Edward Hopper & Cape Ann in Gloucester


Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Coming Home

Cape Ann Museum

Gloucester, MA

Through October 16, 2023


Edward Hopper is certainly one of the most iconic American painters of the 20th century. Even if the titles don’t ring immediate bells, Hopper works such as Nighthawks (1940), Chop Suey (1929), Automat (1929), and Early Sunday Morning (1930) are instantly recognizable. Hopper is recognized, with considerable merit, as the preeminent artist of ennui, anomie, and disconnection. He is famed for populating his canvases (if at all) with people who look at anything except each other or you the viewer. His career soared during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many saw him a quintessential painter of the period’s gloom.


Hopper (1882-1967) considered himself a realist painter, a term that has little to do with being photographic or careful depictions of his surroundings. Realism is more a kind of truthfulness, an honest evocation of place, mood, or emotions (or lack thereof). “Eddie” Hopper was born into a strict Baptist family, grew into a rather gangly body, and never entirely cast off his family’s austere Dutch Protestantism. He studied with luminaries such as Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase, but like many budding artists, he struggled for a time. His first trip to Cape Ann–the North Shore in Massachusetts parlance–came in 1912, a veritable search for inspiration. Henri had told him to, “Forget about art and paint what interests you.” That was good advice, but he sold nothing at all until 1913 and his first breakthrough took another ten years. 


Josephine Nivison Hopper


In 1924, he married Josephine Nivison, also an artist. She proved an adroit booster, manager, and organizer of his career. The two stayed together though their marriage was often stormy and rumors of physical violence swirled. Her career never really took off but before anyone raises gender hackles, the few canvases displayed at the Cape Ann Museum suggest that she was a second-rate talent. When they revisited Cape Ann during the 1920s, his work was noticeably more dynamic than hers.


With an artist of such a profile as Hopper’s, it would be pretentious to say I disliked the show at the Cape Ann Museum (CAM). There is much I liked quite a lot, actually, but I was also underwhelmed. Like many artists, Hopper dabbled in various media, such as drawings, etchings, and lithographs. The CAM show is heavy on watercolors and most of them simply lack the poignancy and emotive power of his oils. This is particularly noticeable in its abundance of stand-alone houses. They are fine as documentation of fading styles for the well-heeled, but his oils often took a longer look and included people, dogs, fishermen, and landscape details that invite viewers to write our own narratives. Stripped of them, a grand house of bourgeois dwelling is precisely that and little more. 





In many respects, his views of railyards, empty streets, and down-market homes are much more intriguing. In this respect, he followed Henri’s admonition. Henri was a leading light of the Ashcan school of painting, which found more potency and vigor in work, struggle, and grit than in “pretty” things. Hopper as well, which is why his best known works impress more than they please. They are, insofar as Cape Ann is concerned, more “Gloucester,” a fishing town, than the lace, awnings, and graceful porches of elites.


Note Hopper's use of verticals and triangles



 Heres’ an admittedly idiosyncratic critique from a person who literally has trouble drawing a straight line with a ruler. To my eye Edward Hopper simply wasn’t as skilled at watercolors as he was with oils.

 None of this is to say that you should avoid the CAM show. It might be advisable, though, to tamp down your expectations. Another small detail you should know. Since nearly all the works are on loan, no photography of any sort is allowed in the exhibit. I’m sure this is in accordance with stipulations from the various lenders, but I wish the art world would simply stop the striptease. The no-photos horse left the barn a long time ago and you could go to where these paintings reside and photograph most of them in situ. Why not allow patrons small remembrances of their visit? 


My favorite. Note how Hopper folded eaves and rooftops into the boat sails!


Note: The Hopper images in this piece are taken from internet sources. They are low quality copies of copies, I don’t redistribute them, and I make exactly zero dollars from anything on this blog!     


