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Extracts from:  Peter Nesteruk, A Rhetoric of Time in the Arts: Eternity, Entropy and Utopia in Visual Culture (2011).




From:  Chapter Two: Painting: Time and Affect in Two Dimensions




Contents: Nicolas Poussin, The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1633-1634), Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785), J. M. W. Turner, Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus (1839), Claude Monet Grainstacks series (1888-1889, 1890-91), Picasso, 'Ma Jolie' (1911-1912), Braque, 'The Portuguese' (1911), 'Atelier V' and ‘VIII’, Edward Hopper, Room in Brooklyn (1932), Stairway (1925), Automat (1927) and New York Movie (1939).



Argument (reprise) :


How should one interpret art or visual culture? If art is art still (and not simply some image whose seduction died yesterday) it must first of all communicate with today's viewer on an aesthetic and emotional level. A purely historical approach can, by its very nature, say little about an artwork's power to compel today's audiences. Interpretation must then seek to explain the artwork as the source of today's intense enchantment. This assumption will include the -anyway inescapable- presupposition of such an audience's existence in the present. As we have seen in the first chapter, given this presupposition, depicted space quickly reveals its potentiality to be read as time. If we feel an artwork it is because we have matched our present with that of the image before us, and can then read of its temporal symbolism. However audiences are not unitary. When a division within such an audience seems either inescapable or aesthetically rewarding, then I will try to develop the implications offered by such divided or plural points of view.

       The intense enchantment of an image, once found and explained, can be applied mutatis mutandis to the reconstructed aesthetic experience of previous generations. Conversely, the art historical understanding of an image, insofar as it finds legitimacy in the notion of a first or past audience together with the recreation of its response and its mentalities, must, with respect to this element, if in no other, begin with the present, with the experiential, phenomenological or intuitive reading of textual parts. A given reading that can then be adjusted to the other evidence available (historical aesthetics, the history of the sign, and criticism and interpretation from the time of production and record of first consumption). The intuitions of the present need to be addressed if only for the sake of self-awareness of the observer and critic: if these intuitions are not made conscious in the present, they will certainly surface to bedevil the interpretative process in the future - no-one simply steps from out of their upbringing and culture into another epoch. Either we are conscious of our ideological and affective baggage or it reshapes all that we see, think, and feel. Paradoxically the path to the past lies through the acknowledgement paid to the portal of the present.

       As an object of communication, then, all of a given work's features may be interpreted as significant, as rhetorical, as persuasive (but not, necessarily, as a totality - that is quite another question, involving a strategic -but often unacknowledged- choice by the interpreter). As we have seen, not least among an artwork's rhetorical or persuasive potentials are its temporal implications, the ability of its space to become time or to configure temporalities and their symbolic meaning, it is this figural realisation, which I hope to show in the course of this chapter, that so often constitutes the text's highly effective, but still largely unrecognised, means of affective manipulation. It is precisely this aspect of the artwork, its capability to function as an affective force in the present (as an artwork 'now') that would require an explanation foregrounding the temporal.[1] 




As we shall see, whether in the case of a Poussin, a David, a Turner, or, in the twentieth century cubist fragmentation of a Picasso, the disjunctions and super-impositions of a Braque, the realism of a Hopper, or in the collage of a Rauschenberg, or even in the postmodern form of the photographic image, the rhetoric of temporality will be found to have furnished a rhetorical means of persuasion too powerful to be dispensed with; so from the point of view of the critic, the workings of this rhetoric furnishes an analytical tool equally found to be too powerful to be easily dispensed with. But this should not surprise us: for there is no human experience which is not at ‘the same time’ always already set in a matrix made from past, present, and future and which does not observe some (usually sacralised) form of the distinction between temporality and eternity.




Jacques-Louis David's, ‘The Oath of the Horatii.’


Jacques-Louis David's, The Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785), might be said to encapsulate the ideology of the instant.[2] A single event is shown, the swearing of an oath by three men, with female witnesses in a posture of distress; the moment captures all, and speaks all.  I might also suggest that what is depicted is always a process, and is always designed, or is usually taken, to be consumed as such, as dramatic action, and that the temporally frozen representation is meant to be taken as seriously as are the picture's two dimensions on the spatial level. Both are read illusionistically: space and time are read into the canvas figurally as a matter of course if not convention.

       Already we have identified in the painting two separate and significant groups, separate in sex, in space (they make up two distinct groups), and in relation to the frame (one group dominates the centre ground, the other clings to the picture's margin). The two groups make two contrasting sources of interpretation (as a result of their sexing, spacing, and position); if we read temporal symbolism back into the picture, they may well carry differing and potentially significant temporal implications.

       As with the Poussin, but without the narrative cues, we might begin our search for temporally inflected meaning by examining the text for degrees of absence. In the absence of solid indicators we must look for traces of absence itself. Actually it is a relative absence that we seek: we begin with those parts of the painting which seem to exhibit a secondariness, or semi-presence, in relation to other clearly fore-grounded parts or presences. We must therefore begin with the background, or with the 'side-lined' - with that which is pushed to one side, or up against the frame. These 'relative absences', may be said to function as the visual analogues, or figural connoters, of memory, or of proleptic or prophetic imagination. They offer the possibility of being read as occurring in the past or in the future; in contrast to the present presence of the central, or fore-grounded, action - but which temporal index to choose? A strictly literal reading always gives the background the value of the past (the nature of space/time and a finite speed of light means that distance is always in the past relative to the present - however, this is taking literalness beyond any useful limit). Rather it is the path of symbolic reading, as figurative, or second meaning, that we will take. This path yields the temporal value of either past or future to those areas of the picture that, by their ground, position, luminosity, (lack of) distinctness, or anomaly (by size, interior perspective, or transparency/co-existence) when compared with other areas of the picture, may be found to suggest a figural or second meaning. Any final pinning-down of the figural value to past or future must await supporting evidence from other sources (first the text, then the title, context, co-texts, history, etc.).

       However, the reading of grounds and other formal arrangements as temporal need not be viewed as only a matter for second meaning as thoughtful interpretation. This chapter is concerned to show how the essential force, the felt impact, of a picture is as often explained by its temporal aspects as in its other (spatial, referential, or thematic) modes of apprehension. This immediacy or emotional impact poses the question (so often asked of figure in the context of other representational genres) is not the first (immediate) meaning not also the second (figural) meaning, indeed what is literal (the first meaning as found in another neutral context) may only be arrived at later as a result of the memory of convention. Why limit initial interpretation or response to the assumption that art is a mere (unified) reflection, or that it always presupposes a uni-temporal manifold?  As we shall see in the analysis below, these presumptions are challenged by a reading that is not only temporal, but that also finds the temporal to be near to the affective. Indeed, one alternative is to take the picture as a patchwork of temporal referents each with their own temporally discrete first meaning (and taken in as such in a first reading), with the inter-relation of the temporal values as that which confers the general possibility of meaning to the artwork, as we find to be the case in narrative, allegorical, or much medieval art.

       However, in The Oath of the Horatii, the oath of the title itself, symbolised in the picture by the salute to the swords, already connotes the future. An oath is a promise to do something at a future time. It also functions in subjunctive mode, signaling desire and uncertainty, and the promise as a performative, a symbol which is also an act - in this case bearing upon the future. In this way, the future is already referred to in the title and the picture's central tableau - which may, without violence, be read as a dramatic deictic gesture (a moment that gathers up the past and hurls a promise into the future, a future which at first sight might appear to be lying outside of the picture). Yet, the future orientation of the oath-taking already contradicts the 'at a single glance' hypothesis, if only by suggesting that the viewer look for signs of that future elsewhere in the picture and because interpretation is always already involved in the process of perception. 

       If we now combine the central tableau of the painting with what has been said on the subject of temporality and figure - if we contrast the centrally presented group against its others - then all that is not within the central ground becomes opened to temporal interpretation (or, if we wish to use figural terms, as with the relation of the title which allows us to read the salute as an oath, to convert spatial first meaning into temporal second meaning). The absence within the background arches, three dark spaces that echo the three younger oath-takers, and the de-centred presence of the group of women can now be read as a temporal commentary upon the oath and its results. If the positioning of the two groups in the picture makes it possible to read the figure-ground and centre-margin relations as gendered, then the death, or sacrifice, of one of the mourning women in the picture's source story only confirms the degree of the women's secondariness as suggested by their positioning in the picture. Centre and non-centre appear to enter into a relation of cause and effect; the ominous absence behind the men bodes ill for their project (darkness and classical austerity together constitute a background of severity and foreboding, the enunciation of a threat, regardless of the consequences). This effect of tragic foreboding is underscored by the resigned postures of the mourning women at the picture's margin. The positioning of this group and its collective posture is felt as containing futural significance, whether read as an anticipation of events to come, or as a portent and prolepsis (as a temporally back-shifted image of the mourning to come; an image of, or from, the future).

