Edward Hopper’s Noir Drawings

Edward Hopper’s Noir Drawings

Despite knowing the full-colored truth, I’ve always pictured the 1930s and 1940s in black and white. Laura, The Big Sleep, The Killers, Shadow of a Doubt, and countless other examples of classic American film noir define that era visually for me with their stark contrasts of dark and light paralleling the paradoxes of American society of itself. The starkly titled exhibition Hopper Drawing, which runs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through October 6th, examines how Edward Hopper, the preeminent painter of that era, used drawing to develop iconic works such as Nighthawks and New York Movie. As familiar as Hopper’s signature works are, seeing them in black and white through Hopper’s undervalued draftsmanship is seeing them anew.


It’s an understandable misnomer that Hopper’s a poor draftsman. If you look at his finished paintings, the mood and contrasts of light and dark take priority over precision. Attitude wins over exactitude. But Hopper learned his craft beginning with old school old world training in France. Longing to be the quintessentially American painter in later years, Hopper downplayed and nearly denied the Frenchness of his beginnings and his Francophile love of French poetry and painting. An academic charcoal nude titled Female Nude on Model’s Platform blows Hopper’s cover and reminds us that spent his final school years learning drawing in a French atelier. Seeing a Self-Portrait and Hand Studies from 1900, you recognize the 18 year old Hopper paying his dues and looking in the mirror in hopes of finding the artist he would become. A taut, precise Self-Portrait from 1945 in chalk and charcoal on paper by the 63-year-old Hopper answers any doubts of his younger self.

Hopper became Hopper when he found his home in the interplay of light and shadow—noir itself. Standing Female Nude by Window (Sketch for Etching) embodies the new Hopper of the Great War period, as the academic approach meets German Expressionism and arrives at a prototype of noir. Who is she? Where is she? What is she looking at, or for? The directness of the nude woman on the model’s platform is gone. Another mystery woman emerges in 1939’s New York Movie. A series of studies for New York Movie in Hopper Drawing show Hopper’s thought process from rough idea to final painting.

As curator Carter Foster explains in the audio guide, “What’s different [in the earliest drawings for New York Movie] is the spatial compression, the side aisle becomes smaller. The staircase becomes collapsed into an arched opening with a heavy curtain in front of it, as opposed to being much more open in the drawing.” But all of that is just the setting for the usherette slumped against a wall. “It’s not that she’s trapped, but she’s wearing this uniform that’s sort of militaristic and she’s got a specific role she’s playing within this ornate palace of escapism. That compression of space is something that is an important part of the painting’s overall effect.” The drawings provide the pieces that Hopper crushes together in the end to create the claustrophobic feeling of a crowded movie theater, even for a solitary usherette on the margins. One of the studies even provides a close up of the usherette, as if Hopper the director were exploring all possible angles before selecting the perfect shot.

But the centerpiece of Hopper Drawing is Nighthawks, of course. The painting stands at the end of a pathway of studies ranging from a bare outline of the contours of the coffee shop window to a fully realized drawing (shown above) that may actually have been drawn after Hopper began working on the painting. “We can also see how [Hopper] was working out the qualities of light that interested him by putting white chalk on the sheet to indicate sort of this harsh fluorescent light that was coming out of the diner and contrasting that to the space of the street with the rich darkness of the chalk, and getting all these subtle modulations in this particular sheet,” Foster points out. In the midst of all charcoal worked darkly into the scene, Hopper forces white chalk to mimic the burning, yet lifeless light of the coffee shop reflected on the faces of the customers. As familiar, actually overfamiliar as Nighthawks is, seeing how Hopper struggled to work out the effect of light in that heart of darkness makes the painting fresh and startling new.

Hopper Drawing ends with Sun in an Empty Room, a late Hopper noir perpetrated in broad daylight. Hopper famously claimed that all he wanted to paint was the play of sunlight on a wall. But with sunlight comes shadow. Hopper, like all the great noir minds (including Alfred Hitchcock, an admirer of Hopper’s work), knew that the scariest shadows were the emptiest, full only of our imagination. In his drawings, Hopper drew on his own imagination to empty out the nonessentials of his academic training while keeping the bare bones standing—contrast, depth, design. Hopper Drawing is like watching a fine film noir full of tension, suspense, and anticipation. There’s not even the shadow of a doubt that Hopper’s drawings help explain not just his paintings, but also the man.

[Image: Edward Hopper (1882–1967). Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper; 11 1/8 x 15 in. (28.3 x 38.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase and gift of Josephine N. Hopper by exchange  2011.65.]

[Many thanks to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to Hopper Drawing, which runs through October 6, 2013.]

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
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The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
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If we do find alien life, what kind will it be?

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