Glenn Miller & His Orchestra / “In the Mood” / 1939
Writing in the 2/23/23 issue of The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey (Mellon Professor of English Emeritus at Mount Holyoke) observes about the artist Edward Hopper, words that have come to dominate, and increasingly suffocate, our experience of Hopper’s paintings are “alienation, loneliness, voyeurism and the uncanny.” But Benfey notes there is much more going on in Hopper’s painting than these themes alone.
For example, one of Hopper’s best-regarded works is the 1939 painting “New York Movie.” Begun in December 1938 and finished in January of 1939, it depicts a nearly empty movie theater occupied with a few scattered moviegoers and a pensive usherette lost in her thoughts. While it is about the above themes like alienation and loneliness, critics have praised the painting for its brilliant portrayal of multiple light sources.
But it is also an example of what might be called the “contextual” symbolism of front, back, left and right. (Contextual symbolism is about symbolism of context rather than content within context). This symbolism is expressed by the film audience at the front of the painting looking at a film in the back of the painting. Traditional contextual symbolism is audience in front and performance in back.
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Here, Hopper has changed contextual symbolism from front and back to one of left and right. He has done this by dividing the painting into left and right sections, placing a vertical center column to separate audience on left from the live “performance” of the theater usherette on the right. As a result, the audience watches a filmed performance in front of them while the live “performance” is out of their sight on the right of the painting. In effect, an audience is watching a filmed performance while a real-life event (performance) goes unobserved. (Interestingly, Hopper’s wife Josephine – a famous painter in her own right for years before her marriage to Hopper – served as a muse for “New York Movie,” having posed under a lamp in the hall of his apartment. In the language of film production, the three-light sconce would be called a “practical” light.)
At the same time, the usherette on the right might be said to occupy an area in the theater called “backstage” relating to the space offstage. The term also refers to the private lives of theater people or inner workings of an organization. The “backstage” usherette has helped set-up the performance for the audience on the left. Now, during the performance, she daydreams and for a time is no longer on “stage” interacting with the audience but offstage. In this offstage position, the viewer sees her private life of reflection.
Perhaps it is a reflection on the era she lives in. It is the final year of the Great Depression but also the height of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” widely considered as the greatest year in film history with the opening of films like Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind. She is a third person observer/narrator to this exciting time of films. But she doesn’t seem interested or curious about this. In effect, she is positioned as a third person observer to a scene she is not all that interested in observing.
John Fraim is the President/Founder of Midnight Oil Studios. He has written extensively on symbolism. His book Battle of Symbols is available on Amazon.