If we look more closely at the work’s background, we can see that, not only is the space within the arches dark, but also that is becomes darker from (our) left to right; that is, more dark, more occluded, as we move towards the future in the traditional direction of spatialised narrative (our, left to right, the object's right to left) indicating a tragic outcome (note also concerning the futural deixis, that there is no ‘instant’ here, neither in time, in the rhetoric of temporality depicted nor in their reading - the details take a little 'time' to process). Furthermore, the spear mounted on the wall under the arcaded space also points from (our) left to right, the direction of narrative (the arrow of time, the direction of entropy) and, as we know from the story of the Horacii, an expenditure of energy will indeed lead to a destruction of forms, of life.

These pointers from left to right also point towards a yet darker recess; to an object semi-concealed in the darkest recess, but half-revealed by an apperture placed above it on the (our) right-side of that particular arch - allowing just enough light as to show that something is there. If the increasing darkness suggests a narrative with a dark, meaning tragic, future, what of the mysterious object in the corner, with its accompanying window light? Although indistinct, its general form suggests an altar or a place for keeping important, that is venerated or sacred objects; objects definitive of the tribe and its religion, and so symbolising its identity. Because indistinct, its air of mystery is increased, and so the suggestion of a sacred place is proffered in an economy of suggestion made more effective by its very lack of clarity - an atmosphere suitable for the mysterious and the sacred, with their sublime or transcendentally exterior (rhetoric of eternity) deixis. The window and its illumination, not only permits the form in the recess to be seen, but by means of light and sky, offers a hint of rising verticality, to the source of light (absent in the picture, and so also bearing a figurative exterior deixis). The window thus reinforces the object’s sacrality by its suggestion of the heavens; darkness and light, mystery and illumination from above (occlusion and clarity-giving light) mutually condition the meanings available to this past of the picture. We have in fact rejoined the title as the addressees and guarantors of the oath, the sacred centre of the oath-takers’ cultural tradition, are their gods, whose altar appears to make up such an important part of the background of this painting. 

In another play of light and shade, the evocative shadow of the painting's background points up the highlighting of the centre-ground, and so further adds to the foregrounding, in terms of significance, of the faceces, the swords that cross, their form reinforced again by the lateral, transverse cross of the picture's outer edges, the corners of its form and frame. Again the temporal rhetorical effect is to emphasis the present presence of the bright swords and the oath, with the ominous tone of the shadowy background foretelling the grim events that lie ahead in the future- the oath's futural intentionality provides the bridge between present and future, between intention and outcome, between cause and effect. Indeed the future-in-the-present of the oath also conjoins the title and the painting, and so word and image, as well as present and future (as well as past and future for those that know the details of the story), and centre- and background in its key role in the meaning making of this painting. 'Le Serment des Horace' converts center/margin, and fore-/ background relations, that is illusionistic space, into time, into a temporal relationship which then offers the meaning, affective and rationalised, to the involved and, perhaps thoughtful, onlooker. The temporal relations support the theme - which offers temporal depth to 'the moment'.

Should original context or first reception be required to help make sense of the effect of the picture (or to anchor that effect in a prior context), then the art historical details of the picture's genesis and reception, of the story of the Horatii and of the public's response to the picture, will be found to support the symbolic, or temporal, reading given above. The oath taken shows the moment when three sons, chosen to represent Rome in a fight over property rights and livestock, swear to defeat their opponents, who are, however, linked to their family by ties of marriage and betrothal. As in the history of literature, so art too, often takes as its topic a clash of loyalties that divide the individual as much as a given social formation. The general foreboding, or futural deixis, of the picture now includes, not just the threat of bloodshed, but of the actual spilling of the blood of relatives - culminating in the murder of a sister who dared to mourn for the death of her intended. On this level, art historical detail (knowledge of the original story or source material) serves to particularise the content of the picture's general temporal effects. 

       Perhaps more interesting is the response to the picture's arrival in the public sphere and the causes of its sudden popularity. If the arrival was also that of a highly politicised form of neo-classicism, then the picture's popularity was largely due to its supposed defiance of tyrants; the oath has become a promise of resistance. With this contextual explanation of the picture's first reading or reception (a reception hardly in tune with the source story), the picture's temporal deixis simply returns to a more general form of ominous future. Its transformation into a symbol of mass defiance is at once an ethical stance and a moral justification, and a portent of revolution and general bloodshed.[3] In this way the temporal relation of origin and end, of cause and effect, as a key part of the picture's initial aesthetic success, are made plain if the picture is read in this way for its figural narrativity.

       In the Oath of the Horatii, the reading of the temporal element returns the fate-laden future as the picture's 'proper' theme and as the source of its tense and ominous mood. A closer examination of the temporal configuration presented underscores the traditional readings of the picture's reception and suggests why a discrepancy in source and first reading (as of the picture's continued impact upon the viewer untutored in the facts of source material or first reception) could occur and on what basis. It is the temporal, with its manipulation of the painting's affective force, that provides the general basis for more particular, even mutually contradictory, readings.




Monet, the ‘Grainstacks’ series.


With Claude Monet's Grainstacks series (1888-1889, 1890-91), we approach the birth of painterly modernism and the beginning of the twentieth century.[4] Monet's work is normally understood in terms of impressions, moments, and instants; all of which are said to be made up of light and colour - in this way Monet's works may be read as leading the way to abstraction because of its increasing purity and lack of realism. It may therefore appear perverse to suggest that, in a series of paintings which is especially known for its experiments with light, it is temporality that may have the greater explanatory power. Clearly my reading will not find favour with the specious (and historically untrue) argument that Monet was a painter of the seasons through light, and that the documenting of cyclic effects of light was his true topic.

      Yet most readings of the Grainstacks series still concentrate on the quality of the light portrayed in Monet's series and emphasise its variability according to the seasonal cycle. If the annual cycle can be read as returning to the painterly surface, the 'instant', or instance, of the 'gathering' together of the 'shining' of the natural cycle of seasons, then one might equally think of including the social cycle, or social time, of the production of the grainstacks, or of their constructors, the labourers (or of the grainstacks' consumption) in the pictures' interpretative relations, and not elide them as irrelevant to the picture's 'beautiful' effect.

       Indeed the effect becomes less beautiful, more mixed with melancholy, with desperation, with stubbornness, even with a luminous tenacious resistance, the more we observe the context of the grainstacks, the condition of the soil, the weather, and the habitations as the pictures present them to the viewer. Yet it is the grainstacks themselves that are, finally, in and of themselves unsettling - even uncanny. Something persistent and ominous hollows out the pleasure of the light, the colour, the proportions, and offers a mixed pleasure; our visual pleasure is suffused with some discomfort. A sign that our affectability, our nascent interpretation, has recognised that there is more, and that this 'more', this 'something else', as yet unspoken and apparently concealed, will require a little thought, a little self-reflection, to explain. 

        If the grainstacks are found to be unsettling, if their quality of light is found to be uncanny, then we may ask, are they not symbolic of something else? Something perhaps showable or, if not, if abstract, universal, indicating a relation to some Other, or a relation defined by the negative, then at least amenable to verbal description. What we have, in this case, is an aesthetic experience that draws upon the workings of the figural (it contains a reference to a second meaning). And perhaps we are faced with that special category of the figural which suggests that grandiose, religious, or universal notions are part of this second meaning. When a part (of the picture) is a figure (symbol) for a larger whole (the second meaning), or when the picture itself in its total affectivity can be read to play such a figurative role, and when this larger entity may be a system of thought, of belief, or even just unimaginable because too general, too vast, or too abstract - then we are dealing with the notion of the Sublime. Clearly this sublime meaning, may be (and on reflection often is) activated by its very lack of a capturable whole; it may not be captured by a concrete thought or image, or words connoting such, but only by a paraphrase of abstract words. Similarly, it may be that what is connoted or symbolised (to use the nineteenth century's favourite word for this relation) is its lack of unity, its being constituted by irreconcilable forces which continually threaten to break apart any putative or fragile unity or wholeness.

       I would like to suggest that in Monet's Grainstacks this second (symbolic or Sublime) meaning would include the social time of the Grainstacks. This social time would expand the present depicted moment of the Grainstacks into a process, or narrative that is made up of, not only a part of time, its present, but also its past and future. To decode the impact of the Grainstacks series, and explain this strange feeling of unsettling beauty, we will need to call upon the past and future to augment the already presented present. In a sense the feeling we have, the picture's sublime impact, acts a pointer towards these other aspects of lived temporality.

