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Hopper’s Soir Bleu and sorrow in art

Existential wailing is best done in the Whitney, there, the sound can bounce off the tall windows and ceilings and you can stand next to Hopper’s Soir Bleu, the saddest painting in the world. Whether it be a lover gone rogue, a poor financial position, or just a wider more general sort of angst one should always: a) take relief in the fact that they are young and beautiful and b) console oneself with gorgeous sad art. And so for reference, the Hopper painting is on the seventh floor in “Selections from 1900 to 1965” before American surrealism and after O’Keefe, and it has been in that spot since 2019 when the exhibition first opened: Hopper’s Soir Bleu. It is a favourite of mine because I think more than any other painting I have seen it truly understands sorrow, captures it like a photograph.

Soir Bleu, Edward Hopper (1914), physical dimensions: w71.9375 x h36.125 in, credit Line: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1208

The painting shows a clown on his lunch break lighting up a cig and taking a load off, his shoulders are slumped, he looks deflated. Behind him there is a prostitute, on his side a military man, and to the left aristocrats, in front of him is a man that looks much like Van Gogh. The painting has Hopper's usual realist aesthetic but is infused with an uncharacteristic dose of the surreal. Hopper is not known for the fantastic but for his paintings of flat surfaces and corners, sights through windows, pictures of things happening in empty spaces — he is clean lines, longing, and wistfulness. In Soir Bleu, we encounter those same feelings except it is so much busier, it is full of characters and story: the woman standing behind the clown with rouged cheeks and a straight back in my imagination has spotted an ex-lover across the restaurant, and her back is straightened from the pain of it; the clown I imagine was juggling moments before, his hands are shaking under the table; the undulating sea in the background is a rough and dramatic outline, it is a sea of sorrow, and will perhaps wash them all away …

When I first saw Soir Bleu, I recognised the sadness depicted instantly and viscerally, I was not sad but had been and I could see it there on the canvas: sorrow, sorrow as it is naturally, sorrow as indulgence. There is so much going on in the tableau but each character is unaware of it because they are all so involved with their own private suffering at the centre of their own particular world — thus is the nature of sorrow, it feels good because it puts you at the centre. Sorrow provides you with what is an impoverished sense of importance (and importance is all any of us want, to someone, to something). It doesn’t feel as good as it feels to be happy, but much better than it feels to be angry because sorrow requires nothing of you. It is passive and quiet and allows you to drown in it and be paralysed. Sorrow is the large and swallowing ocean — sorrow is blue.

Front cover of studio album Blue (1971) by Joni MItchell, Reprise Records. Cover art copyright believed to belong to Reprise Records or the graphic artist(s).

It is blue as Joni Mitchell is blue in 1971 — sounding like a sparrow and singing over the raw stroke of a guitar. In Blue she is a woman at sea in her pain, remembering the joy of the past and the ruins left over and she enjoys plucking the strings of the hurt and of the suffering. She is sorrow, she is blue. She sings “You know I've been to sea before, crown and anchor me or let me sail away, hey Blue” and how she yearns to be let out to sea again where she can be lost and really enjoy it. That’s the perverted part about sorrow, it is as at the end of Girl Interrupted when Angelina says wickedly that “Everybody knows that he fucks you but what they don’t know is that you like it.” There is an ecstasy in being very sad.

In Lubaina Himid’s 2021 exhibition at the Tate Modern she assembled her usual crew of colourful characters, who I imagine would talk to Hopper’s sad clowns and prostitutes, and she assembled the cartoons beside and within her reckoning with the great African sorrow: the transatlantic slave trade. Himid’s Blue Grid Test ushers you into the middle passage where you find the arresting Old Boat New Money, a series of undulating wooden planks that recall the hull of a slave ship. But before that, in the Blue Grid Test Joni Mitchell’s Blue reverberates across the room from tiny speakers where Himid’s voice overlays the music. Himid’s voice says blue in different tongues and different shades in a poetic incantation which surrounds — blue… bleu… blau... And the words encompass you and bury you under the sound because Himid understands how sorrow is insulating, it is private and nearly always selfish. It drowns you which is why water is our best metaphor for it.

Lubaina Himid, Tate Modern 2021, image created by Sonia Bakrania, copyright belongs to Tate.

There are few who have written about sorrow in such rich terms as Toni Morrison, even fewer have dared to and found success in capturing what I have called here the great African sorrow, and Toni used the metaphor of water to such great effect in her novels: Beloved came from the water, Solomon flew over it, Sula drowned a child, Pecola only ever wanted the Bluest eye. Toni knew sorrow, she weaved it through her colourful stories whilst always remembering that a history of sorrow alone is a false history. And this is perhaps what is most true about Hopper’s Soir Bleu, it understands the dishonesty of sorrow who is always jostling for place, always pretending that it is the only emotion, the most important one, when it never is. Because sorrow is never alone, it must always sit begrudgingly beside life’s ridiculousness and relentless forward momentum. Sorrow is when the worst thing in the world happens and you are dressed as a clown. Sorrow is when your world is falling apart and you’re sat with a Van Gogh look alike. Whilst sorrow will try to pretend that there was never any laughter or joy or irony, it is actually far more true that there was a lot of fun and then a sudden ending.


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