Music Recommendations for September: Laia Llach, Florencia & The Feeling, Bonnie and Taylor Sims, Amulet, Sandy Bailey




You might glance at the name Laia Llach and think “Welsh.” Nope. She’s a Catalan folk and pop singer with a degree in environmental studies, the latter a value she weaves into her 8-song Sol d’hivern (“Winter Sun”). Others deal with memories and self-affirmation, but she’s also interested in music as a healing tool. Consider it accomplished. The title track alone does so. It is so warm and inviting that no hot cocoa analogies need apply. “Serà La Pluja" (“It Will Rain”) is uncomplicated and gorgeous, with Llach’s sunny demeanor exuding the promise that all will be well. She’s like a delicate bird wafting above troubles. “Campanelles” (“Bells”) doesn’t clang; it a gentle call to play, explore, and revel in nature. The closest she gets to dark is “Dos Sogons” (“Two Seconds”), which is short and a little moody, but the emotional honesty of the song dispels doubts. When she lays down a song such as “Llum” (“Light”), it’s a promise, not a hope. Llach exudes clam and genuineness. In a world of challenges and fear, I adore her to pieces.  




Florencia Rusiñol has a degree in music therapy. Birthday, the debut album from Florenica and The Feeling is both good for what ails you and a cause for celebration. Rusiñol is Canadian-born and of Argentinian extraction. She and her five-piece band now live in Johnson City, Tennessee and, though they call themselves a funk pop fusion band, the emphasis is on fusion. You’ll hear echoes of Latino, cool jazz, and a few other influences as well. The title track features one of the album’s themes: recovering from a bad breakup. But what you’re likely to notice first is the song’s quirky little vocal runs, one that’s somewhere between a stutter step and staccato. She’s more explicit about her yearning in “Meant to Be,” with its memorable line: I can’t erase your shadow from my bed. “Que Será” has a torchy feel melded to a retro pop ballad and “What Can I Do?” is a jazzy take on pop power. 




The new self-titled album by Bonnie and Taylor Sims is loaded with songs for, in their words, “a shifting world marked by the juxtaposition of beauty and pain, hope and destruction.” I’m not sure that’s a new global shift, but you get the picture. Bonnie used to head a lineup called Bonnie & The Clydes and there’s a decided outlaw country streak in this record. Listen to Bonnie lull you into a nice calm place before airing it out on “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” Because Taylor plays acoustic guitar the “duo” is often labeled a “country folk” act. But as you see, that’s not always the case when Bonnie plugs in and percussion and electric bass ring out. They do get quiet on “Liza”– just guitar and mandolin–but again, Bonnie’s voice rings out strong and bold. Taylor also has an inviting voice, as you can here in swingy little roadhouse “Side by Side.” They’re based in Colorado these days, but when they sing “Texas Again,” they’re not tourists; they hail from there, the song’s bluegrass feel notwithstanding. 





I could do without the pointless electronic noise of “Introduction,” but Amulet settles into more appropriate arrangements on Petit Viking. Amulet is the stage name of singer Antoni Mulet who is from Mallorca, a favored resort in Spain’s Balearic islands chain. Spanish and Catalan are spoken there, but islanders prefer their own dialect. Forgive the linguistics lesson, but it’s my way of saying I have to take Mulet’s word that the songs are based on the hero’s journey and focus on various struggles. The music gets pigeonholed as “indie folk,” but when guitar and banjo share space with brass, explorative keys, and the strident fishorn matters get more complex. But songs like “Estrella” do have a folk feel and what’s a recording these days without a love song like “Amor?” Checkout “Surt, Petit,” which gets my vote for a reason to keep things simple.  Note: There used to be a punk band called Amulet. This performer has no connections to it.



Let’s round out the reviews with some homegrown Western Massachusetts grit. I first recall Sandra (“Sandy”) Bailey tackling a Mavis Staples song and thought, “Well that takes moxie.” I was wrong. It takes a strong, powerful voice and she has one. Bailey is where Norah Jones meets Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, and Patsy Cline and they get together to slay some tunes so get out of the way. Bailey has edge. Check out the album cover, an ironic mash up of a country queen dress and non-Nashville footwear. “I Ain’t Your Honey,” evokes classic Motown with a splash of country pop and a smack of don’t mess with me. How about some ukulele-driven blues on “Already Down.” Her album Daughter of Abraham is full of soul, country blues, gospel-influenced, and Americana offerings. The title track is about a runaway enslaved man walking to freedom. It is done with appropriate dignity and determination: He almost forgot about the holes in his shoes/When his stomach started growling. It’s a different kind of pain, but “Bottles of Emptiness” says it all. I’ve long admired singers who forget about the glitz and just air out the songs. That’s Bailey in a nutshell.