       In the Grainstacks series the deixis of the Sublime is Time. Time appears first as narrative, as the restoration of past and future. As the familiar and friendly sense-making operation of narrative, the Grainstacks series are part of a story. However, as we shall see, Time will soon appear in an altogether more radical guise, as something altogether more unfriendly, something lacking in sense altogether. Let us begin with Time in its familiar aspect. The unpresented elements of the time of the Grainstacks series consists of the production of these same grainstacks as their past, as past which is contrasted to the present of the picture's shining light, their illumination, and their setting as finished objects. This present is also contrasted with their future, their utility, use, intended function, or moment of consumption. The grainstacks are after all just a means of storage, stored grain, stored labour, stored time (made from deferred consumption, return, or realisation, and so invested). They are, indeed, made from stored light. One reason, perhaps, why they seem so full of hidden meaning, and why they are often depicted as darker than the surrounding landscape. The sun almost always shines into the grainstacks from behind (or from an angle); as if pouring its light into a receptacle. The resulting effect is the, often strangely coloured, pool of shadow that is a prominent feature in many of the paintings in the series.[5]  The light enters and does not emerge. The pictures may depict the end-product of hay making, of growth, reaping, gathering, and construction: but they also repeat, re-enact, or refer to, a crucial moment in this process; the very moment that gives the whole process its rationale and makes possible its function. The grainstacks store the light. However, the relative absence of light in the grainstacks' shadow also suggests another meaning quite apart from that of storage: in and of itself the presence of shadow suggests the very absence of light, of heat, of energy. The loss of light in the picture's shadowy areas not only suggests and points, it is also is in a state of contrast to the stored light of the sun in the grainstacks. This suggests an explanation for the strange colouring of the grainstacks themselves - one source of their uncanny presence. Heat is represented (figurally) as if perceived in the infra-red register. Hence, perhaps, the warm colour of many of the winter (but not only the winter) grainstacks, which is in dramatic contrast to their colder-toned surroundings - see, for example: Grainstacks (End of day; autumn.) 1890-1891. The Art Institute of Chicago; Grainstacks. (Winter.) 1890-1891. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Grainstack (snow effect; overcast day) 1890-1891. The Art Institute of Chicago.[6]

        But what is it that the light, the labour, and the time (of natural and social cycles) are stored up against? It is here that we begin to see the working of the relationship to the painting's sublimity. The feeding of hungry mouths in the cold and lightless winter; the maintenance of a physiology that requires energy to maintain its biological and chemical structure, so that it may in turn reproduce itself; these in turn producing, and reproducing (in cycles) a social structure. In a word, storage (of the past) to sustain the future structure of organised forms (on a number of levels) against decay - against entropy. It is entropy that is the hidden aspect of the uncanny or sublime relation. It is entropy which is the abstract, the 'too large', or otherwise unrepresentable process in question. If production, consumption, the social, the species, or the cycles of time are all involved in the general relation to the sublime, then it is entropy, the heat-loss of the universe, the decay of all structure, form, and order, that constitutes the most profound relation to the sublime. Whether as unrepresentable, as the origin of the pleasurable terror of Romantic aesthetics, as an unimaginable vastness, or as persistent fear of creeping process that is at once invisible and ever-present, a deadly seriousness that is almost unthinkable, it is entropy which is figured in the dull red glow of the grainstacks (larger than Kant's Law is the force which this Law was designed to subvent; morality as the answer to social chaos). Paradoxically, entropy's apparent gift of the (irreversible) arrow or direction of time, the gift of sense-making narrative itself, turns out to be a gift which can only lead to dissolution for all and any entities of a temporal character. The sublimity of Monet's Grainstacks series, our feeling of disquiet at this strange and unsettling beauty, lies in our recognition of the implications of this process, of the arrow of time and its entropic message. The recognition of the content of the sublime is the recognition of our very survival as a species.[7] In the context of the theme of survival, the sheer number of winter scenes amongst the Grainstacks series is especially relevant; of the 1890-1891 series, 12 of 25 were set in winter (Tucker, p. 81). In addition there are the chilling winter scenes Monet painted of Mount Kolsaas in Norway (1895) (several of these can be found in Tucker, p. 180-186) with their bleak, inimical winter environment.

       The theme of human survival is further reinforced by the shape of the built structures in the Grainstacks series (whether grainstack or dwelling). These shapes may be read as symbolic in at least two ways; as similitude (metaphor) and as pointer (deixis). In the first, the form of the grainstacks echo that of a house, also copying its function; shelter for the structure's contents. Survival, the function of storage as safety of the grainstack's contents, echoes the function of the 'home' form. However this is not so much a case of 'form follows function' (grain or haystacks come in an amazing variety of forms), as of a wish incarnated in form (their meaning is, in rhetorical terms, subjunctive, and performative). The figural repetition of a form, a repetition further augmented by the proximity of house and grainstack on the canvas (they often lie on the same plane or line) suggests that the grainstacks should not only protect their contents, but also their owners or consumers, whoever, or whatever, they might be. It is a case of a metaphor (a house 'looks like' a grainstack) leading to a synecdoche (the movement from part to an extended field of meaning, the 'whole' meaning); from the grainstacks to those who rely upon them.

       The symbolism of the house reinforces the general interpretation of the light and colour of the Grainstacks, an interpretation which is further augmented by the second symbolic source of the grainstack's strange beauty; their ability to point, their deixis. The pointed tips of house and grainstack function on a symbolic level as a deictic, as a sublime and so figural pointer (the line and its ability to 'point', join colour and form in the making of the paintings' meaning). If the shining sacralises the storage (it reflects and gilds, but it also creates the contents), which will maintain human life, as a gift of the sun (a pagan sacralisation), it is also the pointed roofs of these structures that 'point' upwards in turn, referring back to the source of their contents and the illumination of their exterior (how else can one illuminate the function of storage?). The inter-relation and significance of sun and grainstack in the widest possible sense is the very subject matter of the Grainstacks series. 

       The story, then, behind the affectivity of the Grainstacks series, is that energy is stored to counteract the entropic effects of pure linear time, the only pure linear or uni-directional time (or sign of time) we have. The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, is the only sure sign of the 'arrow of time', and is therefore recognised as the only true irreversible and so uni-directional process (the laws of physics alone are notoriously reversible, including equations dealing with time).[8]  Light is light loss, is expenditure. It is the sun's entropic self-consumption that constitutes visibility, light as reflection, making possible retinal vision, making possible the depiction of this self-same reflection from the surface of the grainstacks, a reflection which is contrasted to the light which is stored in the heart of the grainstacks.

       In the course of this process of representation and interpretation, a number of forms of temporality may be found to interact together to make the pictures' effect (their affectivity) and their meaning (but these forms do not necessarily form a whole, any more than that the meaning of these forms may be completed). The experiential temporality of the present, whose effects/affectivity utilise the experiential categories of past and future, point to two very different kinds of time. Cyclic and linear time, or social, and natural cycles, are contrasted with the very process that gives us the difference between past and future in our experience, and the uni-directional movement of the content of these experiential categories. Our human experience of time (of temporality) is a gift of entropy. Yet the giver of time (the direction or arrow of time) is also the eternal and irresistible foe of all existing form, even of all that exists (all general economies are entropic).

       The series represents - and is moving, is sublime, to the extent that it  represents - linear time in conflict with cyclic time. This conflict is presented through the experiential time of the present; with past and future as figural valencies which lead the viewer into the origin and ends of the cyclic processes and their relentless enemy. The struggle is at once human (the social cycle, history as 'we' time, + narrative + clock time) and universal (the natural, or calendar, solar cycle, and the eroding power of linear entropy, or the march of time).

       As a symbol, the grainstacks and their anti-entropic function carry with them a particular and a general allegorical connotation. The particular evokes tales of human survival in the face of the elements and (in the world's temperate zones) the cyclic return of winter (the winter scenes remind us of this vividly, the grainstacks almost seem to burn with energy in the cold winter light). On a more general level there is also a epic, heroic level of meaning: it is the very survival of the social and of the species itself that is coded into the general figural frame of the paintings and which turns the simple beauty of colour and light into a complex of feelings with cosmological overtones. Stored time acts as a breaker against the relentless tides of the arrow of time adding emotional and intellectual depth to an evocation of light.



Edward Hopper’s Spaces.


If the urban landscapes of Edward Hopper haunt us with their modernity, they also belong to a tradition. The depiction of the everyday spaces of the modern can be found in the analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque. The avant-garde combination of the ordinary, the popular and the everyday, with a modernisist technique of representation, can be dated back to Cezanne, and beyond him to Impressionism, to Manet and to Corot's influence on the artists associated with Barbizon. Hopper's encounter with modernity refers to this previous aesthetic tradition, both in its choice of figurality and in its reliance upon a technique of defamiliarisation. Like much aesthetic tradition, even that of the radicals who felt that they had transcended the religious influence that drove so much of the art of the past, Hopper's project interrogates the relationship of the sacred to society, reconfiguring for us the supposedly absent relation of the sacred to the modern as well as what is held sacred in modern societies. If the term, ‘Modern’, may itself be defined by the rejection, by the troubling absence or of the ambivalence of the sacred, it may be that instead of the fabled tabula rasa of Modernism what we are presented with is in fact a new sense of the sacred, another relation to the sublime that has been brought or is being brought into being. It is this tension between a supposed absence and the uncanny presence of this absence and the topics of gender, labour and consumption, I will argue (whether present as residual force, guiding ideal, or question asked of the direction of modern life) that haunts and disturbs Hopper's naturalist manner of depiction. I will try to show how this tension manifests itself in some of Edward Hopper's key paintings and indicate, in turn, how this manifestation is reliant upon the temporal relations present in the paintings.                                          

A key American painter before the advent of Abstract Expressionism (against which he is often defined as a 'New Realist' specialising in the depiction of America) Edward Hopper produced paintings which present the viewer with evocative surfaces, planes and textures as much as they offer an evocative content.[9] It is these surfaces, as much as their referential subject matter, their equivocation between these, that contribute to the overall affective impact of Hopper's art; an impact which works upon the inner experience of the viewer to promote the disturbing sensation of a narrative hiatus, a gap in the flow of normality, a moment inserted in-between the pageant of everyday life, and the unsettling sensation that, just perhaps, the world in really this way (and not the other). This effect is, I will argue, one born of the picture's general temporal relations.[10] Yet if the surfaces, textures, planes and grounds do play an important role in the impact and interpretation of Hopper's art, their contents will, nevertheless, effect their reception: the paintings are often set in the context of urban life, or its clash with nature, or in the conjunction of individuals with an 'in between' situation (a work break, leisure time, a 'before' or an 'after' moment).[11] Before proceeding to a detailed reading of New York Movie, I would like to examine several works that will serve to introduce Hopper's themes along with the role of temporality in the rhetoric of their realisation.

