“Office at night”: A ficción by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through earphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur I release a new ‘amplified flânograph’ for your delectation, chers lecteurs—one of those snapshots bagged in the course of my flâneries, enhanced with an atmospheric soundscape and a short story to animate and enliven the static image.
The photograph above was taken about two weeks before I booked out of Melbourne for warmer climes. I don’t usually shoot on colour film, being a black-and-white purist, so I wanted to use up the roll before I headed north. There were two nights in mid-May when I went a bit mad, and this image of a bald man on the ameche in his office on the first floor of Block Court, just before he shut up shop for the night, was snapped on the first.
Usually when your Melbourne Flâneur is between homes, he’s a night-cat, prowling the streets of the city after dark, and sometimes armed—with cameras, of course. But with all the lockdowns we endured in Melbourne last year, it had been a long time since I had been locked and loaded for a nighttime expedition to hunt down ‘the wonder’, ‘le merveilleux’, the magic mystery of the city at night.
It was a cold and bitter evening even in mid-May, and I cast off from The Miami Hotel, in West Melbourne, at sunset on a crazy trudge around the CBD and Carlton, bagging a number of sights I had thought, in my constrained flâneries during lockdown, might make good images—better ones in colour than in black-and-white.
Photographically inclined followers of this vlog will perhaps recognize this feeling, but when I exercised my inner cat (who had been housebound for too many months) and went on my first nighttime hunt in ages, the predatory activity of adding images to my bag took on an impetus of its own: The crazy, zigzagging walk, alone at night, through disparate zones of poetry and danger, guided only by the associations of memory, as I recalled some romantic place where I had added a girl to my trophy tally, or the instinct for a mystic image which seemed to hover, shimmering and glimmering, in the dusky light of a distant streetcorner, took on its own drunken momentum.
And the sound of that momentum (largely unknown to you souls too young to know the rigorous dérèglement de tous les sens induced by the LSD alchemy of film) was the mechanical ratchet, like a rising tempo, of winding on and snapping one image after another.
I’m usually stingier than Scrooge when it comes to using up my film, but that night I went through a third of a roll of Ektar, and the image above, taken halfway through my passeggiata ubriaca, was definitely the most memorable, an experience in itself.
It was so memorable an experience, in fact, that nearly two months later, as I was on the train to Coffs Harbour, I was inspired to write the first draft of a short story, “Office at night”, based on that image. I wrote two further drafts at Coffs and two in Bellingen during my holiday up there. The soundscape which accompanies the short story was also created in Coffs and refined during my fourth lockdown in Newcastle.
The six-minute tale is a fictionalized version of the taking of that photograph. I had always wanted to get a shot of Block Court, one of the great art déco arcades of Melbourne, and I think I was right in believing that it would look better on colour film than in black-and-white, as that eerie green glow over the bay window—like the Empire Hotel sign in Vertigo (1958)—gives some indication.
It was around 6:15, nearly an hour after sundown, when I hustled up Collins street to nab the shot. I just happened to be in time to see light in the office on the first floor directly over the arcade. There was a bald man framed in the corner of the window frame. He was standing in profile behind his desk and was taking a call on his mobile phone. He gave the impression of having just gotten up from his desk to leave for the evening when the phone call had come through and had been caught in that transitional moment of being physically still in one place while having left it mentally.
I don’t usually take photographs with people in them. I get photographed a good deal myself, and so I’m aware that there’s a certain moral dilemma about ‘stealing people’s souls’ which I’d rather avoid. And in any event, my interest (as you’ve doubtless gleaned from my films, videos, and photographs) is architecture, not people. Empty spaces are the actors in my dramas, not those pesky humans. I will usually disdain to take the shot if someone strays into my frame—unless their back is turned or (as in the instance above) they’re at a sufficient distance as to be individually unrecognizable—a mere generic sign for the human presence in the empty architectural spaces that fascinate me.
So I had to make a quick decision about whether to clip the bald man’s soul or pass up the shot, but that second source of light on the first floor directly over the arcade was too photogenic—as was the bald man’s presence, en plein action, right in the corner of the frame, as smeary a sign for the human presence as an artist’s signature in the corner of a canvas.
Those impromptu additions to the image of the arcade at night I had imagined were ultimately too good to pass up.
I’m not so hot at photographing action—which is another reason why I disdain to photograph people. I’m too considered a photographer, take too much time over composing the shot and testing my settings, to be good at snapshooting. But in this instance, I knew I had to be quick to get the shot without traffic—either vehicular or on the hoof—getting between me and the image of the arcade with the lighted windows above it. Moreover, I had to nail down the bald man before he changed his pose too dramatically or rung off.
I had hardly time to check my settings. I was really winging it—and in fact, I had to grab two shots, because the first one did involve some unphotogenic intrusions of silhouettes passing before the arcade. By the time I wound on and recomposed for shot #2, the bald man was hanging up.
There’s a useful phone kiosk à deux pas down Collins street, more or less in front of that engraved pilaster you see on the left-hand margin of the frame. I had my Pentax K1000 resting on the metal tray, which I was borrowing to note down the time, the settings I had used, and the exposure of the two shots. As I was rounding out my notes (a job that took no more than a minute), I looked up and was just in time to see that the lights in the office above the arcade were off. My eyes flicked to street level, and I was just in time to see the bald man walking out of Block Court and turning east up Collins street, towards Swanston.
And that image—both the photographic one that I took and the memorable, puzzling image a minute later of the darkened office and the man walking out of the arcade—is, in essence, the backstory which forms the story of “Office at night”.
Now I don’t know who the bald man is, and I don’t know what goes on in the office on the first floor above the arcade. I did try to find that information out when I was writing the subsequent drafts of the story in Coffs and Bello, but decided that I would rather the mystery to remain inviolate.
In any event, those facts are immaterial to the story that I tell in the ficción—mere MacGuffins, as Mr. Hitchcock would call them.
Don’t even ask me who the bald man is my fictionalized version of the story: I don’t know who he is even in my imagining of him, though I know what he does, and I have a very vague idea of what he takes out of the safe.
