Thursday, April 10, 2008

On the teapot in Edward Hopper's Chop Suey

Image found here. You can see the full image here.

While I wasn't able to make it to Chicago to see the big Edward Hopper-Winslow Homer exhibition, my colleague Larry the movie guy was. While there, he bought the exhibition catalogue for the Hopper portion of the exhibit and has been kind enough to let me have a look at it. So far, it's been sitting unopened on my coffee table. This weekend, this weekend. But this morning I got to looking at the cover image (more or less the image for this post), in particular at the teapot.

The various discussions on this painting that I've looked at differ as to its mood, but those who happen to mention it state that the two women are sharing a meal, probably lunch. While that may potentially be the case, though, I would argue that that is not the case in the moment depicted here. The teapot argues my case--or, rather, its presence does, along with the absence of something.

I was struck by the teapot's square squatness, by the way its color anchors the white space of a painting otherwise dominated by its same shade of red, by its suggestion of a cozy intimacy. But the more I looked, the more I was struck by the fact that it's present at all. Its spout points, anticipant, into the space between the two women, but there is only one blue bowl on the table. No eating utensils. No teacups.

The teapot sits there, but its contents can't be shared. And in any case, its spout is turned slightly in the direction of the woman facing the viewer, its handle away from either of them. Likewise, the bowl is closer to her; whatever its eventual contents, its placement suggests that its contents may not be shared, either. Nor does she herself seem much inclined toward sharing: note her body language compared to that of her table companion--the one sitting back in her chair, her hands in her lap and an expressionless gaze directed as much at the viewer as at her, the other with her forearms resting halfway across the table, hands (apparently) clasped in front of her.

Far from being a depiction of intimacy--the activity of sharing--the teapot in Chop Suey signifies a social impotence: the absence of that which might make intimacy possible. It's a depiction of voids that neither food nor language can traverse, of potentialities that cannot be realized.

This is an awkward lunch. But then again, this is a painting of a lunch scene done by Edward Hopper. What else could I have expected?

Other places to look, if you're interested:

The Heretik meditates on Hopper's light in the painting and on the loneliness of the women in Hopper's art.

This ArtsEditor post by Christopher Graffeo on Hopper generally (though it mentions Chop Suey) offers a sustained take on Hopper's art's "coupling of defined subjectivity and ambiguous narrative." That quality, according to Graffeo, makes Hopper's art a handy way to demonstrate the postructuralist idea of Text.


John B. said...

And in case anyone is wondering, No: This post has nothing to do with sabbatical stuff.

R. Sherman said...

I note that teacups do exist in Hopper's world, inasmuch as the couple in the background of the full image has one on the table, along with a similar bowl and ashtray -- but no tea pot.

Strange restaurant.


John B. said...

That couple in the background is deserving of another post, the way they're in shadow and all we see of the woman is her face, as if she's peering into the space of the painting.
There's almost something clandestine about the whole painting--the very opposite of the idea of "lunch," the meal most likely to be eaten in public. And yet: this scene is upstairs (several commenters note that the upstairs level of restaurants of these sorts are for people of reduced circumstances, but the street level would also have windows onto the street); and, for me, the absence of even the full complement of utensils (never mind the food) suggests something unspoken, if not a tension--surely, something that's being held in abeyance.
What that something is, who knows? But that not knowing is what draws the viewer into Hopper's best paintings.