Edward Hopper – Excursion into Philosophy
Everyone likes a Hopper, even critics. Just to be deliberately obscure, I’m not going to choose Nighthawks, his most famous work, but something that appeals because its message is subtle, simple, wry and universal. The title is unusually descriptive for Hopper, who liked to use neutral names like Cape Cod Evening or New York Pavements, but a better clue to the meaning is the nickname he and his wife had for it: “Plato, reread too late.”
The commentary at Tate Modern, where I first saw the painting, said that the reference to Plato, the author of the open book on the bed, had something to do with the man being absorbed by metaphysical thoughts while ignoring the physical presence of the half naked woman. I think the meaning is wittier and less vague than that. The man and the woman have just had sex, and the man (and possibly the woman) is thinking how much simpler their relationship was when their love was platonic, or sexless.
The woman’s state of undress is intimate, but in the worst way: she is showing him her arse.
Also, the symbolism is fun. The man and the woman each have their own separate pool of light, but neither of them are bathed in it. And the viewer can also see what they have not yet spotted: it is beautiful outside, but they are sitting indoors, oppressed.
Mark Rothko – Red on Maroon
There isn’t much point in having a picture of this here, but I’ve included it so you know which daub I’m talking about. On the surface it is a boring, if mildly aesthtically-pleasing, abstract smear. It is just a window with a crap view, but there’s a secret to this painting that you can only see if you visit the original. It is supposed to be hung in semi-darkness, so that your eyes have difficulty distinguishing colour. If you sit in the room and stare at it, the colours start to swim. There are no defined images hidden within it, but your imagination will pick out shapes, imprinting your personality onto the painting. How clever is that?
Richard Wilson – 20:50
It’s just a room full of oil, but it has three things going for it.
(1) It might be sludge, but it’s serenely and forebodingly beautiful.
(2) It is intimidating. As you walk into the room you are constantly aware of the threat of the barrier collapsing and covering you in gunge, like one of Noel Edmonds’s guests on his (thankfully redundant) television show.
(3) It looks bottomless, but may not even be more than a centimetre deep. A low tap on the outside suggests that it is as deep as floor level, but this could be a trick. I like that.
Antony Gormley – Asian Field
Gormley has been doing the same thing for decades: endless casts of the human body varying only in size, quantity and the materials from which they are made. But his Field series is magical, and Asian Field is my favourite because it is the biggest, and I have met the Chinese rice farmers who made it for him. Your first view of a floor covered with clay figures is breathtaking. You feel like a god. 200,000 pairs of eyes stare up at you reverently in a way that is both awe-inspiring and subtly worrying. What would you do, you wonder, if they turned on you?
In the first row, you can see the little figures’ bodies; in the next rows, their shoulders and upturned heads. The further you look, the less you can see. As the heads become too distant to discern you can make out only the eyes, and finally nothing but swirls of light and dark red.
Canaletto – Piazza San Marco, Looking Southeast
I’ve liked Canaletto since childhood because his paintings resemble the action-filled scenes of a children’s book by Richard Scarry or Martin Handford (the author of Where’s Wally?). Uniquely among 18th century artists, he had a sense of fun. You can spend hours looking at his huge paintings (to which this thumbnail does no justice) looking for people jostling and larking around.