The point is that the image of him, with his gleaming pink pate and ill-fitting grey jacket, both taking the mysterious call in the office and leaving it to walk up Collins street towards the Paris End, carved itself indelibly upon my memory in those few brief seconds of sighting him through my viewfinder and, a minute later, when I looked up from my Moleskine to see him walking away from me forever.
Which is to say that, despite the physical distance between us, and despite the fact of his ignorance of me watching him, I formed ‘a connection’ with the bald man. The bullish bald head and the jacket too tight for his stocky body were the two details on the surface of that image that were enough to catapult me across Collins street and into the office with him, to empathize with him even in his mystery.
For the next seven weeks, first in Melbourne, and then, for much longer, in Wagga Wagga, as I worked at unkinking the larger story of which “Office at night”, like my previous flânograph on this vlog, “Dreidel”, is an experimental episode, the ‘total image’ of the bald man—of my brief encounter with him—stayed with me, percolating in my unconscious in other landscapes, so that, when I came to be sitting on the XPT, bored, tired and anxious on my way to Coffs as I struggled to breathe behind my mask, the total image of him swam up to consciousness again to distract me briefly from my discomfort, and to be transcribed in a fictionalized version of our encounter and connection, apparently from his perspective.
Why should this ‘total image’ of the bald man, of my brief encounter with him at a distance, have had such an enduring impact on me that I carried that image, in my mind, to Wagga, and Coffs, and Bello, and even to Newcastle?
Well, in large part it has to do with the fortunate intersection of what I had consciously come to Block Court to do on that particular evening in mid-May and the wholly unexpected illumination of another facet in my evolving æsthetic philosophy of flânerie which that lighted window on the second storey above the arcade represented.
During our dreary second lockdown in Melbourne last year (the one in which we earned the unenviable honour of being ‘the most locked down city in the world’), when opportunities for flânerie were constrained by a five-kilometre radius; only two permitted hours of exercise per day; a strict curfew; and the Stasi-like harassment of the cops, I took to wandering around the immediate neighbourhood of The Miami Hotel, in North Melbourne, and particularly, in my daily quest for that black nectar, the ebony ambrosia to which I am matutinally addicted, to the Mecca of cafés around Errol street.
An idea began to form for me in the streets of North Melbourne, one of those ideas, as Walter Benjamin says, that ‘feeds on the sensory data taking shape before [the flâneur’s] eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts….’
Last year, during our second lockdown, I wrote a post entitled “A flâneur in Chinatown” in which I cited a journal article by Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong, “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019). While McDonogh and Wong used the metaphor of the verticality of global Chinatowns as an analogue for the verticality of Chinese writing—and the consequent illegibility of these densely layered urban spaces to Occidental eyes—I began to look at my circumscribed flâneurial neighbourhood through McDonogh and Wong’s lens of inscrutably illegible verticality.
Melbourne is actually a rather low-built city. But the impression of horizontality as a superordinate architectural æsthetic which strikes one rather forcefully in Adelaide, for instance, is not immediately obvious to the naked eye in Melbourne. On the contrary, Melbourne gives one a somewhat deceptive impression of verticality, which is perhaps partly a function of its density and narrowness even in suburbia.
But even in the inner-city suburbs with their famous and picturesque row houses, such as North Melbourne, the terraces rarely extend above two storeys. I think, in addition to the density of these terraces built cheek-by-jowl and the narrowness of the old streets and lanes tranched between the major thoroughfares, the grandiosity of the façades contributes to an impression of verticality which is slightly deceptive.
The horizontality of Melbourne is somewhat concealed from immediate perception by such nineteenth-century tricks as the love of iron Corinthians pegging the corrugated skirts of wide awnings to the edges of the street, as we see so picturesquely along that block of Errol street leading to the North Melbourne Town Hall; by rows of pilasters and harmoniously arched windows of Venetian Renaissance variety leaping along upper-storey façades; by the cowled escutcheons which bear the central plaques telling the musical, perfumed names of the terraces, or featuring crenelated shells, deeply recessed, evoking the Way of St. James; by plinth-like corners terminating in spiked and spired urns, and mass-produced mascarons bearing what I consider to be ‘the face of Melbourne’, that neo-classical, rather matronly dame of nondescript aspect with her Venusian hairdo.
I love all this with a rapture that sends me into flights of poetry, but it was the windows—particularly those arched, Venetian Renaissance-style windows, not entirely indigenous to Melbourne on our shores, but deeply characteristic of the place as of no other town or city in Australia—which captured my attention in my morning scuttles outdoors for coffee.
More than once, of a morning, as I waited on the sidewalk in Errol or Victoria streets, regarding with curiosity the row of terraces opposite me, I had to be awakened from my rêverie by having my name called twice. And in Queensberry street, standing in the bluestone gutter outside Bread Club, I was particularly fixated on the four, paired first-floor windows above Ace Antiques and Collectables across the street, around which faded advertisements for The Age and the Herald Sun still barely emblaze the red brickwork.
Who lives behind these first-floor windows which look down on Melbourne through winking, half-drawn curtains, or sleepy, half-lowered shades? Does anyone at all? In some perhaps, but in the suburbs of Melbourne immediately adjacent to the CBD where I was, that potential seemed more doubtful than likely, since the ground floors of many terraces in West and North Melbourne are occupied, as their nineteenth-century architects intended, by shops.
The question of who—or what—was up there on the storey above the street became a source of flâneurial fascination for me, the one riddle of the city which lockdown allowed my legs to consider as they carried me to one coffee shop or another. Forced to read into their sombre depths from the angle of the street below, I tried to make up with lateral movement what I couldn’t gain in vertical, eyeballing them in a tracking pan as I surveilled them in my passage so as to gain the widest arc of vision into their interiors from below.
