The Exhibition on Screen has done sterling work over the years offering cinemagoers and (in its cut-down, small-screen format) TV viewers an excellent simulacrum to the experience of visiting a major art gallery. While its output has generally concentrated on the blockbuster names of the art world – a commercially potent mix of impressionism, post-impressionism and the high Renaissance – here is a welcome deviation from the norm: an impressive biography of American master Edward Hopper, whose quiet, precise and somehow otherworldly painting responds particularly well to Exhibition on Screen’s house style.
This Hopper documentary is not anchored to a specific exhibition, but still presents the customary mix of loving close-ups of the paintings, knowledgeable talking heads, and voiceover readings of original letters and diary entries. (There’s some nicely effective soundtrack music too, eerie and mournful by turns.) Hopper’s difficult early years are described, and then elevation to glory after meeting his future wife, Josephine Nivison. Considerable attention is given to some of Hopper’s less well-known works – the bizarre Soir Bleu from 1914, the equally mysterious Two Comedians, from the other end of his career in 1966 – though most attention is lavished on key paintings of isolation and alienation: Automat, Chop Suey, Office at Night, Nighthawks.
There has, however, been considerable revisionism of the Hopper story in recent years, and this film is not afraid to tackle it: partly concerning Hopper’s refusal to engage with the teeming multicultural streets of his home base, New York City, which was undergoing enormous social change around him, but more substantially with the oppressiveness of his treatment of Nivison, who encouraged and supported his work in the early days but found her own already-established career as an artist stymied and thwarted by his disapproval. Others have been more outspoken about the toxic nature of Hopper’s attitude, but there’s plenty of material included here that reinforces Hopper’s spitefulness even as he was dependent on her; the film’s title, while not entirely ironic, certainly points up their difficult relationship. Inevitably focus remains on him, but Nivison would make a rich subject for another film.
• Hopper: An American Love Story is released on 18 October in cinemas in the UK, and on 20 October in Australia.