       A major source of aesthetic significance in Room in Brooklyn (1932), can be found in the painting's foreground/background distinction.[12] The combination of the roofs of the background with their screen-like surfaces and the fore-grounded staring or daydreaming person - where the back of the head, connoting absence of self, a sense of personal abstraction or being otherwise lost in thought - suggests a movement away from the present as a wandering through time.[13] The background becomes the place of remembered pasts and possible futures; each roof, not only another place, but another time, a time outside of present life or place. We see the past or future of the character figure's fantasy in the windows. Or rather we don't; for nothing is projected there. Yet the planes and repetitions work upon the viewer in such a way as to suggest the contrary. Something it seems is configured there, something evoked, but never quite visible, never quite given voice. More than a silent movie, it is an invisible film that runs in the shadow world of Hopper's screens. This uncertain brooding absence, Hopper's sublime, points, like all sublime effects, to a place (or time) exterior to that of the site of depiction. This deixis, suggesting a double world that exists alongside that of the visible, is the product of another key Hopper technique. The form, the texture, the sections, the near abstract disposition of space in many of his paintings, their sub-division into units and screens, themselves suggest an ambiguity with respect to significance, a 'something else', so augmenting the symbolic absences and semi-presences which carry the potential for temporal readings.  This un-homeliness or anxiety, caused by a space which appears to point to something other than itself and so figurally inseparable from temporal otherness, is therefore an effect of the combination of the painting's grounds, its referential forms, and its almost abstract colour and geometry. Further, the colour and repetition of the (new) horizon which is the top of the opposite building may suggest that the character is dreaming her future in the urban world. However, this aspect of the background may also be read as referring to the past as the source of a repetition to be dreaded in the future (or possibly even of the remembrance of a pleasant event long gone). It is this combination, ambiguity, or alternation of temporal modes which operates in turn the varieties of unease or uncertainty the viewer perceives in Hopper's most evocative work.[14]

Stairway (1925), is among the eeriest of Hopper's paintings and exploits another key Hopper motif: the symbolic possibilities inherent in entrances and exits.[15]  The inanimate is represented as that which waits. In this painting the present presence of place, the dominant space-time represented, takes the form of a junction. We are presented with an in-between place and time; a pure hiatus accentuated by the plainness, repetition, or indistinctness of the 'other' space, the place beyond the door.  This latter space may be read temporally as past or future to the stairway's present. If this in-between space is read as the past, then, unnervingly, there is no memory; no space for the 'before' is found in representation. Yet if this space is read as the space of the future - and this temporal valency would fit in with the implied progression in time from before the top of the stairs (the present) to the door leading outside (the future) - then what is configured is the unknown. However we may also be witness to the known as repetition; a past is repeated in the future, but one which the implied viewer wishes to forget. If we combine both temporal valencies, then the choice of options for the future is between a bland repetition (the past continued) and the option of choosing for another (as yet unknown) form of life. This is the familiar tension between the stale and known as unsatisfying but safe, and the unknown as potentially dangerous (a symbolic gesture giving the inside the value of safety, the outside, that of danger). Indeed the colour, luminosity, proportions, viewpoint, and especially the vanishing points (which converge on the dark, indistinct outside) combine to suggest a trajectory from the past (the before of the stairs, the place of the viewer), through the anxious present, which fills the space of the picture, and the future (the place outside of the door).[16]  This is the urban dilemma. An inner fear, uncertainty, or anxiety, a temporal relation refracted through the future, is projected onto a physical environment (which may indeed deserve such fear). The depiction of this environment is then divided into analogues for interiority and exteriority (inside and outside, present and future/past). If we have been able to read time from space, or subjectivity and identity from the canvas and its illusionism, by way of a figural relation, it is because the temporal (and so the subjective, affective, and identitarian) can only be inscribed into two (or three) dimensions in this manner. The painting enacts the ineluctable relation of the viewing consciousness to time in visual content. As an object of perception, it can do nothing else. (Even narrative prose or drama can only do this if the time -that is the story- is stopped at a point read as the present; leaving the past as a memory and the future open to projection. Certain novels by Faulkner and plays by Beckett appear to operate within this hiatus - classical rhetoric has a term for such an interruption of narrative: hypotyposis. With Beckett the entire drama often takes place in the space/time of this interval, this in-between).

       A starker combination of space and person occurs in Automat (1927).[17] Much of what has been said of Room in Brooklyn and Stairway would apply to Automat. Indeed the latter can usefully be read as a combination of the rhetorical techniques employed in the former paintings. From Room in Brooklyn we have the presence of a consciousness (or a character-figure as an implied focus for such a projection, or identification) and from Stairway, we are offered the dark background space (where the implied consciousness is that of the viewer on the verge of stepping onto the eponymous staircase). Automat combines screen and figure, in the process giving the figure a face (she already has a gender).

       The background of Automat features a huge back-window, a retreating sequence of lights (just possibly shining through the glass, more probably reflected in it), and a vanishing point to nowhere.[18] Before this window an apparently disconsolate figure sits.[19] The moment is pregnant with anxiety. The background's figural temporality provides the viewer with the options: is it the future that is empty? Or is it the past? The tragic tone of the picture suggests that it is both. Temporality continues but narrative ceases. There is nothing to tell. The anxiety of the future, as symbolised by the window and its content, of what is yet to come, may imply an unknown path: or it may suggest a path only too familiar, a future rooted firmly in the past, the insistence of an unwanted continuity - a reflection of what has gone before, a return of the same. Repetition has given form to a narrative non-sequitur. 

          If the position of the viewer in Stairway is that of the implied user of the stairs, then Room in Brooklyn links viewer to represented character, or character figure, through their shared viewpoint over the city's horizon. In this way the affective response of the external viewer may be imputed to a position internal to the painting. The affective viewpoint is both internal and external, and so overlapping. In Automat, it is the posture of the character figure (again a woman) that permits the viewer to read his or her affective response as an analogue of the character's dilemma. The self-consciousness of this mise-en-abime structure in the viewer means that self-consciousness may also be implied as part of the meaning of the picture, posing the questions: to what extent is the picture's affect a comment upon the character's predicament, and to what extent is it readable as a representation, or enactment, of her awareness of this predicament (the predicament as affect is enacted in the implied viewer)? This reading of the representation of inner regard as putative self-consciousness, of the temporal rhetoric of a painting as the means to construct an identity and voice its problems, also applies to another painting by Edward Hopper.


New York Movie (1939) is classic Hopper in its themes and techniques.[20]  Screens, surfaces, openings, a character-figure, the inner regard, all are present. Yet this painting is so precisely divided in half that the two sides almost constitute two separate pictures. The expected motifs, figures, and forms have been doubled; a replication with difference offers itself up as a diptych. The left half (our left) depicts a relatively deeper space than the shallow depth of the opposing right hand side. The various grounds are almost evenly divided into two and are best dealt with as effectively doubled (as with all else in the picture). The background of the left side consists of a cinema screen: on the right side there is a rising stairwell. The middle-ground of the left side features a man and a woman (the latter is positioned further back and is almost indistinguishable from her surroundings), portals (possibly toilets) on the side of the cinema, and the last of the receding overhead lights. Whereas the right middle ground consists of a door frame and curtains (next to a standing -or possibly leaning- usherette). The middle foreground of the picture as whole contains a dividing pillar with a left (ornamental) side and a right (functional) plane surface or partition. The foreground on the left side consists of empty chairs only, and on the right side, although slightly back and to one side, there is a marginal corner, the shallow space of the right half, which takes up half of the picture, where the usherette is to be found, together with wall lamps (whose colour matches the strip on the usherette's uniform) and a carpet.[21] 