Alas! to no avail. A view of ceiling, sometimes truncated by a slash of grimy, half-drawn curtain or half-lowered shade, gave some suggestion of a resident human presence domiciled (perhaps indigently) in the dress circle above the stage of Errol or Victoria streets, but just as often, an intimation of haphazardly piled and abandoned boxes, or dusty emptiness, implied their use as storerooms—sometimes storing nothing at all.
I began even to wonder if these first-floor windows were accessible to the tenants or owners of the ground-floor shops, or if, like Rapunzel’s tower, internal staircases hidden to my eyes had atrophied and fallen away in the sedimentary archaeology of Melbourne’s history, so that all that remained was an empire of empty or forgotten rooms which hovered at that stratum in the air above the city, and which could only be reached and explored if you cast a ladder up to the windows.
The mystery of who or what is up there on Melbourne’s second storeys remained, like the bald man’s grift on the first floor of Block Court, inviolate.
It’s not as though this question of what is on the upper storeys of buildings, inaccessible to penetration beyond their ground-floor commercial façades, hasn’t occurred to me before. Take an hour off to sit in the Bourke street mall and regard the opaque windows of the Diamond House and the Public Benefit Bootery, for instance, and the question of what all this commercial space—apparently empty, apparently even in disrepair—above the famously affaireux level of Bourke street is being used for will doubtless occur to you too.
But it took reading McDonogh and Wong’s journal article during lockdown for me to really begin formulating embodied ideas—these Eleusinian inferences and intuitions about the mysteries of actuality which strike the flâneur, in his ambulations, with the abstract force of ‘dead facts’—of my own.
And it’s from that place of inference and intuition, my sense of the tantalizing inaccessibility of the life (or lives) behind upper-storey windows when seen from the level of the street, that the mystery I’ve attempted to articulate in “Office at night” proceeded.
Those lit first-floor windows fortuitously intersected with my errand to make a record of Block Court on colour film at night, and the latter image (which would doubtless have been beautiful in itself) was enlivened by the image of the former, personified by the figure of the bald man engaged in his eternally mysterious activity of taking a phone call to which I had no access in a space to which I also had no access.
Prior to my encounter with McDonogh and Wong, the image of lighted windows at night had long fascinated me. There is an inaccessibility about these too, for although the ground-floor lighted windows of houses would appear to allow the voyeur to gaze directly in and see who, or what, exists inside the black box of the façade, when seen in lateral passage from a moving vehicle (from whence the image of lighted windows at night obtains its mysterious romance and power), this voyeuristic desire is denied.
Many has been the time, taking the overnight XPT between Melbourne and Sydney, or between Sydney and Brisbane, when, nearing some little country town in the dead of night and seeing a small flurry of these lit windows at a distance, I have felt (as I did with the bald man) a sense of my soul leaping across darkness and distance and wishing, for a moment, to be within that lighted window; to sample the atmosphere of respite from movement which it shines, like a welcoming hearth, to the weary traveller in flight past it; to know who also is awake at that hour (albeit in the moored comfort of their own home) and how their little bower is decorated.
I had a more localized experience of this sensation in Melbourne, on my birthday, some years ago.
I had dinner and drinks with some friends at Fed Square and had left their convivial company, as I often do, feeling more dissatisfied by the social experience than satisfied by it. I was staying at Fairfield that week, in one of Melbourne’s old brick-veneer bungalows. This one had been modernized and redecorated somewhat, but not so much, fortunately, as to ruin the charm of stoical discomfort which these old-fashioned suburban homes possess.
As it happened—annoyingly—Metro was doing trackwork on the Hurstbridge line that week, so I had to transfer onto a rail replacement bus at Clifton Hill which would swing by the inner-eastern stations of Westgarth and Dennis before depositing me at Fairfield.
It was late when I left my friends, and later still when the Hurstbridge train terminated at Clifton Hill and I transferred, along with the other tired, late-night refugees from the city, onto the bus. As it passed through Westgarth in the dark, I had that same experience of seeing an occasional lit window streak across the panes reflecting nothing back but my weary visage, and I felt my heart lift and leap towards these fugitive examples of Melbourne’s charming old suburban homes—brick-veneers behind low, redbrick fences and California bungalows with their columned porches—in which some soul, wealthier than I, was still awake.
There was the sense that the ‘black boxes’ formed by their attractive, tantalizing façades, beckoning to me (weary traveller that I was), were somewhat like Rubik’s Cubes, or Chinese puzzles:—they contained the mystery of an unimaginable life within which my mind, nevertheless, set itself to imagining, seeing a world of old-fashioned luxury and ease, of bibelots and bric-à-brac consonant with their exteriors—a world of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ I would feel eternally at home in and would be endlessly content to explore, like a museum.
But the mystery of penetration had to be foregone as the bus bore me on to bed, and I could at least be satisfied that this week I would be able to penetrate one such example of the general mystery of what lies behind the façades of Melbourne’s delightfully decrepit inner-city houses.
And to extend the metaphor a little further, I had something of the sense which I imagine cat-burglars to have when I saw those occasional lit windows in Westgarth, provocatively beckoning me to peep at them and pry them, so forceful was the denied desire of the voyeur in lateral flight past them to pause, to stop, to investigate, and to know what manner of life lay behind the beautiful black box of the façade.
In some sense, I am fortunate, with my itinerant manner of life as a ‘writer-at-large’, to have had a wide experience of Melbourne homes, in many suburbs, and rather than being a cat-burglar, I am more like a safecracker: by the instinct bred of professional experience, I turn the mysterious dial of social convention and the door of the vault swings open to occasionally reveal to me the secret of what lies behind Melbourne’s beautiful suburban façades.
Être flâneur, c’est être voyeur.
One who understood this deep alliance between fleeting observation in movement and fixed, illicit spectatorship was Edward Hopper. During our second lockdown, I read Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (1995), a book I cannot recommend but from which I managed to dredge a few things that were barely useful to the ideas about windows and verticality then forming in me.
The window, of course, is the signature of Mr. Hopper’s art, the frame within the frame which subjects the private sphere of occluded domesticity to public speculation, the proscenium which externalizes the internal.
