While visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia, we used the occasion to pay a return visit to the impressive VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and attempt to take in just a fraction of the many delights on offer there. The featured temporary exhibition currently on display there was  ‘Edward Hopper and the American Hotel; a travel guide.’ This was an opportunity not to be missed.

Hopper is renowned for his depictions of city rooms with one or two persons in them, looking either in or to the outside, reflecting a sense of alienation, of urban anomie (in the Durkheimian sense of the word), and of detachment from human contact. The pictures in the current exhibition, whether by Hopper himself or other artists, all pertain to the subject of ‘hotels, motels, and tourist homes.’ Hopper and his wife Jo travelled extensively through the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when America was changing as automobile ownership expanded, new and better roads and highways were constantly being built and improved, and travel became an easier and more convenient form of transportation.

The cousin with whom we were staying  said that it brought back memories of the six-week trip his family (father, mother, brother and self) made across America by car in the 1950s, visiting places and encountering people which till then had just been names on a map (no GPS or Waze then).  Knowing my late uncle (my mother’s older brother), I’m sure that the trip was carefully planned and mapped out, the hotels and motels booked in advance, and that nothing was left to chance. Im not so sure that that is the message conveyed by Hopper’s paintings, however.

The characters he depicts find themselves — whether by chance or by design — in anonymous hotel rooms, with their standard furnishings and soulless decor. Their individual stories are a mystery that it is for the viewers to decide for themselves. Is the young woman in a pink slip suffering the pangs of unrequited love or simply relaxing after having travelled for several hours? Is the man standing and looking out of the window simply admiring the view or is he angry with the unkempt woman sitting on the bed behind him? Each painting is an enigma which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Hopper was commissioned to illustrate the covers of a trade publication for hotels in the 1920s, when the boom in travel and tourism was still in its infancy. This gave him the opportunity and the incentive to go and see for himself, always accompanied by his wife Jo, what hotel and motel rooms had to offer, and it is his interpretation of this that we find in his pictures. It is this combination of ambivalence, and his unique mystical aesthetic, together with consummate skill in depicting figures and interiors, that gives Edward Hopper’s paintings their enduring fascination.