Whenever a national tragedy strikes, we long remember it from two perspectives. First, as a cataclysmic event, usually happening far away, seen as images on TV or conjured up in our mind's eye through radio. Beyond that however, we also remember these events from a personal perspective, most often recalling, "what I was doing when I first heard the news." I was having breakfast watching The Today Show at 8:50 a.m., September 11, 2001. I was working as a stock boy at Shillito's Department Store in Cincinnati around noon on November 22,1963. And I'm sure my parents could have recalled exactly what they were doing on the Sunday afternoon of December 7, 1941. We also remember how each of these events made us feel. Moreover, as artists especially, we not only feel, but we react to these feelings in a special manner through our work. Visually, I've done little more than experiment with some photographic images resulting from the WTC attack, but in writing, I've poured out several pages. Recently, in researching material on the Art Institute of Chicago, I stumbled upon a note in a book regarding the diaries of Jo Hopper which shed an interesting light on the subject of an artist's reaction to a national tragedy.
Jo Hopper was the wife of the American painter, Edward Hopper. In December of 1941, even as they were still coming to grips with the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, her husband began work on his most famous painting, The Nighthawks. It was not a painting about war. There is no flag-waving patriotism evident. Neither is there panic in the streets. It was not a painting about the event at all, but about the way the event caused him to feel. It's a painting about how the cold, hard, modernity of life (and no doubt war) made him feel isolated, fearful, and alone. His nighthawks are trapped. There is no way out of the diner. The huge, modern expanse of glass and harsh fluorescent lighting leaves them exposed and vulnerable, much as America itself must have felt at the time. The two male customers in the painting are Hopper, both figuratively and literally - he used himself as a model. The woman is Jo, his wife, who insisted she be his only female model (it was that kind of marriage). The placement of their hands on the bar seem to indicate they are a couple, yet they still seem isolated in their pairing, their shoulders hunched, defensive. They make love to their cigarettes. They have nothing to say to one another. There is no warmth, no comfort, and no security. The other male customer seems even more alone. Only the counterman seems to exists in a friendly world of his own choosing, insulated behind the bar, in control, with a job to do, and a home to return to when it's done.
In her book on American art, the popular English art writer, Sister Wendy Beckett, takes note of the painting's relationship to December 7, 1941. Her words, written only a year ago, are especially chilling in the light of our most recent "Pearl Harbour": "One moment the nation was in control, looking on at another's war, and the next it was plunged uncontrollably into the conflict. We know now that New York was not bombed, but at the time it was conceivable that it might happen. Hopper channelled and transposed all of this terrible anxiety into his picture." One has to wonder if, in painting his nighthawks today, Hopper might have them wearing gas masks and huddled in darkness with CNN, illuminated only by the strident glare of their living room TVs.