When I chanced serendipitously on the bald man publicly framed in private action in the bay window on the first floor of Block Court, it was with the consciousness that his presence in the corner of the lighted window above the empty arcade made the collision of these two images I’ve described somewhat ‘Hopperesque’.
And of course, when I came to write the ficción accompanying my flânograph, I chose the title “Office at night” with a deep tip of my Fedora towards Mr. Hopper, whose 1940 painting of that title, with its equally ambiguous narrative, hangs in the Walker Art Center at Minneapolis.
Of that work, Mr. Hopper explained to his patron at the Walker:
My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me. … Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Mr. Hopper’s spirit of scrupulous crypticity, where the angle of vision is emphasised as salient, and the surfaces of things are described with a minuteness that almost invests them with an aura of obscure significance, but where all the internal, interior qualities of narrative are stubbornly elided, certainly guided me in the writing of this story.
And, certainly, I ‘worked on’ the central image of it much as Ms. Levin describes Mr. Hopper ‘working on’ the images of his paintings, trying to draw out something very vague yet very crystalline from himself through successive sketches and couches of colour as he modelled the concrete, physical details of images that are ultimately clairvoyant inner visions. A comparison of the five drafts I wrote of “Office at night” (including the final version in the audio track) would reveal significant differences, showing how much I cut, changed and sculpted the details in order for each one to add up to the final revelation of perspective expressed in the last sentence.
Likewise, the angle of vision in Mr. Hopper’s Office at Night is significant, if only because it jars the spectator. We are not moored to the floor, with its rich green carpet, but ‘rather high in the air’, floating within the office.
The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Like myself, Mr. Hopper loved the flâneuristic experience of travelling by train at night, the way vision in movement mingles with a certain voyeuristic scopophilia excited by the flashes of light and life issuing from windows which ‘tell a picture’, but ‘no obvious anecdote’.
Another of his ‘snapshots’, Night Windows (1928), also painted from the vantage of an elevated train in flight, features three windows, like the bay window of the office on the first floor of Block Court, which presents a kind of ‘triptych’, the central panel of which is the slightly pornographic image of the fesses of a girl in a pink slip bending over, her head out of frame.
Just as I said the gleaming pinkness of the bald man’s pate and the fashionable faux pas of his ill-fitting jacket were enough to suggest a ‘character’ to me in the weeks after seeing his fleeting image, Mr. Hopper said obliquely of his pornographic Madonna in Night Windows:
The way in which a few objects are arranged on a table, or a curtain billows in the breeze can set the mood and indicate the kind of person who inhabits the room.—Edward Hopper, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 219)
Which is to say that, chez Hopper, the external world, comprised of superficial details, is the interior landscape of the ‘characters’ depicted: his interiors are their psychological interiors externalized. Just as we cannot see a person’s character but obliquely, as manifested in behaviour and action, dark façades, like the corner of the building depicted in Night Windows, are ‘cranial vaults’ which allow us, through their ocular fenestrations, to catch oblique glimpses of the private person fluttering about, like a moth, among the furnishings of their mind.
Moreover, what gives his paintings their uncanny, slightly surreal quality is his unique manner of representing people by the objects which surround them. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Hopper engages in any cheap literary symbolism of the type that we are used to, where x object is perfectly equivalent to y person—pas du tout.
Rather, as a writer with a visual bent myself, one who abhors the human presence in his films and photos and is perversely entranced by the photogenic possibilities of humans’ artistic and architectural products, the ‘ruins of modernity’ manifested as, and personified by, statues and buildings, I see a fraternal sensibility in operation chez Hopper: As in a dream, architectural details—houses, railroad tracks, tunnels, advertising signs, chimneys—are the people of his paintings. By an immense, convoluted process of displacement, things which have no obvious figurative similitude to the human being nevertheless stand in for the absent people of Mr. Hopper’s architectural ‘portraits’.
In one of his rare, groping moments of self-explanation, Mr. Hopper stated:
It’s hard for the layman to understand what the painter is trying to do. The painter himself is the only one that can really know…. And in the case of the objective painter, he uses natural phenomena to communicate … perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.—Edward Hopper
The ‘universal vocabulary’ of concrete objects is Mr. Hopper’s private symbology, and you will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my last post I alerted you to Louis Aragon’s provocative claim, in Le Paysan de Paris, that the image—and the concrete image at that—is the singular source of the poetic and the surreal.
Hence, when I say that concrete objects, the elements and details of architecture ‘symbolize’ people in some substantial sense in Mr. Hopper’s work, it is with an eye to M. Aragon that I class Mr. Hopper among the surrealists—at the very pinnacle of the movement, in fact, an honour he would doubtless deprecate.
But he is more surreal than the surrealists, for in his conscious devotion to ‘objective painting’, to the draughtsman-like description of material reality, he unconsciously paints the sur-reality, the reality that is over and above this one, sharing with M. Aragon the same stubborn, innate sense that le merveilleux is not a Platonic conception but is deeply embedded in the world’s mass. For Mr. Hopper too, certain sights, certain places, certain objects become divinely transfigured merely by the fact of their ugly, debased being as actuality: they take on ‘neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol’, nor do they ‘so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea.’
In that sense am I suggesting that buildings and architecture, as well as the modest objects of modern life, are deeply symbolic of the absent people in Mr. Hopper’s paintings. By a kind of Freudian dream displacement, people become the buildings they inhabit, and a painting like House by the Railroad (1925), for instance, can easily be read as a portrait of Mr. Hopper’s starchy Gilded Age youth, ‘gone with the wind’, struggling, like the gangling Nyacker himself in his stiff wing collar, to maintain a faintly ridiculous Victorian dignity against the locomotive onslaught of modernity.
To take just three examples, all painted in 1939, of how the concrete manifests its deep symbolism chez Hopper, there is such a dream-like collapse between the ‘natural phenomena’ which constitute Mr. Hopper’s universal vocabulary and the symbolic freight these objects of the world are intended to carry in Bridle Path, Cape Cod Evening, and Ground Swell.