       The painting's referential or literal present is the cinema with its usherette and its customers. The implied viewpoint is from the place of the back wall (external), or from the back seats (internal), onto the usherette's corner - this ambiguity of viewpoint allows the unification of the viewpoints (internal and external) and of the picture itself as two spaces viewed from a privileged position. The (dual) space of the painting is unified by the viewer and by its presence within a frame – and, within the painting, by the presence of a vestigial foreground. The possibility of an internally implied position for the viewer encourages the latter to play the role of participant consciousness or character-viewer to the usherette's character figure, and so to impute consciousness to her also. It must be noted that in this case the character-viewer appears to find the usherette more interesting than the screen, and so, by analogy, to speculate upon her thoughts - exactly like the critic (which acts as a reminder of the potential for the position of the critic to become that of a voyeur).[22] Yet already this apparently unified field of space, or sense of place, is divided by the rhythms of time. The usherette's work time and the leisure time of the customers divide space into left and right, leading, in turn, to two backgrounds, and to two sets of vanishing points - all of which may be read as carrying temporal implications. Indeed the viewpoint may be itself divided temporally. If internal it is of the period, or the time of the painting: if external it is based in the eternal present of the implied viewer (pinned to a specific now-moment by the actual viewer). This division, by form (the two halves), by relation to consumption and production and their respective cycles, and by gender, provides our first temporal cue. The usherette gives us our second temporal cue. Her posture suggests that she is thinking - perhaps daydreaming, or worrying?  If she muses in the painting's present, whatever she is musing upon is absent, is non-presented, and quite probably relates to matters located in the past or the future rather that in the immediate present.[23] This absence of thought representation with its concomitant implication of a temporal elsewhere also provides a bridge to the two backgrounds as interpretable in terms of the past or the future, as symbolic keys to the usherette's implied interior vision. Indeed, in contrast to the others in the cinema who are watching the screen, the usherette's regard is turned inward, further permitting, even inciting, the viewer to seek symbolic indicators as to the contents of her implied consciousness, her thoughts as a character-figure, elsewhere in the picture.

       One of these indicators may be in the picture within a picture (the end of a mise-en-abime that begins with the picture frame, passes through the left half, and ends at the picture's top left hand corner). The contents of the screen (black & white) are unclear (possibly representing a snowy mountain scene) and belong to the opposite side, of the painting - that of the usherette. Perhaps it is her entry into this space, the space of escapism, that the usherette dreams of transforming herself from worker to consumer, and from servant to master. The empty chairs of the left half may, in this sense, be for her. The vanishing points of the floor and ceiling around her, on the right hand side of the painting, also point towards this screen. At work, does she think on leisure; specifically the leisure pursuit obtaining in the 'other' half of the painting?[24] 

      Following this line further we might ask if it is the content of the film on show that she thinks upon (and to which the vanishing points of her half of the painting lead)? If the screen's content features one of the popular genres of adventure or romance, then we are offered the usherette as wishing to participate in the escapism it offers, yet excluded by her job (by time, her labour time has been sold) as well as by space from the spectacle around the corner. Indeed, if the screen is showing a film (or scene) concerned with desire, then the usherette may be thought of as musing upon her own desire. The non-representation or hidden character of these thoughts may suggest their difference from the sanctioned fantasy on show, or their distance from the cliched question of an older generation of psychoanalysts (Freud, Lacan): what does a woman want?

       The two halves of the picture appear differentiated by sex, by a sexual division of labour, and by their associated gender roles. There is a woman consumer; but she is a -barely visible- background figure when compared to the visual priority of the male customer. Indeed, the ornamental column, or ornamented side of the painting's central horizontal partition, structurally a 'false' pillar or decoration, has the phallic character of such structures (just like the phallus in psychoanalytic theory, which is just a sign and not the thing itself). This combination of gender, role, and symbolism suggests that the public space of entertainment and leisure is (primarily) masculine, for the use of men, and that the public sphere (in the 1930s) was to be thought of as a, primarily, male preserve - a preserve however, to be serviced by women (the right hand side of the central dividing feature may be the functional pillar, or may be a partition with the functional weight-bearing structure hidden behind).[25] If the division of the picture's space, which is the division of production and consumption, is also the division of sex or gender roles, and if this division can be read on a temporal level, then the resulting temporalities will be divided by sex, will be indicators of sexual identity - as well as of identities based upon labour and consumption.[26]

       If the central column can be read as a phallic, or masculine-referring, form, then other forms are also amenable to being read as gendered (sauce for the goose is indeed sauce for the gander). The opening in the right half, adjacent to the usherette, is en-framed in folds, whilst the little lamps above the usherette may configure other aspects of the female primary sexual organ; not least as compared to the overhead lamps in the other half which in their form suggest mammary glands (giving light rather than milk) as do the snowy mountains on the screen behind them. These latter perhaps function as indexes of masculine fantasy (but also of lesbian fantasy, as sexuality, choice of sexual object, enters the story through the minimal presence of a woman on the 'male' side of the picture). The barrier indicates that the two sexual imaginaries here implied are not joined (Lacan: 'there is no sexual relation') and that any real relations happens off-image, off-screen, off-painting; elsewhere. What we have, here in this most 'realist' of artists, is another use of deixis in art to point to the real, the important, the prior, as being outside representation.[27] This is the place where readings based upon the work of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan joins forces with that of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Both prefer the Word to the Image: for Lacan the Symbolic is preferred as a more direct route to the authenticising unconscious; for Levinas the iconoclast, the authentic lies in the Word of God, the Image is a false relation, a golden calf inciting idolatry.     

If we read the areas not immediately present as the presented non-present (past and future), then the full temporal dimensionality available to consciousness again reasserts itself. An option of escape or critique which is an alternative to the situation presented within the picture itself, an alternative option implied immanently by the picture's symbolic or second meanings, will require a temporal dimension to ground its possibility as an alternative future. Such an alternative must involve more than just stasis; it needs a rejected past and an index into the future to motivate the search or critique (the present here functions as the continuation of the past, otherwise the event depicted would already be sufficiently temporally transitional). Even the depiction of stasis, as can be seen from Hopper's other pictures, implies the existence of a past as the threat of the ever-same persisting into the future, or of the anxiety of the unknown to come (again, the future). If the tragedy of stasis, as represented in Hopper's paintings, is to be transformed into a critique of the situation they represent, it must be by means of temporality, that is, by the very means that awaken our affective interaction with the painting. The same textual rhetoric that underlies the sensing of a problem in the painting, the nagging 'something else' indicated by grounds, vanishing points, and surfaces, as well as by the posture of character figures, is capable of extending the sense of 'something else' from description and diagnosis to a potential for change, which in turn signals the position from which a critical and ethical judgment may be made. The movement of interpretation would then become: from the future as (the repetition of) a problem, to the future as the site of the possible (solution).

       In New York Movie the past and future become present in the picture through the portions of the text which appear secondary, are more distant, which may even be absent yet referred-to from the world of the image-text. In general textual features such as the background, marginality, indistinctness, the deixis of a vanishing point, indeed whatever the viewer feels has less presence than the foreground, whether figure or feature, all may support temporal co-relates. In this painting the cinema screen (left) and the exit (right) figure as a double background (suggesting a double symbolic economy), that we might wish to read as connotative of past or future (or of both). If the contrasting sides of the painting can be read as the simultaneously depicted pasts or futures of a repetitive cycle of labour time and leisure time, then the life of the usherette is shown as a cycle of production and consumption, with the left half of the picture simultaneously giving us an example (or synecdoche) of her non-work activity, and suggesting that consumption may not always offer the rewards expected. A third possibility suggests her connection to the picture as fantasy participant of the movie, site of her imagined desire and imaginary identifications (in parallel perhaps with our identification with the picture and its character).

        Moreover the background of each side may symbolise one of two futures for the usherette, one side, as indicted above, as a consumer, in her post-work role (the immanent, or 'internal' option). The other future is contained in the exit on the (our) right, to exit would be to enter the future, it would be a future action. Such an action might suggest a more general exit from the cinema (and the imaginary world it represents) and be read as leading to participation in some other form of consumption or leisure activity - or it may indicate a complete exit from a particular division of labour and its life-styles (the utopian or transcendent 'external' route). On the other hand, the cinema screen may be read as showing a film or feature already made and so indicating the past (even if consisting of a news-reel), here the usherette's life in the world of consumption: in contrast to the exit door on the picture's left which would remain symbolic of an, as yet unspecified, future possibility. A possibility which may constitute an unseen and therefore unknown alternative which may equally be, as we have seen in Automat, as in other similar paintings by Hopper, the source of some trepidation (this time it is the unfamiliar that is the source or anxiety). What will the future hold, is there a (different) future at all, and if so is it achievable? Freedom too has its terrors.  On this reading the division of the text is a division into good and bad options, or better, into stale and unknown options. Such a reading is in full consonance with the overall mood of the picture. Temporality again shows its versatility in explicating our intuitive feel of a picture, of meaning as included, rather than occluded, by attention to affect.

