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Video transcript

(piano playing) Beth: 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. Steven: 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. 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, there's not even a doorway to let us into this restaurant. Beth: There's an immediate implication that we are alone. It almost starts to feel frightening. Steven: There's a way that the painting functions as a kind of prison 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 seem 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 as the only recognizable object. Beth: But, you can imagine life around it at another time of the day, but now it's all eerily silent. It makes us look up at those windows for some sign of life, but we don't see anything. Steven: We can see blinds that have been pulled down by somebody at some point, that seem, now, completely abandoned. We can imagine, perhaps, the inhabitant is asleep, but there's no presence, no [unintelligible] life. Beth: 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 has 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. Steven: The only clarity is the sense of isolation, the sense of alienation. I find this especially interesting. If you think about the year in which this was painted, 1942, the height of the 2nd World War, in some ways, the cities were emptied out. There were a lot of people that had gone overseas. Beth: It was a time of great fear and anxiety in America. Steven: That's right. This was really the height of the violence of the war. Nobody knew which way the war was going to turn at this point. Beth: These are subjects that preoccupied Hopper for his entire career, images of lonliness and isolation in the new urban spaces. Steven: This is also a rendering that is particularly American. It's 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 nonessential, so that we're left with a kind of idealized rendering of these forms of this American experience. Beth: There's 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. Steven: Well, there's this conflict between these figures going about their ordinary lives and the strict geometry of the space that he's imposed in this imposed in this 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 5 cents. There's this specific 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. Beth: How about the napkin holders, and the sa- Steven: (laughs) Beth: and the salt and pepper shakers, and the mugs of coffee, and the glass of water? There's a kind of love and attention to those very dinery objects here. That's really compelling. Steven: Absolutely. You have those cherry-topped stools that spin. You see the cherry of the counter. Beth: There's a kind of specificity, but at the same time, a generalizing that's happening. Steven: That's right. He's given us enough specific so that we know we've been there, and yet, this could be anywhere. (piano playing)