These paintings which have, in their ostensible subject matter, nothing at all to do with the war in Europe and the looming threat that conflict posed to isolationist America, are in fact deeply obsessed by it. Indeed, there is not only such a surcharge of symbolic freight placed upon the ‘natural phenomena’—a rearing horse confronting a dark tunnel in Central Park; a dog amidst tall grass pricking up its ears; a shelf of wave threatening a pleasure craft on a sunny day—that serve as a universal vocabulary for Mr. Hopper’s anxieties about inevitable American involvement in the European conflict that these images, as symbols, collapse under the burden of communicating a diffuse and generalized state of anxiety, but, as in a dream (and there is an undeniably oneiric quality to Mr. Hopper’s employment of natural phenomena as a hieroglyphic vocabulary), between the original symbolic meaning, the hyperobject of world war that he intends to vocalize and express, and the final image, several displacements occur, so that the symbol undergoes multiple slippages, transfers, transformations, as in an intellectual game of Chinese Whispers.
It is as though, in these three paintings, Mr. Hopper is placing the original symbol of the war in Europe through such a succession of verbal and visual rhymes as to arrive at three separate images which, as ‘natural phenomena’ conveying only a disquieting sense of generalized anxiety, have nothing even implicit to do with the subject of the war, but in which, as in the images of the Tarot, the subterraneanly latent, chthonic significance of the original symbol can just barely be read in the manifest content of the tableaux.
Flâneur that he is, Mr. Hopper draws (to put another spin on that Benjaminian principle of ‘embodied knowledge’ I enunciated earlier) inferences and intuitions from a world of concrete symbolism: the ‘dead facts’ of concrete objects release, under his slavishly descriptive brush, the perfume of the marvellous and the surreal which is deeply embedded, as their Platonic substrate, in the DNA of dead matter.
As a quintessential surrealist, Mr. Hopper belongs for me among a very small cadre of artists—M. Ingres in the world of painting, and Mr. Hitchcock and Ozu-sensei in the world of cinema. What distinguishes these four artists is their slavish, obtusely unimaginative commitment to the depiction of concrete reality. They are so committed to the cause of realism that, as Sr. Picasso admiringly admitted with respect to M. Ingres, they are the greatest abstractionists of all.
The ‘abstraction’ of Mr. Hopper (again, he would deplore to be numbered among the non-objectivists) is similar to the abstraction of Ozu-sensei; and that abstraction, as a function of cinematic décor, is similar to M. Aragon’s apperception that the objects of the world ‘embody’ ideas rather than ‘manifest’ them. In Mr. Hopper’s concrete abstraction, as in that of Ozu-sensei, the objects of reality (or the reality of objects, if you prefer) are so compositionally potent in sensuous form and colour that they embody a symbolic character—the transfiguration of themselves sensed by M. Aragon.
Like Ozu-sensei, Mr. Hopper is one of the great painters of incidental still-lifes—those ‘few objects arranged on a table’ which reveal the psychological potency of a given space.
And it is perhaps this quality of the spiritual life of ‘things’ that M. Baudelaire referred to when he said that the marvellous and the poetic surrounds and suckles us like the air, but that we are oblivious to it. It requires some visionary sensibility that these artists had but denied—even to the point of doing violence to their own souls, attempting to ‘amputate’ it through repression—a ‘photogenic orientation’ towards the objects of reality, to draw out of them that store of poetry they are so fecund in—la photogénie—the abstract aspect they concretely embody.
These four artists lived so rigidly in their consciousnesses that the unconscious, for them, was pushed into such repressed abeyance that it could only manifest itself as concrete images that are abstractly distorted reports of reality. David Fincher talks about the ‘iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s vision, the suffocating rigour which murders creativity, foreclosing all other creative possibilities but the one he has decided upon in their cradle.
All these artists put up their iron umbrellas, erecting a suffocating bell-jar over their work, through whose translucent but distorting glass we see a world we recognize as rational fact, but fact viewed through the irrational prism of a deeply personal vision. For Ingres, Hopper, Hitchcock and Ozu in their respective ways, the rigorous, iron-clad verisimilitude of technical draughtsmanship is the very superstructure from which their deeply personal and idiosyncratic dreams emerge.
And for all these artists, the fetishization of material verisimilitude produces an ultimately symbolic, dreamlike effect upon us, but one which is eminently disavowable by the artist himself because the conscious concentration on describing what is material and actual is so scrupulously rigorous as to occupy all his artistic energies.
The deep affinity between Mr. Hopper’s painting and the art of the cinema has been exhaustively examined—not least by Ms. Levin, who devotes an appendix to the subject in her biography. Mr. Hitchcock himself was not shy in giving credit to Mr. Hopper, graciously confiding to interviewers that the Bates maison in Psycho (1960) was directly modelled on the House by the Railroad.
The trans-disciplinary respect was mutual. Mr. Hopper too, Ms. Levin tells us, was an avid cinephile, regularly ducking into cinemas in his predatory flâneries after fresh subject matter, and he kept abreast of developments in cinematic storytelling well into the age of Godard.
The cinema, and its root art-form of photography, were identified early by critics (not always favourably in an era of encroaching non-objectivism) as being unusually apposite to an understanding of Mr. Hopper’s painting.
I don’t think it is exactly accurate to say that Mr. Hopper was one of the last remaining adherents of ‘photorealism’ in a desertifying ocean of non-objectivism, the tide of which was ever-rising in his lifetime, and which he fought, with the valiant conservatism of his faith, to repulse. His style, to my mind, is slightly too gauche in its ponderous grasping for crystalline precision to be rightly compared with the dazzling illusions of photorealism that academicians like Cabanel and Bouguereau were capable of.
This is partly what I’m indicating when I talk about Mr. Hopper’s ‘inadvertent’ surrealism. He was an American commercial artist at the turn of the twentieth century, and his æsthetic is fundamentally based on the realistic and naturalistic premises of American commercial art.