       The dispersion of luminosity within the picture and its relation to the 'eye-leading' of the vanishing points, appear to support such a reading.  Indeed, the cinema lights 'float' and obscure the screen and its contents (this suggests that, as far as the implied viewer is concerned, we might finally decide on an external viewpoint, as it is too high to be a person sitting in the back row). The lights even appear more 'real' than the screen (black & white); the cinema lighting is more attractive or intense than than the lighting of the screen and its indistinct images. The doubled red/orange lighting leads to the double vanishing points of both 'halves' of the picture, one containing a dead-end colourless screen, one a flight of stairs, glowing red, presumably leading to a door which is also a way out. We are presented with a binary space divided between illusion and exit, where fake visions are opposed to a call to escape - perhaps even to make one's recreational activity active, rather than passive - of finding an alternative to spending one's leisure time lost in illusion.[28]  

       The trajectory of the vanishing points does appear to reinforce this set of interpretative options.  The ends of the doubled vanishing points of the picture's symbolic halves lie, in part, within the double framing of a part of each background. The left background is framed referentially by a screen frame and its surround: the door on the right side is framed by curtains, lintel, and a wall. The vanishing points involve an implied movement of the eyes from (our) right to left, from lower to higher - although the vanishing point of the cinema lights occurs nearer the base of the screen, a visual cue (augmented by their intensity and colour) to the redundancy of the screen and its contents.  Of the double termini of the vanishing points, one is visible (left side), the screen, coloured in black and white; and the other is invisible (right side), and emits a warm coloured light, the symbolic end of the rising stairwell, beyond the frame of the door and the frame of the picture. Where does the latter lead to? In life it leads to home (on which the usherette's thoughts may rest), to family, children, or leisure activity; or, if we read the usherette's thoughtful appearance as meditative self-consciousness, it may, figuratively, lead to another life, the prospect of another job, as noted to another mode of consumption or leisure activity, or even an alternative to labour (even, in full utopian mode, an alternative to the division of labour and leisure). Visual and symbolic lines of flight combine to pose some difficult questions about production, consumption, and their varied forms or possibilities. Furthermore, if the formal, symbolic and economic (production/ consumption) division of space echoes the sexual division of labour and the division of sexed gender roles, then this division further suggests that the questions posed and possibility of alternatives are to be read with an eye to their implications for the role of women (the primary 'producers' in sexual reproduction and in leisure commodity production were, at the time of the picture's creation, and are still, at time of writing, women).

       The division of the painting into two halves by gender has one other important implication. If the radical division in space of Analytical Cubism left us with a manifold divided into many folds of time and space, this division is nevertheless quantitative; the temporalities revealed were hardly differentiated amongst themselves, the emphasis was upon their fragmentation and co-existence, not upon their potential for qualitative difference. With New York Movie the two spaces and their temporal co-efficients offer the viewer two contrasting kinds of life, two qualitatively distinct identities, the two different kinds of time that we have discussed are also divided by gender. Woman's time, and what that might be, can now be added to the questions posed by the right hand side of the painting, in its contrast (but not necessarily in contradiction) to its contrary. If a gendered critique or escape are proffered by the time and space of the formal properties of this half of the picture, then these questions may also be implied to the thoughts of the usherette (in contrast to the other half whose escapism is rooted in the illusion on the screen). Her time may constitute her thoughts; her thoughts, her time. This issue is left open.[29] 

       If the painting's contrasting temporalities offer us identities which are sexed as well as based upon labour and consumption, then this division also reminds us that notions of escape may differ according to identity and can not be simply located in any one answer to the painting's problematics and then imposed as part of a unified reading. Yet temporality can only indicate the general possibility of a problem and its future (in a criticism which may also be a possibility of escape). The viewers 'take' on the usherette may be coloured by their gender, but also by whether the relation to her is one of recognition (to be, to be like her, to belong to the same classification) or desire (to have, or possess her) - or an admixture of both which may combine recognition of kindred in labour or service and desire (or indeed a further kindred) in terms of sexuality.  The particular is therefore not only left up to the period or history of the viewer, but also to his or her politics of identity (or politics of desire).[30] 

      Any explication of the theme of escape, of the questioning of the relations depicted in New York Movie, must take into account the double movement, the double flow, of the viewer's vision to the (our) upper left of each half of the picture - as observed in its dual vanishing points and backgrounds. In practice, the end of this movement is elsewhere. We assume, that the door at the top of the stairs leads 'out'; yet the screen too is centred out of the frame. Does the picture refer to both of its 'escapes' as elsewhere, as taking place only (or first) in the world of representation or imagination (the film and the usherette's interior regard)? Or perhaps both invisible ends refer to 'escape' as only residing in the, otherwise unattainable, realm of art; the picture self-referentially grounds its themes to its own form of being as a work of art. Art becomes a present (collective) means to deal with the past and to pre-empt the future. In this respect art, as collective imagination, takes the place of the sacred as the provider of coherent answers to the general questions of existence or 'last things'. Yet, the combined vanishing points of the left side appear 'over-determined' and cluttered compared to the elegance and simplicity of vanishing points of the right side. Perhaps on aesthetic (that is, artistic, formal, self-referential) grounds, the stairwell - and we remember the previous Hopper Stairway - still holds the position of positive pole with its inviting but (necessarily) absent exterior exit. Hopper is never a propagandist. The logic of New York Movie has been to read the end of a spatial vanishing point as temporal: as a question asked of continuity in time, as a question asked of the future. Temporality transfers into criticism the present or presented content of the painting; an explication of the picture's affective force (its sense of stasis) also provides the means of a criticism of this stasis (and so may indicate a future).

Yet there remains something we have ignored. Something central to the picture, but almost invisible. For the implied viewer within the picture (as a member of the cinema audience) as for the viewer without (as a gallery visitor), what lies center screen is the dividing pillar, divider of space, of the picture and of the male and female (sex and gender) and the social-economic (producers/service-providers and consumers) associations of these two halves. 'We', that is, are looking at the absence at the centre of the picture; and so apparently is the usherette. She, within the world of the picture, insofar as  looking at anything, has her head turned toward this black-grey monolith, for all the world a blank screen or vertical band of impenetrable darkness. All thoughts turn to this 'gap' in the picture.  What work of significance does it perform and how does it affect the reading given so far?

       First this blank piece of canvass, this emptiness, this absence in the centre and top of the picture, may be read as connoting the 'feminine' when opposed to presence as such, traditionally read as 'masculine', and particularly when compared to the presence found in the picture in the contiguous phallic pillar . It may also be said to occur on the 'feminine' side of the picture (simultaneously dividing it from the 'masculine' half and taking its part, being a part of it). Furthermore if we go beyond a simple visual-based economy of reading (the image as privileged bearer of presence) then we find that the absence portrayed here becomes the sign of another kind of presence, invisible in this realm (in this image and in the visual world itself); it becomes the sign of another realm of significance, another place of reference and so a matter of considerable rhetorical importance. Such a reading parallels exactly the findings of a temporal reading of this space, where we find in the absence portrayed, a deixis, an indicator, or a portal to the extra-temporal. So far our temporal readings have focused on the relations of presence and semi-presence that offered the possibility of present and optional future/past temporal alignments. Now, with the interpretation of this enigmatic band of absence, we have moved beyond temporality to the outside of time, to eternity as the opposing semantic and metaphysical pole to the duration of temporality.[31] If we follow this route we find ourselves faced with the rhetorical exteriority on which our interior stability appears so often to depend (eternal truths, general propositions, truths beyond the wear and tear of the passing of time, all requiring extra-temporal status to 'support' their claims). A piece of representation is sacrificed, reality (or realism) is dispensed with; albeit in a realistic way - the figure is born of the realism of the shadow.[32] Sacrificed to allow in that which is beyond representation, beyond the space and time that shelters its bearers, beyond its limitations and theirs, to allow in a link to eternity. This is therefore a sacrifice which (like all sacrifices) guarantees order in the world; here the ordering of the two halves of the picture and the meanings associated with them.[33] 

       Within the world of the picture then, the vertical 'band' divides. This band of absence, a representative space sacrificed to a higher rhetoric, functions as the guarantor of the meanings held apart in binary tension. This band is like the sacrifice at the centre of a ritual which opens up eternity to witness and guarantee the identities the art work depicts.[34] Yet in what way does it do this? The picture's double economy holds one more twist in store for the reader of New York Movie.

