There’s a small print of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks sitting hidden in a drawer of my desk. I pull it out every once in a while and have a look. Everyone’s familiar with Nighthawks, whether they know it or not. Few pieces of art achieve this level of recognition with a mass audience, few have the resonance to be able to be spoofed in popular culture. You could say each supremely well known piece of art represents something in our minds: the Mona Lisa represents high art in its purest sense, the David is a celebration of form and the art of the human body, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is of the relationship between religion and art. Granted, these are gross over-simplifications of great works, but what does Nighthawks represent? Why has it risen to such a stature in our collective consciousness?
Nighthawks is a detective story. Like most of Hopper’s paintings, it is more about what is not there rather than what is. Each painting is lacking, and requires something of ourselves to contribute to it in order for it to be finished. Think of it this way: the painting requires us to inject a story in to it. We must observe. We must look for clues, then we must interpret things as we wish. We have a setting, a cast of characters, and a general mood.
We look closer. Who is the painting about? Normally, yes, the couple. But, on the days that I’m tired and tired of work, it’s about the diner’s attendant. On especially moody, angsty days, it is about the man who’s back is to the viewer.
But, those small things, they have stories of their own. The woman’s tube of lipstick. (Is that lipstick? She holds it so gingerly. Has she just applied it, or is she now applying more?) The couple’s barely touching hands. The man’s unlit cigarette. (Why no smoke?) The apparent silence in the room, the lack of eye-contact between all characters, the empty street, the eerie glow of the lights. A keen eye can easily slip head-long into a story of its own making.
And many have created their own stories, even the best of us. Joyce Carol Oates wrote monologues for each of the characters. Der Spiegel commissioned five different dramatizations of the painting. Tom Waits made a whole album about it.
Nighthawks is a framework for a story where everything has been established save the plot itself. You project yourself into the painting and the results say a lot about you and how you feel. It’s a Rorschach of a painting. The quality pulls us in and requires us to complete it, because we, as humans, have a hard time accepting something half-done. Straighten that frame. Fix that typo on that flyer. Kick that stone off the sidewalk. Slide that vase away from the edge of the table.
And so I come back to Nighthawks this morning. I think about how the painting was made shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. I see three individuals with the wind knocked out of them from catastrophic events. I see eyes glazed by the uncertainty of what the future holds and mouths unable to materialize their feelings into words. And so they sit silent, staring off into some void, lumbering into some unknown future.
And I feel for them. Oh god, do I feel for them.