He anticipates—but also, to my mind, emerges from, or in reaction to—the pulp fiction æsthetic of American commercial art. The ‘realism’ of this ‘genre painting’, its photographic veracity—which is to say, its legibility as an image—is in turn founded on the gritty ‘objectivity’ of nineteenth-century literary naturalism, imported into the Anglophone world from France. We know that Mr. Hopper was an immense Francophile, that he knew the language intimately, and was thoroughly versed in French nineteenth-century prose and poetry.
Mr. Hopper draws on the same ‘hyper-lucidity’ of pulp fiction and paperback cover artwork, a brand of realism that is both gritty and natural, and surreal and melodramatic. Being designed explicitly to advertise narratives, the paintings of pulp fiction are deeply premised on the narrative conventions of literature: the static, photographically veracious image must convey a proto-cinematic sense of ‘story’, of a beginning preceding the image we see; a middle it concretely represents; and an end, after it, we can anticipate—multiply—in tantalizing predictions of what might happen next.
Likewise, there is a sense of ‘narrative in motion’ in Mr. Hopper’s paintings which is a far more ‘literary’ corollary for the hyper-lucid mode of pulp fiction artwork. And to have a narrative that can be discerned across a narrow tranche of time in a single image, you require photographically realistic figures in recognizably naturalistic locales and situations.
But while Mr. Hopper partakes of the same conventions as American commercial painting, and while a tantalizing ambiguity similar to Mr. Hopper’s does exist in pulp fiction illustration, the point of divergence is this: the image depicted in the pulp cover painting tends to be what M. Cartier-Bresson calls ‘le moment décisif’ of the narrative in motion, whereas Mr. Hopper routinely chooses a ‘transitional moment’ in the narrative told by his paintings, one which renders their legibility, despite their photographic veracity, problematic.
Art director Robert Boyle, a close collaborator of Mr. Hitchcock, sees this same tendency between the two artists and calls it the ‘penultimate moment’:
‘The Hopper Look’ is the look of a moment in time before something has happened, or very often after it’s happened, but never at the moment of the happening. If you see a young woman in her room, very often bare, and she’s in a contemplative mood, has it happened? Or is it about to happen?
We’re used to the quick delivery, and we’re not always intrigued by the development. And with a Hitchcock film, the development is the interesting part. And I don’t mean to just say Hitchcock; I think this is true of most good films – maybe all of them.—Robert F. Boyle, “Hitchcock, Hopper, and the Penultimate Moment”
Maybe even of all good art—period.
The painting Mr. Boyle is referring to in that quote is Mr. Hopper’s Eleven a.m. (1926), another image in which the upper-storey window plays a significant rôle as a vector for voyeurism, although in this early instance, as in many of his later paintings, the angle of regard is reversed, from within to without.
Eleven a.m. … shows a woman in a quiet pose…. Yet, as so often, Hopper’s suggestion that this is a real, precise situation is not entirely borne out by the visual evidence….
Hopper presents us with a transitional situation. He permits us a tiny glimpse of the city outside, and, at the left, he gives a non-committal suggestion of another room behind the slightly open curtain. … The sense of mystery, instead of residing in an immaterial phenomenon, is engendered by the simple fact that we cannot see its origin. It is not metaphysical, but merely outside our field of perception.—Ivo Kranzfelder, Hopper, p. 37
The décor of physical space is in some sense consubstantial with this transitional quality of time in Mr. Hopper’s paintings: he chooses what he going to be ‘real’ about, and works over certain areas of the canvas while treating others summarily. The effect of this is to complicate our reading of the image, to put us in the position, as Mr. Boyle observes, of wondering what has happened, or if it has happened yet, or what indeed may happen in this locale and situation which is photographically veracious enough for us to instantly recognize it, but not so realistic as to give us, as in the hyperlucid world of pulp fiction painting, an immediate sense of spatiotemporal orientation at the decisive moment of action in the drama.
In Mr. Hopper too, it is the ‘development’ that intrigues us, and the quick delivery of American commercial painting is infinitely delayed.
And thus, as the critics of his time recognized, while there is something of the ‘snapshot’ quality of photography in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, his brand of realism is not of the ‘photorealist’ variety—the kind of hyperlucidity that photography had already rendered redundant by the time MM. Cabanel et Bouguereau came on the scene:
This is an art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement. Nature’s sayso is not the artist’s affirmation.—Edward Alden Jewell, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 220)
Ms. Levin tells us that during his youthful apprenticeship in art and flânerie in Paris, Mr. Hopper flirted briefly with photography, taking pictures of architectural details such as those immensely photogenic staircases in Parisian apartment houses, the streets of the Rive Gauche, and the bridges spanning the Seine, emulating the lonely, melancholy manner of M. Atget, but that he gave up photography as an aide-mémoire to painting because ‘the camera sees things from a different angle, not like the eye.’
And this is the point that many photographers—particularly digital photographers—fail to grasp, but which, as a writer who takes photos and makes films, I am painfully aware of. It may be redundant to say it, but the camera is not capable of that ‘art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement’ which can only proceed from a human consciousness deeply schooled in some art of representation. The camera, reporting Nature’s sayso with unimaginative veracity, sees things ‘from a different angle’ to the artist’s eye.
Particularly when the photographer works in the expensive medium of film, as I do, he becomes distinctly aware that what looks like it could potentially be ‘an image’ when regarded with the naked eye sometimes loses its apparent photogeneity when the arbitrary cadre of the viewfinder is set around it. And just as often, the putative ‘image’ of some architectural detail composed in the viewfinder with settings carefully adjusted turns out to be a picture of rien de tout.
In other words, what dissatisfied Mr. Hopper about photography, an art-form he would appear to have some natural affinity with, is that the photographic image can rarely tell a story. The mere veracious reporting of everything in the frame at a given moment of time, unselected, unemphasised, unarranged, is antithetical to his deeply literary style of painting, where there is a transitional sense of ‘narrative in motion’.
