The Venice Biennale has figured prominently on the IMA blog recently, and for good reason. The museum organized Gloria, an exhibition of six works by Allora & Calzadilla, which is currently on display at the U. S. Pavilion. Press coverage of the show has been both extensive and favorable with many critics collectively applauding the selection of the collaborative duo.
At the 1952 Venice Biennale, Deputy Commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion, Eloise O. Spaeth, employed a different approach with mixed results. Four established and well-known artists – Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953), and Alexander Calder (1898-1976) – were honored with small retrospective exhibitions. In his review of July 20, 1952, Stuart Preston of the New York Times expressed disappointment with the uninspired exhibition concept, stating that the American Federation of Arts “play[ed] [it] safe this year.” Despite this critique, Preston found merit in the apt selection of Hopper to represent the United States abroad. Preston observed that: “Hopper made the deepest impression. Foreigners recognized, and rightly, something authentically American in the pathos of his landscapes, a germ of loneliness which they detect in our literature.” The IMA’s Hotel Lobby (1943), which was among the works displayed at the 1952 Biennale, conveys the feeling of isolation described by Preston and noted by the show’s attendees. Hopper’s figures, whether alone or in the company of others, appear detached from their surrounding environment.
The motif of the contemplative figure is hardly unique to the work of Hopper, or even American art, though. Scholar Gail Levin and others have cited artistic precedence in the domestic interiors of Dutch seventeenth-century painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), which were likely seen by Hopper on his many trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or on the three occasions he visited Europe from 1906 to 1911. According to art historian Pamela Koob (“States of Being: Edward Hopper and Symbolist Aesthetics”), Vermeer studies experienced a revival during this period due to the organization of several exhibitions in New York.
Hopper’s paintings also bear a strong resemblance to those of Dane Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). In December 1912, an exhibition of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish art, sponsored by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and organized by Christian Brinton, opened at the American Art Galleries in New York. Since Hopper lived in the city at this time, it is possible that he was introduced to Hammershøi’s paintings in person or in print, as they were discussed in three separate New York Times reviews. Interestingly, art critics lauded the curator’s selection of Hammershøi and praised the authenticity of his work. In a preview of the exhibition, published August 11, 1912, a Times reporter found that Hammershøi “…not yet in his fifties, has taken an isolated place in the art of Denmark, belonging to no school, and betraying in his work no clearly defined inheritance from the past.”
Forty years apart, the reviews of Hopper and Hammershøi exhibited rather provincial slants, as they failed to acknowledge the wider application of the artists’ themes. However, Robert Rosenblum’s seminal Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) would later propose the existence of a “Northern” sensibility, which manifested itself in the artistic production of Europe and America for at least a century and a half. Noting parallels in form and feeling, Rosenblum traced a trajectory from the German Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) (who, incidentally, popularized the motif of a contemplative figure seen from the back, called a Rückenfigur) to the chromatic abstractions of Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Clearly, the cases of Hopper and Hammershøi substantiate Rosenblum’s argument. (The prolific scholar even identified the works of the two artists as analogous in a 1997 essay on Hammershøi.) Yet, the broader context of their paintings seems to have been lost on critics of the American-Scandinavian exhibition in 1912 and, later, of the 1952 Biennale.