The Rabbit Hutch: A National Book Award Winner



By Tess Gunty

Alfred A. Knopf, 339 pages.

★★★★★ (National Book Award winner)



When Pete Buttigieg ran for president, he touted his success as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. It's a good thing The Rabbit Hutch wasn't published until 2022 or we might never have heard of Mayor Pete. Tess Gunty modeled dire Vaca Vale on South Bend.*


Vaca Vale is such a grim postindustrial city that it can't even be said that dreams die hard there; it's more as if residents are so hollowed out that they are on autopilot and resigned to their fates. Even the local Catholic Church is described as “gothic on a budget.” Our protagonist Blandine Watkins isn't exactly the sort that Buttigieg was selling either.


The namesake “rabbit hutch” is shorthand for the La Lapinière Affordable Housing complex. The latter is a fancy name for a down-market building that's mostly inhabited by social services clients, resource-challenged residents, and those on the margins of mental health. It's also a backdoor reference to the city’s past glories. Vaca Vale once produced Zorn automobiles, but the company went out of business in 1963 and took the  city down with it. (Once, South Bend was home to Studebaker, which ceased production in 1967.)


So many revitalization plans have come and gone that few can work up much enthusiasm for Maxwell Pinky’s promise that his project will bring new jobs and tax revenue. In fact, his big announcement is sabotaged in unusual ways. Plus, the city is literally plagued by rabbits that are metaphors for locals: “They look tough, like they knew how to break your legs,” but they are fragile, timid prey.


This also describes Blandine to a tee. Her birth name was Tiffany but sexual abuse, dashed hopes, and nervous collapse bred a desire to be dead. She has become a devotee of Hildegard von Bingen, a Christian slave martyred in the 2nd century. Blandine “loves the mystics because they, unlike her, never stopped searching for portals. They treated prayer as their getaway car, cathedral as a rabbit hole, suffering as a Wonderland... The mystics gave up on the Beyond and they refused to leave the Green World.”


Good luck finding a Green World at the rabbit hutch. Gunty’s novel is propelled by interlocking biographies that collide with that of Blandine. She shares a flat with three 19-year-olds–Todd, Malik, and Jack–and they're as damaged as she, but in different ways. Others who drift in and out of the complex or are permanently caged there include: an obituary checker who flags inappropriate comments, a new mother suffering from postpartum depression, a woman whose son is in jail, an elderly couple whose devotion to each other is tested by bad luck, a New Age devotee, an artist faced with the choice of paying her rent or fixing her car to get the money to pay said rent, and a man who likes to strip naked, smear broken glow sticks onto his body, and surprise strangers at night–often by breaking into their homes. Gunty also works a TV sitcom actress into all of this.


Detailed backstories flesh out how each character came to their present circumstances. It's a toss-up which is weirder, their journeys or the twisted history of Vaca Vale. Blandine’s travails are at the heart of the book, but the various asides paint lurid backdrops. At times there are so many loose threads awaiting connective knots that we, as readers, get tangled in the mess. In a way, that's the point. Blandine is disturbed by “absence” as she walks across her town. “[T]here is junk everywhere she looks,” but it collectively creates an atmosphere of “nothing.” Her own thoughts are similar. She fancies herself a Marxist and has her postmodern rhetoric down, but when she considers the broken relationship that turned her into Blandine as having gone from a state of primitive communism to feudalism and a final capitalist collapse, she's essentially confessing that she has been a rabbit, not a fox.


As you can see, this is a multi-layered novel. What is not and is any sort of endorsement of Buttigieg’s South Bend. In essence, Vaca Vale is filled lots of dead rabbits and mammalian survivors who don't thrive.


Rob Weir


*Full disclosure: I was in South Bend and found it as depressing as Vaca Vale, but that was more than 20 years ago. Maybe it has gotten better. I hope so!