It’s exceedingly difficult—impossible in nine instances out of ten—to take a ‘good photograph’, which I define as one that requires no words, no story that has to be supplied after the fact as a commentary, to gloss what is visible in the image. That moment in time should be compositionally sufficient to supply a beginning and an end to the action frozen in time in the image which may be logically inferred—and almost no photographs, of the many billions that have been taken, do this.
Certainly, it is my consciousness of the insufficiency of photography as an art-form, its inability to reliably supply that narrative dimension of time to physical spaces (a problem which the invention of cinema solved), that has led me to write fictions like “Office at night” ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ my own photographs.
And certainly, in making a deep tip of my Fedora to Mr. Hopper in “Office at night”, I wrote that short story as a deliberate exercise with the conscious intention of ‘reverse-engineering’ the transitional, literary nature of his painting from imagistic description back into descriptive words, that sense, in his painting, that the obscurity of time is consubstantial with the obliquity of space.
I start my narrative at the moment the photograph was taken, the bald man finishing up his phone call. It’s a transitional moment, the moment, as Mr. Boyle says, after something significant has happened, and implying that the scene comes before some other significant happening. As in a Hopper painting, legibility of the bald man’s affect and behaviour is rendered difficult, for although the narrative voice carries on matter-of-factly as if the subject of the phone conversation were known to us, we cannot infer the cause from the effects we witness in the story.
The cause remains, as in Eleven a.m., ‘outside our field of perception’—but temporally, not, as in Mr. Hopper’s painting, spatially.
If you listen to the track a few times, you’ll notice that there are times when the description of objects, spatial relationships, the bald man’s affect and behaviour, seems needlessly minute for such a short story—minute to the point of redundancy. And yet there are other instances where, with the summariness of Mr. Hopper, I have treated these same details cavalierly.
Listening to the story a second or third time with the last sentence in mind will reveal the reason for this inconsistency of vision in a narrative whose tone gives the impression of being an objective report. As in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, perspective, in the final mental tableau completed by the crowning sentence, is shown to be the key to how clearly we see and interpret objects and their spatial relationships, and how clearly we can read behaviour and affect.
That inferential synthesis is really the purview of cinema as an art-form. It appropriates the spatial veracity of photography and supplies the missing dimension of time which gives physical objects in relational actuality to one another an experiential coherence, and it can, from without, approximate with more or less success the internal psychological drives and dynamics of human beings which is more perfectly realized in literary narratives.
It’s in this sense that Mr. Hopper’s painting is more closely aligned with cinema than with photography, despite the limitation of stasis. Mr. Hopper is a poet, essentially, but he is a prose poet, a master of the short story.
As I intended with “Office at night”, his paintings are like a handful of pages ripped out of a novel: they puzzle and intrigue us precisely because they are the moments of ‘development’ in a larger narrative they assume we are following, like a film, but can only see in a single frame, like a photograph.
Many of his works are like camera shots consciously framed to give us a purified version of that strange blend of communicativeness and incommunicativeness that is ‘Hollywood.’—Parker Tyler, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 506-7)
The paradox in Mr. Tyler’s quote is illuminating, for if we can conclude one definite thing about Mr. Hopper it is that ‘communication’ was very important to him, a problem made galling by the fact that this very poetic, literary man with the quality of the novelist about him was more adept at writing in the hieroglyphs of images than in words.
… Introspective and intellectual, yet distrustful of verbal communication, he continued to struggle when he had to express himself in writing. As he had throughout his life, he preferred to speak through visual images…. In his painting, this visual communication took on a subtlety: details, shapes, colors, postures, scale, and specific juxtapositions join to convey many levels of meaning.—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 282
Ms. Levin tells us that after reading the book The Naked Truth and Personal Vision by the director of the art gallery at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Mr. Hopper felt sufficiently exercised to write to him:
I do not know what the ‘Naked Truth’ is, but I know that a ‘personal vision’ is the most important element in a painter’s equipment, but it must be communicated [doubly underlined].—Edward Hopper, letter to Bartlett Hayes, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 486-7)
We noticed above his telling remark that the ‘objective painter’ uses ‘natural phenomena to communicate perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.’ As a literary man at heart, he recurs to the metaphor of vocabulary to express what kind of tools are in his ‘painter’s equipment’.
Robert Frost, a poet whom Mr. Hopper greatly admired, and with whom he had a distant, occasional correspondence, stated that ‘every poem is an exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood’, and as Ms. Levin explains:
[Hopper’s] reality, as always, was fabricated, not just from casual memories collected, but out of his personal vision. His every painting is an ‘exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood.’—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 493
It is this ‘exaggeration’ that I mean when I talk about the ‘poetry’, the abstract quality deeply embedded within the mass of the objects of reality. In the paintings of Mr. Hopper or the films of Ozu-sensei, the ‘photogenic orientation’ of these artists abstracts the harmonious exaggeration of their poetry from objects, that harmonious exaggeration being the mood which is an emergent property of the Gestalt of décor in Mr. Hopper’s paintings as much as in Ozu-sensei’s films.
Writing in the first issue of the journal Reality, which he founded in 1953, Mr. Hopper made what amounts to his manifesto on this score, stating with earnest conviction:
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision [my emphasis] of the world.—Edward Hopper, “Statements by Four Artists”, Reality, Spring 1953, p. 8
In some sense, as I said above, the means of expression at which he was most adept was incompatible with his message, the ‘inner life of the artist’ being perhaps better communicated through poetry or fiction than through the sculpting of the outward forms of objects in paint. Hence the admixture of ‘communicativeness and incommunicativeness’ which makes Mr. Hopper’s paintings seductive and intriguing.
In this struggle to communicate by one artistic means a message which is better suited to another medium, I can certainly sympathize with him, though in the opposite direction; for if Mr. Hopper, as a visual artist, is really a poet or novelist manqué, as a writer with a distinctly visual style, I am definitely filmmaker manqué. We have both missed our callings and have attempted, in mastering the arts we came to early in our lives, to make them do the opposite of what they are intended to do. He attempts to tell stories through images. I attempt to paint images through words.
