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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:48

Video transcript

looking into the space of this diner through these glass windows makes me feel really aware of the sound of my own footsteps on the sidewalk we're in the Art Institute of Chicago and we're looking at Edward Hopper's Nighthawks from 1942 this classic American painting that's usually seen as an expression of wartime alienation of the notion of separation and it really is about separation look at the warm light in that diner and compare it to the exterior you get a sense of the quiet conversation that might be taking place inside but we have no access to that in fact it's not even a doorway to let us into this restaurant there's an immediate implication that we are alone it almost starts to feel frightening there's a way that the painting functions is a kind of prism that amplifies or intensifies not only the sense of silence but also the way in which light fills this space look at the way in which the warm light of that interior filters out onto the sidewalk creating a series of shadows and areas of light that seemed to lay over each other and create this complex set of rays on the sidewalk and the way in which the light hits the glass as it turns around the corner of this building leading us to that sharp diagonal across the street where that lonely cash register stands is the only recognizable object but you can imagine life around it at another time of the day but now it's all you're really silent and it makes us look up at those windows for some sign of life but we don't see anything we can see blinds that have been pulled down by somebody at some point but seem now completely abandoned we can imagine perhaps the inhabitants asleep but there's no presence and you know even life and then we just want to know what are these figures doing together did that couple come in together did they meet here why is the male figure sitting alone why is he wandered into this diner so late at night what are they talking about it's all very open there's not a clear narrative here at all the only clarity is the sense of isolation the sense of alienation and I find this especially interesting if you think about the year in which this was painted 1942 the height of the Second World War in some ways the cities were empty now there were a lot of people that had gone overseas it was a time of great fear and anxiety in America that's right this was really the height of the violence of the war and nobody knew which way the war was gonna turn at this point and these are subjects that preoccupied hopper for his entire career images of loneliness and isolation in the new urban spaces but this is also a rendering that is particularly American its generalized we don't know precisely where we are Hopper lived in Greenwich Village and certainly the brick buildings behind us are reminiscent of the architecture that we might find in the village but this is not a specific street corner this is not a specific cafe it is a kind of stripping away of everything that's non-essential so that we're left with a kind of idealized rendering of these forms of this American experience and there is a sense of that in the geometry of the composition the horizontal line of the counter that the two figures in the background lean against those very geometric forms of the coffee urns the rectangular shape of that doorway well this is conflict between these figures going about their ordinary lives and the strict geometry of the space that he's imposed in his image I have to say that I love the fact that those coffee urns are so specific you can even see the glass straws and see how much coffee is left in them there is that sign just above this cafe that's advertising cigars for five cents and there's the specific sort of turn of the cash register across the street that is there are signifiers of a kind of everyday American experience even as this painting has been emptied out he's left these few clues that really place us in a particular place in a particular time in our experience how about the napkin holders and the salt and pepper shakers and the mugs of coffee in the glass of water I mean there's a kind of love and attention to those very dinery objects here that's really compelling absolutely you know you have those cherry topped stools that you know spin you see the cherry of the counter so there's a kind of specificity but at the same time like generalising that's happening that's right he's given us enough specific so that we know we've been there and yet this could be anywhere