What is she looking at?

“Cape Cod Morning”, Edward Hopper (1950)

From time to time I fear that I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by art.

Perhaps it’s a facet of ageing – I feel that I’ve seen or heard a lot of it before – or maybe its a curse of the online age, where all art is in a piece of modifed aluminum in my pocket. Either way, the “wow” factor strikes me less and less these days.

All the more so when it comes to visual art. It’s a long time since I’ve stood before an artwork and felt a deep connection or resonance. Until recently, the last time I felt this way was standing before Picasso’s “Still Life With A Mandolin“, in Dublin a few years ago. 

And then something happened. A few weeks back my wife and I, with friends, attended the Portland Book Festival, which was partly held at the Portland Art Museum. The Festival entrance fee allowed for access to the Art Museum and its “Modern American Realism” exhibition.

All of which brought me to my revelation. Turning a corner on the second floor of the Museum, to step into the exhibition’s room, I was confronted by an imposing image of a woman, standing in a window, staring at something out of frame.

The picture, at over a meter high, transfixed me. I’d never seen this painting before. Who was this person? What had happened to her (why was she in the dark shade, in contrast to the bright of the wall and the grass outside)? Was she looking at something specific (which I assumed until I spent longer looking at her face) or staring into space?

Moreover, was I wrong in reading a sense of dread into the image? Did it simply capture a mundane moment on a mundane morning, and nothing more?

The picture was Edward Hopper’s “Cape Cod Morning“, painted with oil on canvas in 1950. I know little of biographical background to the image, which was unlikely to have been painted in New England, but instead in Hopper’s small downtown Manhattan studio. But it was a notable work created in a period of inactivity for the artist, I’ve read.

The genesis of the image doesn’t matter, of course. Brian Eno has written that “what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.” So it was with “Cape Cod Morning” – the image stuck in my mind for the rest of the day, and in the days and weeks since I’ve viewed it online again and again.

I’m still trying to figure out what – if anything – she’s looking at.

_____

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