Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Oh, That's Just Swell

One of these days, I'm going to get into a fistfight with a museum docent. I often find myself disagreeing with their analysis of a painting as I lurk on the edge of a tour group. (I never sign up for the tour groups, but I do sidle up to them out of curiosity.) At the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, one such group and I stood in front of the painting above, "Ground Swell," painted in 1939 by Edward Hopper. The docent asked whether anyone was familiar with Hopper's best-known painting, "Nighthawks." None of the group knew it, but I raised my hand. It's the rather depressing nighttime view from outside a diner where a few customers and staff are not looking at each other. One of those existential things. "Ground Swell" is in the sunshine, but it has its own grimness. Note the year, said the docent. 1939. War is in full swing in Europe. The US is not in yet. It wasn't a big leap to agree that the painting suggests rough waters ahead for these carefree young Americans. What kind of shape are the guys in? Buff! What are they wearing? White pants! What do the pants suggest? Blank stares. The Navy! Soon they'll be in the Navy! Um, OK. But white is traditional sailing attire, military or not. In my symbology, the white suggested the innocence of the young folks out for a day of fun. There's a little sad irony in the idea that these strong, handsome, untroubled young men may soon be tested (wasted?) in war. Each focuses on the buoy bobbing in the swell. Here's where I really had to bite my opinionated tongue. The docent quoted some art expert who said the buoy is shaped like an old-fashioned radio, the radio being the main news source of the day, through which came rumors of war. Sorry, but that's not the shape of any radio that ever stood in my grandparents' home, or turns up in photos of the era. The large wooden radio cabinets were either rectangular or shaped like an arch, a column with a curved top. Come on, experts, that buoy is a pyramid with the top cut off. No resemblance. My interpretation: the buoy is an elemental sort of warning. A disturbance in the sea tips it and makes the bell clang, but it doesn't spell out the nature of the problem. The sailors who hear it must listen, look, and try to gauge the threat. The posture of the men suggests they have heard the bell and are wondering, "Hmm, how seriously should we take this?" The woman lying so casually next to the mast seems calm. Perhaps she represents hearth and home, which the men may soon be called upon to protect. She's counting on it. Over all, I thought the docent and his expert were trying a little too hard to make the painting tell a story by assigning such specific meanings to elements. What does the coffee cup represent in "Nighthawks"? Anyway, I kept my mouth shut and sauntered away to absorb some nifty bronzes by Remington, St. Gaudens and freres. In the 1800s, the US had a booming production of bronze sculpture, but it faded away after the first world war. Who knew? Off to the museum cafe for a plate of Amish chicken salad. Honest. But with no bonnets or buggies in evidence, the chicken could have been a Presbyterian.

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