The history of art too has left its trail in the picture. The source of light from the picture's top right-hand corner, echoes the presence of God in the same place in countless Annunciations as in other religious visual genres; but as this position represents God's eye view onto us, it is not of course to be 'found' on the unlucky and tabooed left (this was only ever our subjective left) but (‘His’) right (that is, the point of view of the object or image, the objective right, the picture's Right). This depiction of divine causal influence underlines here the dominance of the left-to-right directionality in art (as in other forms of representation, as of the reading of representation, in the West at least, in the countries and cultures influences by the cultures of Christianity) as the default direction of time in art, the direction of narrative. This directionality, this visual template, has since become a part of the history of art, its favourite diagonal. In this way the doubling of Western Art history's favourite diagonal in the two halves of New York Movie, takes the Annunciation at its ultimate point of reference. The issue of the Left/Right forces in the picture suggests the directionality of an Annunciation, even an Annunciation doubled; but finally a failed Annunciation - the light does not traverse the entire space of the canvass to the waiting woman; instead we have two gendered halves, each with a light source operating from the (our) top left. As with the historical Annunciation genre, there is also a double directionality to be found in the origin of the light; in each there can be found a local or temporal light source (in the prior art historical genres, the sun, here the interior lighting) and an a-temporal, absent or light of qualitatively different origin to that of the above, a symbolic or metaphysical source (the arrow of the Annunciation, the cinema screen and the light from the exit). In post-Annunciation art and photography the direction of light itself often comes to play this role. There appears to be no simple return of sacrality or full meaning to justify the world, rather the sense is that this return is denied, blocked, or provisional. Its return, in short (as in other aspects of Hopper's art) is problematic.  If the light from the far left top of the picture (traditionally the 'male' god position and side), the light from the cinema screen, does not get through, then we are instead offered an alternative; on the left side of the right side (her side). However the source of the light from the top left of the right side of the picture (her side) actually leads out from right to left; an implied motion contra to that of the normal or default movement of narrative from left to right, that is, in contrary motion to that of the default directionality of narrative in Western Art. Are we being offered a symbolic escape, inverting the norms (the default symbolics, meanings and behaviours of art as of society) as exploited by the picture itself? Where might they lead?

       If the folds of the exit on the woman's side can be read to suggest feminine imagery (folds as opposed to phallus), then the exit is yet further tagged as 'feminine', as not-male. This configuration would then also suggest that it points to a realm of 'not labour' (an exit from the 'labour' side); yet not to consumption, at least not as 'masculine' consumption (as found or demonstrated on the picture's left). Could it be that New York Movie offers the reader a 'neither/nor', the logical figure for waiting? Awaiting the Annunciation of something else, as yet unspecified; open, but not yet unfolded? Or is a different kind of labour implied? The labour of motherhood, the economy of working only in the home?

       The reading of the absence as connoting the a-temporal and so the eternal guarantor of these self-same sexual and other divisions in their current hierarchical form is questioned by the co-presence of the failed Annunciation. The light from left to right does not get through the divide, so unifying and sanctifying the received hierarchy of differences; but is doubled. There is to be no single external guarantor (rather if there is it guarantees the division, as we have seen). The division of pictorial space is not reunified; the picture remains divided. From a sub-division within One, we have Two. Each to their Annunciation, to their sacred, to their own time. (To meditate upon the meaning of New York Movie is to meditate upon the divisions that make up ourselves).

       However the  absence on the woman's side configures not only the  traditional masculine cliché of an absent organ - a figure for (social) castration, but also a figure of the outside, of eternity; now found on the female side. Is the trace of sacrality to be found in the picture to be read as feminine (as other to, or not-traditionally, masculine)? It would appear so. This inversion taken with the division of the painting's reference to its Annunciation(s) would suggest an-other, a female, response to the traditional meaning of the Annunciation. The gift of making the world's values has become part of the work (the side of the producer in the picture) of the female, a feminine remit, an act of positive creation (an act of labour). This is the (symbolic) power to make difference, to divide and to justify such differences and divisions (the legitimating absence, the rhetoric of eternity). This power has in this instance passed to the female side, to a woman, also the side of production, of labour. The usherette's posture may also be recognised as that of ‘the thinker’, a philosopher. She may no longer be waiting for God.





Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2011.

[1] Much recent discussion in aesthetics on the question of time seems to have had difficulty getting beyond the work of Gotthold Lessing, a eighteenth century critic. Lessing's concept of 'temporal and non-temporal arts', expounded in Laocoön (1766), essentially marks differences of kind, of genre, or species difference, existing at the level of the mode of engagement of the art object with the perceiving consciousness (literature, painting, sculpture, music), See Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocöon: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Trans. Edward Allen McCormick (Baltimore, USA: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984). See esp. p.78; p. 104.. Of this perception, the initial moment is regarded as crucial; has all been seen or is there more (must one turn the page or await the next scene). The arts are distinguished by their relation to duration, or process, on the one hand, and simultaneity, on the other; all rests upon whether the constituent parts may be said to coexist or are perceived as consecutive. The only question allowed is: are the parts apprehended over time or in an instant? Even if objections are raised that suggest that the time of interpretation, or 'reading', of a work, takes all the arts into the realm of duration (and that the notion of the instant, as a unit of presence, can no longer be allowed as valid), traditional aesthetics would still insist that the initial mode of apprehension would hold, and become the the basis for the imputation of fundamental differences in kind. See, for example, Jean-François Lyotard, 'Newman: The Instant', in The Inhuman, (Cambridge: Polity, 1991) pp. 78-88, which essentially focuses upon the time of interpretation, or, more precisely the moment of impact and conceptual resistance of the Abstract Expressionist work (particularly Barnett Newman), and its relation to the inexpressible or sublime relation.

[2] Jacques David, The Oath of the Horatii. Oil on canvas, 265 x 375 cm, 1784-1785. Musée du Louvre, Department des Peintures, Paris. Jeoraldean McClain, 'Time in the Visual Arts: Lessing and Modern Criticism', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fall 1985, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, (pp. 41-58), argues for the David as an example of the unity 'at a single glance' thesis (p. 49), in a reading of (neo-classical) art, according to Lessing, where the image as consumed in a moment.This reading is then opposed to later styles (Cezanne, Cubism) which suggest that, in the latter, combinations of time are represented. Agreed, yet these comments on  Cezanne and Cubism have nothing to do with Lessing's atemporal classification of the image and everything to do with an interpretation of the textual content: if the temporal synecdochal disjunction is plain for all to see it is because it is figurally recoverable from the text, and on one level my argument only suggests the extension of the significance of this figurality to all art. On the other hand, if the issue is the time of interpretation and not the length of time represented (an instant, a process) then the time taken is a matter of readership and pragmatism. Ultimately, the notion of an atemporal image and the length (and cohesion) of time represented must prove their relevance to the picture's effect (affect) and interpretation, and are not to be taken as apriori axiomatics.

[3] See also Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), p. 69; 75-76; 79; 81; 97, for an excellent summary of the picture's sources and reception.

[4] See Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings (London: Yale UP , 1989) for the meaning at time of consumption, and production, as linked to the period after the 1870 war of France with Prussia and the role of landscape as patriotism (for the lost war, for lost land, Alsace-Lorraine, and as unifying ideological response to the class and industrial problems of the time). Such a reading is not exclusive of my interpretation, but rather may be read as taking strength from the latter's connotations. A reading based upon the consumption at the time of production, or upon the dominant reading emerging at that time (a historically bound reading) is not, however, necessarily valid for all time. This is the difference between history and aesthetics, between a pure historical object (the original reading) and the current consumption of the art work (the notion of aesthetics may be glossed as the tension between the works current affectivity, success, and reading, and its universal pretentions - implied by its continuing success).

[5] See, for example, Grainstacks (Sunset.) 1889. The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, Japan; Grainstacks (Mid-day,) 1890. Australian National Gallery, Canberra; Grainstacks (Snow effects; sunlight.) 1890-1891. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

[6]  This suggestive colouring also leads the realism of the grainstacks to be questioned by Tucker  - aiding interpretations that see stacks as repositories of light, and not just convenient reflectors or objects for effects demonstrating the essence of light (Tucker, p. 88). See further, Grainstacks (Morning Effect.) 1888-1889. Private Collection; Grainstacks (Thaw; sunset.), 1890-1891. The Art Institute of Chicago; Grainstack  (Sunset; winter.), 1890-1891. Private Collection, England; Grainstack (Sunset.), 1890-1891. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

[7]  Survival is indeed linked to storage, whether as forage, as hay, or fodder for animals - or as grain. Indeed the name 'Grainstacks' itself strikes home more directly, we think of the step from grain to bread, to food chain and to human survival.

[8]  Regarding reversibilty and non-reversibility (the maths of physics and thermodynamics). It requires the additions of a quantum theory butteressed with chaos math, to give a statistical average -in the jargon of chaos theory, a 'strange attractor'- whose results tend toward the direction taken by the arrow of time, thus bringing physics into line with thermodynamcs (until now physical laws were thought to be, as some still are, reversible, awaiting the contraction of the universe).

[9] Most writing on Hopper may be divided into two broad camps: that which addresses the issue of author and art as 'American' and that which focuses on the biographical. The best examplars of each trend are; Wieland Schmidt, Edward Hopper: Portraits of America (NY: Prestal, 1995) and Vivian Green Fryd, Art and the Crisis of Marriage: Edward Hopper & Geogina O'Keefe (London: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[10]  In this sense Hopper represents a continuation of the Romantic tradition of subjectivity as interiority via landscapes that are only nominally exterior or mimetic. See also Rolf Günter Renner, Edward Hopper: Transformation of the Real, Trans. Michael Hulse. (Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1993), who quotes Hopper: 'Why I select certain subjects rather that others, I do not rightly know, unless it is that I believe them to be  the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience,' (p. 10). The role of silence as a hiatus of comprehension in Hopper's work has been noted by Joseph Anthony Ward, American Silences: The Realism of James Agee, Walter Evans, and Edward Hopper, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State UP, 1985) and Brian O' Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988), who also notes the role of imagination and personal memory as filters of experience and the formal, and so aesthetic, options of separating effect (or affect) from content or representation (p. 19; 22). Indeed, an analysis of late works, such as Rooms by the Sea (1951), would find that the treatment of those elements of abstraction in the picture might just as easily be interpreted through the notion of citation, of parts of the picture as juxtaposing different referents; the interpretation would now proceed through a discussion of the aesthetics of contrastive assembly or collage, in a similar way that the demands of abstraction and citation must be balanced in the interpretation of a Rauschenberg.

