AFTER ENOUGH TIME in Europe as an American, you get used to the slippery attitude people here have towards the U.S. Most often, the first thing you land on is a bullet point-like critique of the usual suspects — fast food, foreign policy, privatized healthcare, college loans — that millions of Americans would unhesitatingly agree with if it weren’t for the facilely dismissive sprit in which such commentaries are frequently offered. The funny thing is, alongside this generalized, almost rote disdain, you are just as likely to come across an openly intense love for American things, often within the same conversation. I’ve lived in Spain for close to three years now and have met many Europeans more obsessed and encyclopedically informed about American music than any native I know; on one occasion, a guy was even able to specify which areas of Brooklyn different indie-rock groups were from. This fandom also applies to American television shows (I’ve run into more than a few cases of Breaking Bad delirium) and sports teams (oddly enough the Bad Boys-era Pistons are fondly recalled by more than a few people, a poignant throwback to home for me, since I grew up basketball-obsessed in Michigan in the 1980s), never mind Europe’s devotion to Facebook, iPhones, and other recent revelations of American capitalism.
Instead of being rankled by this incongruity — if it is in fact that incongruous — I enjoy and relate to it, even if I could do without the dash of European superiority. U.S. culture stirs a mix of feelings both good and bad, at home and abroad. While I could go on unpacking these transatlanticisms, they are really just a roundabout way of introducing Hopper, an exhibition which strutted into the love-hate pas de deux between the Old World and the New this past summer, kicking off at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid before moving on to Paris’s Grand Palais, where it will be until January.
The work of Edward Hopper represents a helping of Americana that Europeans are eager to embrace, according to Tomàs Llorens, the Honorary Director of the Thyssen and the co-curator of the exhibition. “Hopper is one of the four or five most important painters of the 20th century and he’s extremely popular here,” Llorens said when I spoke to him on the phone before visiting the museum. He explained that Hopper is not seen as just another cultural import from the U.S. “For European spectators this exhibition is a privilege. Hopper embodies our fascination with the American dream and American life.”
Edward Hopper, then, exists in that exempt category of appreciation, which manages to bracket the lesser products of American culture commonly rejected by Europeans (which also happen to be the most ubiquitous and fiercely exported overseas: McDonald’s, Hollywood dreck, plastic pop music, et cetera.) A lemony nuance is that in America, Hopper’s work has provided an aesthetic so attractive and singular that it has formed the basis of an iconography packaged into a mass-marketed consumer experience: think of moodily lit tobacco ads of a glamorously lonesome man or woman smoking, or fast food chains selling happiness framed in a window. And yet so many years and Hopper-esque ad campaigns later, the actual paintings still maintain their purity of intent, their ability to affect as all great art does. As Llorens suggests, Hopper’s work persists in speaking to people today both in spite of ...read more