Two documentary encounters in the middle of the nineties, both accidental, shocked the calm waters of Hopper studies. The first of these, for reasons that are easily understood, initially caused a stir in relation to a very different topic but also, considerably more, by the extent to which its allusions to Hopper, occasional and somewhat murky, would only make sense in the light of the second discovery.
In the autumn of ´93, an antiquarian bookseller of Boston specializing in manuscripts, published a revolutionary item: 63 pages of what appeared to be a diary or the foul papers of memoranda, written by Patrick Henry Bruce in Paris between approximately 1908 and 1913; that is to say, from the year in which he began to assist at the Matisse academy until the moment which is plainly marked out by his relationship with Delaunay and the influence that this had on this work. While it functions as a testimony indispensable in illuminating the figure of its author –this ill-fated American avant-garde artist who destroyed nearly all his work just before returning to New York, where he committed suicide in 1937 in its first few pages the manuscript also contains several unconnected paragraphs that make reference to Hopper.
Fellow student at the New York School of Art, the friendship between these two artists continued while they were both in Paris in 1906, at which time they still shared a marked interest in the teaching of Robert Henri. The references contained in the manuscript correspond to Hopper´s second European sojourn, between March 1909 and July 1910. They reveal, not so much a reduced affection between the two but rather a progressive distancing between their aesthetic positions –in a period their Bruce had adopted a devotion to the archetypes of Cezanne and Matisse– and show that he was taking a radically different path to that which would distinguish the development of his colleague. This also reveals, lamentably, the disinterest he displayed, and the subsequent obscurity of his allusions, towards the two enigmatic painters that seem to have fascinated Hopper so much at that time.
Even so, the polemic would not really have begun were it not for the Smithsonian Institution’s donations to the National Museum of American Art, at the request of the artist´s heirs, of a miscellany composed of diverse documents that related to Charles Burchfield and that had lain long forgotten in an attic. Among these were found a series of Hopper’s letters to the painter, written when the friendship between the two was just beginning and sent from Bird Cage Cottage, Cape Cod during the summer of 1931. Regrettably, it is evident that the series is not complete since some of the letters contain references to others that have gone astray; neither, unfortunately, have Burchfield´s responses come to light. From reading between the lines we can deduce essential information that otherwise would have been obscured.
It was, however, one of the letters from this collection that uncovered the whole affair. Dated 13 September, it seems to continue with a subject already raised in a previous letter, now lost. In any case, despite the length of the passage, it is worth transcribing here the paragraphs that’s have given rise to so much speculation. <<The more I think about it>>, writes Hopper,
<< The more I am convinced that the two painters I spoke to you about enlightened, quite decisively, my own search. As you know, when I discovered their works in Paris, it was love at first sight. But I wasn’t aware then, neither have I been so until very recently, of the influence that they would have on my work. It is curious that two Spaniards, painting their own surroundings on the shores of the Mediterranean, showed me –in short– that everything is made up that which you yourself know so well, and how to convert what is closest and most routine to us into something epic and universal.
Certain works of one of these painters discomfited me. I remember a strange scene, with some people surrounding an excavation in the desert where they had dug up a urinal, the satirical intention of which –maybe- you will have understood better than I. But there are other canvasses of theirs that I can´t forget, such as one with a boat moored next to a half –demolished wood– in jetty, or that of the pavilion standing on a platform fixed above the sea by means of thick piles, or the one with a weird motionless merry-go-round on a beach. Neither can I erase from my mind the work of his colleague: a line of empty deck chairs exposed to the sun on a terrace, an exterior staircase that emerged from a wall, or those houses at dusk on top a hill, two steps from a riddle I myself have ceaselessly pursued. Maybe, at that time, both artists, knew how to permeate the landscape of their Cartagena with that eloquent silence that you emphasise so much in my work. >>
Nobody will find strange, perhaps, the astonishment caused by Hopper´s confession surrounding a central influence in the formation of his language, that influence of which nothing had been known until that moment he spoke about it in letter quote above. As could be expected, a genuine fervor erupted among historians of, and specialist in, classical American painting. This had led to the proposition of the most diverse range of hypotheses, although, up to this moment, none have proved satisfactory. One Vassar College lecturer even identified one of the painters from Cartagena as Wssel de Guimbarda, but the reproductions with which she supported her paper, somewhat confusedly argued, did not establish even the slightest analogy or correspondence with Hopper’s universe.
