, consistency and inconsistency. The story, as Sheila Farr in the Seattle Times review so aptly puts it, "takes place in our heads". Hopper catches his subjects at moments when they think no one is watching them. The painting then becomes a mirror that invites us to look within, to resist the tendency to read ourselves either too generously or too severely, but instead to ask simply: who am I when no one is watching? Who am I when the walls are down and I'm most honest? How are we trapped within the secrets of our own interior lives and what would freedom look like?
For me, it's a timely show. The good news of Christmas - the idea of incarnation, of a God showing up in the midst of it all, of a God loving us enough to, as Eugene Patterson's The Message translation so artfully captures, "move into the neighborhood" moves us toward Epiphany. The story of God's absolute love assures us there is grace enough to take a good and honest look at ourselves. We remember that God's blessing comes not at the sum of our best works, not after we've made our most convincing arguments for our worthiness and value, but at that precise moment when we think no one is looking, when all that we are is laid bare - deeply complex, fearful, yet wishing to be known, gifted, yet trapped in prisons of our own making.
For we too are a mystery - fearfully and wonderfully made. And the courage to look inward is the way to freedom in our outward lives, the way to live lives of integrity in which we are the same on the inside as the outside. And when we find our way past our own limits we are more able to refuse to limit the lives of others.