Hopper/Vermeer: Things that never quite were

New York’s Whitney Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on Edward Hopper’s New York, which I visited on a recent trip.

As the exhibition blurb puts it, for Hopper “New York was a city that existed in the mind as well as on the map, a place that took shape through lived experience, memory, and the collective imagination.”

The show is especially satisfying for its use of newly acquired archives, showing how Hopper and his wife Josephine Nivison Hopper collaborated in a lifetime of artistic production.

Works like New York Movie are exhibited alongside preparatory studies and sketches as well as photographs from some of the real-life locations the artists visited as part of their creative process.

We see just how fictive Hopper’s New York was: scenes created from amalgamation of multiple locations, with imaginary additions or even omissions, creating a city-that-never-was which is nonetheless powerfully evocative of New York specifically and a certain quality of mid-twentieth-century American life more generally.

I’m always seduced by sketches; I love it when people show their working. You can see the traces of their choices, the possibilities they pursued and then abandoned, especially when the artist is “thinking through drawing”.

It’s not just drawing, either; in a long interview last year with BBC 6 Music’s Tom Robinson, Ray Davies of the Kinks spoke about how he loved demo tapes more than finished songs, however rough and ready. He thought this was because you could still feel all the potential, before production choices and final recordings locked you down to one outcome.

In the Whitney’s Hopper exhibition, we are reminded of old truths that are sometimes easy to forget: that art is a process as well as a product; a matter of subtraction as well as addition; and a collaborative act, besides – even if it’s just the collaboration between artist and audience which allows for meaning to be made.

The exhibition sets out how Josephine Hopper modelled for her husband, frequently playing the roles of more than one character in a painting, giving them names and characteristics, adopting a pose which would gradually be transformed until the figures appearing on the canvas no longer resembled her in the slightest.

The serene and even lonely quality of Hopper’s work was created through a kind of mental collage of observations from the bustling city, and an elaborate, joint, almost theatrical process by husband and wife.

Hopper’s city-that-never-quite-was reminds me (perhaps inevitably) of the imagined futures which are created in scenario planning. There, too, the work is deeply collaborative, and there are benefits in sharing sketches and outputs which reflect early stages of the process – what Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson call “sharing the movie of the movie“. If the aim is to stretch users’ thinking and offer insights beyond our current frame of strategic attention, then all that potential which so excited Ray Davies in his demo tapes is also of value to strategists.

There’s theatre and cinema there too, baked in right from the start. The word “scenario” came to the world of strategy via the humourist and screenwriter Leo Rosten, who used it in its sense of “an outline for a proposed movie”. If we trace it further, the word’s etymology takes us back to an Italian theatrical term meaning a stage set, scenery, or backdrop.

Hopper’s work, brimming with silent potential, gives us the sense of a scene which has been pre-populated with a few characters, but within which we are free to develop our own narratives. What is going on in this scene? What do these people mean to one another? What happened before the moment captured in this painting? What will happen next?

Scenarios are not just stories of what is to come, but rather spaces within which we can collaboratively play out and test different gambits, identities, options, and dynamics. In this way, the kind of storytelling they offer is closer to that of young children’s games of make-believe: “Whatever has latest caught their fancy is tested on their perpetual stage.”

Just like a Hopper cityscape, these spaces of play can include material from empirical observation, from models and other materials – but also suppositions, provocations, flights of fancy, and other artefacts of pure imagination.

This is a form of what Ramírez and Wilkinson call bricolage – “a rigorous approach of qualitative inquiry pragmatically making use of tools and techniques (including quantitative ones) developed in other fields”.

(In similarly resonant terms, Claudio Ciborra noted that even a technological marvel like the Mir space station incorporated bricolage: “hand in hand, advanced, robust engineering solutions, rustic design, and widespread virtuoso tinkering … to keep the equipment and the system going as a whole”).

For an artist like Hopper, the criterion for including an element in the painterly bricolage might be whether it contributes towards the aesthetic effect which the artwork proposes. For a scenario planner, the criterion is plausibility: does this depiction of the future challenge current assumptions in a way which is useful?

These concerns are not so far apart. Strategic objects and processes are, after all, aesthetic undertakings as much as reasoned ones. We appreciate them and are moved by them in similar ways to films, plays, and literature; we make decisions based on what feels right.

As Rafael Ramírez and Jerome Ravetz put it, our aesthetic sense complements our capacity for rationality: “What one feels about something, what one senses … is the beginning of what one knows.”

Just as the word “scenario” has a lineage through Hollywood to Italian theatre, the theory and practice of scenario planning have a distinctive history. The cast of characters in such a history might include storied figures like Pierre Wack or Herman Kahn. It might incorporate work like Emory and Trist’s paper on the uncertain and complex “causal textures” of environments within which organisations operate. Just as in art history, we can identify influential techniques and figures whose work resonates across generations.

One of the unexpected insights which I got from the Whitney exhibition was a link between Hopper’s work and that of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, made in the exhibition materials.

Various similarities can be detected in their use of light and colour; in the sense of stillness with which they imbue their city scenes; in the repeated depiction of windows, which remind us that any location from a shopfront to a study can be made to feel like a theatrical set, within which we may be audience or actor, observer or observed. In Vermeer and in Hopper we often witness goings-on whose story, and full meaning, is not fully manifest, which the viewer can articulate and shape for themselves.

And, just as Hopper’s city isn’t quite the New York of the real world, not all of Vermeer’s portraits depict real people. Rather they are “tronies”: paintings representing characters, types, emotions, or even just exaggerated facial expressions.

Their subjects are no more “real” than the imaginary people who can now be conjured by machine learning. Some of them depict very recognisable emotions or types, taken to the point of caricature. Looking upon these tells us something about the common language of the artist and their audience, even across centuries and generations: This is what anger looks like. This is youth. This is the face of foolishness. This is what ageing looks like.

Just as with the imagined and amalgamated cityscapes of Hopper’s New-York-that-never-quite-was, these tronies offer an opportunity for us to surface and questions our assumptions: how do we know what we know about people? How much of that comes from their appearance? What can even imaginary faces and expressions tell us about emotion, experience, identity, and the ways in which they write themselves on the body and in the clothes we wear, the way we pose?

In much the same way as we can envision a future which challenges our assumptions, and populate it with actors who may not even exist yet – reflecting on the winners, losers, and leavers of the scene as well as any new arrivals who might take the stage of a plausible scenario – Vermeer’s make-believe tronies invite contemplation and fresh insight about our own identity as well as that of others.

And not every tronie is exaggerated to the point of caricature, just as not every Hopper cityscape is evidently unreal, and not every scenario represents baldly utopian or dystopian “best or worst cases”. Instead, we are opened up to greater curiosity, greater awareness, a refusal to settle for the first answer or the simplest or the most comforting.

When we look into the uncertain future, seeking to challenge our own expectations, we can hope to find not easy answers, but a deep sense of wonder – much as we might find in a work of art.

Take what is perhaps the most famous and most ambiguous tronie of all, a woman who never was:

What do you see in the face of the girl with the pearl earring?

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