But there is another sense in which the notion of a ‘personal vision’ to be communicated by imperfect means links us fraternally. I commenced by saying that to be a flâneur is to be a voyeur. Personal vision predicates both avocations, the latter pathologically, although if I am arguing for the studied idleness of flânerie as a fine art (and I am), in its close relationship with dandyism, it too is certainly also pathological.
We cannot claim for Mr. Hopper election to the academy of dandies, but he does belong to a very rare corpus of visual artists we can justifiably call flâneurs, other exemplars of this rare species being MM. Manet et Degas. Among painters, these gentlemen represent the arcane strain of flâneurism that runs, like the barest trickle of an underground stream, often lost for decades, the torch being carried by one man alone who doesn’t bear a direct heir, through the intellectual tradition of European modernity.
Mr. Hopper undertook his apprenticeship in the arcane tradition of flânerie on the holy ground of Paris, a spiritual successor to MM. Manet et Degas, and like them, he is un romancier des mœurs. The libertine French spirit suffuses his repressed Puritan soul, and smuggling that deep saturation of Parisian influence back into America, he paints the modes and manners of his native place and time with the same Flaubertian irony of those great moralists, MM. Manet et Degas.
To be a flâneur is to live a much more transitional, a much more osmotic existence than most people are comfortable with. The exteriority of the street is our salon; we are no more privately ‘at home’ than in the public sphere. And certainly, there are flâneries and there are flâneries that one might take: the æsthetic quest for the marvellous and the beautiful we undertake by day is very different from the more ruthless, predatory hunt after these same things we undertake by night.
Light (or the lack of it) determines the moral nature of the beautiful and marvellous things we discover in sunlight or in shade.
What comes out of Ms. Levin’s biography is that Mr. Hopper had a predilection for the nocturnal hunt. It more deeply inspired him, which is paradoxical, as his Puritanical Yankee nature reacted with apparent fear and loathing at the moral quality of the beautiful and marvellous things he saw in Paris at night. He was constitutionally unsuited to embrace his eyes’ desires and was self-condemned, like his youthful hero, M. Degas, to artistic voyeurism, flâneuristically sketching his croquis of Parisian mœurs in cafés.
Both Night Windows and Office at Night were products of nocturnal prowls. New York Post film critic Archer Winsten wrote that Mr. Hopper ‘spends a great deal of time walking in the city he loves and has always loved. He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night. For this same reason he likes to ride on els.’
Mr. Hopper betrayed himself as the perfect type of the artistic flâneur, the deceptively indolent man of the crowd driven by a deep, barely expressible vision of surreal beauty, when Mr. Winsten asked him what he did—outside of painting—for ‘fun’.
I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.—Edward Hopper to Archer Winsten, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 270)
The idea of ‘fun’ is as imponderable to a working artist as to an idle flâneur. Our only pleasure lies in the scopic activity of looking, whether with the fixity of the voyeur, or in fleeting movement, collecting those croquis des mœurs on the run, dashed down in a notebook as poetic snapshots of the city, this ruinous theme park of modernity we are wandering through in a continuous death march. The enforced leisure of our work is our pleasure.
And what makes Mr. Hopper a card-carrying member of this extremely exclusive clique of flâneurial artists is very much his subscription to an æsthetic cause articulated by M. Baudelaire in Le Peintre de la vie moderne; that is, to draw out the eternal from the ephemeral, to ‘crystallize’ or ‘arrest’, as Mr. Hopper said to his wife, ‘a moment of time acutely realized.’
We think of Mr. Hopper as a great painter in oils, a medium which, in visual terms, is the equivalent of the novel—slow to paint, slow to dry, with a heavy, enduring stasis about it, a substantiality equivalent to eternity, and not at all well-suited to the ‘portability’ of the transitory flâneurial quest to catch impressions on the fly.
But just as M. Manet was an exquisite café watercolourist, and M. Degas was capable, in his monotypes, of recording impressions of brothels almost daguerreotypic, Mr. Hopper was, in the twenties, a great printmaker, as capable as they of capturing immediate—almost photographic—sensations of the city. And all his life he remained a great field-sketcher, taking notes, in his flâneries, which he would then ‘work up’ into those novelistic fables of American morals and manners given enduring life in his oil paintings.
Herman Gulack recalled running into Hopper at the Automat, sitting by a window with just a plate with two rolls. When Gulack asked if he would like a cup of coffee, he replied that he was only making believe to be a customer in order to observe the view through the window and across the street. Hopper, having made sketches for the overall disposition of his composition, would then retain in his memory his impression of what he had seen.—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 518
It’s much easier, in the main, to be a flâneurial writer than a flâneurial artist, for, like spies, we can not only scope out our intel and note it down in the field without breaking cover, but because we carry the novelistic tableau we are painting in words in our heads, we are able, like guerrillas, to paint it in the sites and sights of the city without being discovered, to sail in, make our terroristic assaults upon the banality of the city, detonating our visions of beauty in the midst of the unsuspecting crowd, and sail out again.
Certainly, in my work, the weapon of the camera aids me in arresting that tableau of the ‘spleen of Melbourne’ I am building up in words. I’m not quite ready to tip my mitt and tell you, chers lecteurs, what great literary crime I am up to, but yes, both “Office at night” and “Dreidel” are episodes in a larger narrative, and the image of a third short story based on one of my photographs, a further clue to the big plot I am plotting, is just about developed in the darkroom of my mind and ready for writing.
If you enjoyed “Office at night” and want to hear episode 3 sooner rather than later, you can inspire me by plinking some coffee-cash in the fuel fund below. I have just had a new batch of branded Melbourne Flâneur postcards featuring “Block Court, Collins street, evening” printed, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Office at night” for $A5.00 using the link below, I will send you a copy of the postcard, featuring a short, personalised message of thanks just for you.
“Office at night” [MP3 audiostory and postcard]
An atmospheric short story where more is going on than meets the eye—or the ear. Purchase the MP3 of Dean Kyte’s new ficción and receive the postcard above, signed by Dean and featuring a handwritten, personalised message just for you!