[11] Marc Augé, A Sense for the Other: The Timeliness and Relevance of Anthropology, trans. by Amy Jacobs. (Stanford, California; Stanford UP, 1998).

[12] Edward Hopper, A Room in Brooklyn  1932. Oil on Canvas, 29 x 34 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

[13] See also Ivo Kranzfelder, Edward Hopper: Vision of Reality (London: Taschen, 2002) whereRoom in Brooklyn; can be seen in the context of other rooftops, also looked at; namely, Office in a Small City, 1953 and the early etching House Tops, 1922 (p. 59).

[14] Edward Hopper, Stairway c. 1925. Oil on Wood, 16 x 11, 7/8 inches. Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am in agreement with Margaret Iverson, 'In the blind field: Hopper and the Uncanny', Art History, V. 21, No. 3 1998 (pp. 409-429), in her use of the uncanny to counter the reading of Hopper's work as 'sentimentally nostalgic' (p. 410). Something more than just another version of the Fall is involved here. The author goes on to suggest that: 'The peculiar effect of Hopper's paintings has to do with their having the quality of indirect representations of unreachable memories' (p. 426). As my analysis will go on to show, there is a further option on an uncanny linked to culture and anthropology through the relation of the sublime and the self. Here the Sublime, sewing disorder of the self to renew the self's loyalty to a system of belief (the thing or Law that is larger than itself), features the uncanny as slight disorder, as a subtle kind of the Sublime. The uncanny (a type also of defamiliarisation) then functions as a ritual transgression, a key part of a ritual reconfirmation (of self and community of belief).

[15] Of Stairway, Kranzfelder, Edward Hopper: Vision of Reality (2002) notes that the painting suggests a 'transition... from the real world into a transcendental one' (p. 35). Hopper also painted at least two other stairways with a similar symbolic impact: Stairway at 49 rue de Lille, Paris, 1906; Steps in Paris, 1906. The logical end to this metaphysical application of framed space and the stairwell can be found in Rooms by the Sea, 1951, where a door opens directly onto the sea as if onto another planet, this sense of disparity and the sea's connotation of 'oceanic' leading to 'eternal'  contributes to this picture's metaphysical otherworldliness.

[16] Further examples of such an analysis would include:Compartment C, Car 293 (1938), Approaching a City (1946), Four Lane Road (1956), Hotel Window (1956), Western Motel (1957).

[17] Edward Hopper, Automat . Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 91.4 cm, 1927. Des Moines Art Centre, Iowa.

[18] For a reading where the void in the background is a representation of the unconscious and especially of the death drive, see  Margaret Iverson, 'In the blind field: Hopper and the Uncanny', Art History, V. 21, No. 3, 1998 (pp. 409-429) p. 418. The author only then focuses upon which temporal implications (figures) may be read into this space.

[19] For the ubiquity of the lone figure/character in Hopper and its default reading; see Matthew Beigell, Artist & Identity in 20th Century America (Cambridge: CUP, 2001). Hopper's figure is read as the typical product of modern city life, 'lacking spirtual resources, sexually frustrated and unable to develop, let alone nurture, healthy human relationships' (p. 51).

[20] Edward Hopper, New York Movie . Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 101.9 cm, 1939. The Museum of Modern, Art New York. In a tribute from a fellow artist, Eric Fishl, describes New York Movie as 'one of the all-time great modern paintings' in Deborah Lyons, Edward Hopper, The American Imagination (NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995) p. 121. It is interesting to note the use of the rhetoric of eternity in this statment - the literal comprehension of 'all-time' is not available to us mortals. For literary responses to New York Movie, see Leonard Michaelis, 'The Nothing that is not there', in Deborah Lyons, Edward Hopper, The American Imagination (NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995) pp. 1-8, and Claude Esteban, Soleil dans une pièce vide (Paris, Flammarion, 1991).

[21] Ita G. Berkow, in Edward Hopper: A Modern Master (NY: Todtri, 1996) notes that the illumination of the usherette gives her 'prominence' (p. 36) that is visually and so semantically, in terms of her contribution to the significance making process (I shall comment later on the metaphor of physical presence for significance, its implications and its alternatives).

[22] Kranzfelder, Edward Hopper: Vision of Reality (2002) notes that, 'Hopper has made the viewer's gaze part of his work (p. 37).

[23] A possible discrepancy in her clothing also appears to indicate a temporal pointer. The discrepancy between the register of the usherette's uniform and her footware has beeen noted by many contributors, among them Michaelis, in Lyon (1995), and Claude Esteban, Soleil dans une pièce vide (Paris, Flammarion, 1991), who notes  that they appear to be either 'des chaussures de princesse ou de prostituée' (p. 97). The anomoulous nature of the footware does, of course, constitute a trope, which, when  temporalised, may be read as pointing away from the present, just as a any trope points away from the literal context. The resulting suggestion of a past or future dexis offers the alternatives; she has come from or is going to somewhere where the footwhere would be apposite and not anomoulous. Esteban's suggestion covers the opposites available; either up-market or a drop to the lower depths.

[24] However, as with the implication of the voyeurism of the viewing role, the viewer, as outside of the world of the picture, is also a leisure-time based consumer (when not a critic); therefore already complicit with the values represented in the (our) left half of the picture - in this sense the painting reminds us that we are all traversed by conflicting interests as producers and consumers.

[25] Indeed, the figure of the usherette echoes the false pillar, both are to the right of their half of the picture; yet the implied contrast of the woman (next to the frame) to the central (in terms of the picture's mise-en-scene) position of the pillar, suggests her role as real social support to the pillar's artificial function. And what of the other entrances, doors, or mysterious portals: are they toilets?Are they markers of sexual difference? Or do they connote classical, sacred entrances (in a sexual economy of entrances and pillars)?  Or does the combination of these connotations further ironise the roles and functions represented in this half of the picture?

[26] Kranzfelder, Edward Hopper: Vision of Reality (2002) notes that: 'It is as if he were implying that the difference between recreation and labour is nonexistent, a fiction' (p. 161). This painting at least suggests the opposite.

[27] The rhetorical formula, or deconstruction, of this position is evident: the important or prior, that which is outside representation, relies on the actual primacy of the image, to debunk the importance of the image...

[28] If the cinema is read as the bearer of the sacred in the modern or mass-cultural period, where art functions as a conduit for aspirations once catered for by religion (together with the meta-narratives of state or nation) and thus acts as a kind of secular sacred in a rationalised and commodified modernity, then the issue may be one of a fake 'mass' sacred versus individual forms of sacred activity (one which would therefore be both 'alienated' and 'authentic').

[29] The picture is composed of the tension between a double symbolic economy which is simultaneously temporal, spatial, divided by sex and gender, and by the differing  moments in the general economic process of production and consumption, in another version of the sexual division of labour where one attends whilst the other consumes - the service relation repeats the domestic relation. This relation of isomorphic binaries reminds the present-day reader that sexual equality in the jobs market was (and is) still some time away (although better paid jobs, and so consumption, are now more open to women, low paid short term work is still the lot of many).

[30] This question of qualitative temporalities and identity can be taken further in the implications of Synthetic Cubism for poly-chromatic space-time units and more especially in the collage, combine, or construction, whether made of found objects, and images, or of especially constructed ones, as, for example, is pre-eminently the case in the work of Robert Rauschenberg.

[31] Taggart also finds a religio-mystical component to Hopper's painting. However he proceeds from the presence, and not the absence, of light. See John Taggart, Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting by Edward Hopper (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

[32] Compare this blank dark space with its opposite in Sun in an Empty Room, 1963, in Kranzfelder, Edward Hopper:Vision of Reality (2002); which has in fact no sun, just its reflected light sitting, like a door, on a wall, then repeated in another room, on another wall, in an enigmatic allegory of interiority and sacrality (p. 191).

[33] As a performance of the problem of future identity, as an identity ritual, does the picture offer a change of identity for woman (or fror the producer, the provider of a service)? Or are both subjectivities (both economic roles) put into question: the 'masculine' also as the 'other half' of the binary equation; and both as the sacrifice of the other, each in their half (depending on the viewer to chose which half of the binaries lined up in the picture he or she may choose)? With 'only' the symbolic absence, the bar, between them.

[34] For a insightful comment on art as ritual (here as art's content, not as part of the fact of its existence) see Taggart, Remaining in Light: p. 12.