The annotated edition of Burchfield’s letters, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution itself, contributed, all the same, some timely clarification of a more convincing nature. There is, for example, the probable relation of one of Hopper´s comments to an article fragment, from The Arts (1928), that he himself had addressed to the work of Burchfield. In the article he said:
<<Of that which –for the mediocre artist and for the layman who is unable to discern it– there is nothing but the tedium of daily existence in a provincial community, he has extracted a quality that can be defined as poetry, romance, lyric, or whatever you like to call it. Through a certain affection for that which is specific he has transformed what is particular into something epic and universal. >>
This passage suggest, furthermore, that the evocation of this idea, written when both artist were still not personally acquainted, could have triggered Hopper´s tale about the two Spaniards, in who, without doubt, he anticipated that ability to transcend the more common reality, a capacity which Hopper himself identified as an affinity which he shared with Burchfield. An-other of the passages refers, at the same time, to a quotation of Burchfield’s pertaining to an article that, reciprocally, he dedicated to Hopper in Art News. This article was published to mark the occasion of Hopper’s retrospective exhibition at the Whitney in 1950. In the article, Burchfield refer to <<the element of silence that seems to fill every one of his major works, whatever technique he uses>>.
In spite of rigorously blending these and other of Hopper’s declarations, what is certain is that the critical edition of the letters does not contribute a single substantial revelation that helps to clarify the mystery. Beyond this, and already inside the realm of purely imaginary speculation, there has been an urge to identify, in the canvasses mentioned by Hopper, the original archetypes from which some of his emblematic works could be derived. In this way, the jetties and platforms on pillars could be the seed of works such as Les Lavoirs à Pont Royal (blithely forgetting that is a canvas that was completed in 1907 during the artist´s first period in Paris), The Bootleggers of 1925, or People in the Sun (1960), where the deck chairs lined up in the sun have been filled with melancholic time Lighthouse Hill (1927) and Corn Hill (1930). But, since the original models are unknown to us, Hopper´s concise and lyrical descriptions turn out to be insufficient to infer, with even the slightest confidence, any sort of relation of this nature between paintings.
Neither does Patrick Henri Bruce´s manuscript, with the two references that it has to the subject, much clarify the issue. One of the paragraphs reads:
<<Ed dragged me to the back shop of a marchand de tableaux in (illegible in the MS), so that I could see the pieces by the two Spanish painters about whom we had spoken with such enthusiasm. In truth, I cannot say that I was dazzled by them. The landscapes turned out to be fairly conventional even though, I must admit, they possessed a certain mystery. What drew my attention most (and I did not agree with Eddie about this either) was a shocking allegory. There was a man in the foreground naked to the waist with his back to the viewer, who was standing on the prow of a canoe paddling towards a coast where, like Robert, he had painted the Eiffel Tower –but in the company of nothing less than our little Liberty. A curious hallucination. >>
Apart from revealing the already mentioned divergence in the tastes of these two friends, this quotation does little more than confirm for us that Hopper really discovered the two Spaniards he admired during his second stay in Europe. More mystifying is, if such a thing is possible, the last concise reference to the affair that Bruce’s pages contain elsewhere: <<Since his return from Madrid, >> remarks Bruce, <<he hasn´t ceased to bug me with Cartagena, as if it were nothing less than the Paradise on Earth for painters>>.
However, in spite of being so short –or, maybe, because of this– Patrick Henri Bruce’s last remark, with its ambiguous formulation, has been a fortunate find considering the relative poverty of materials relating to Edward Hopper’s mysterious Spanish masters. Several authors believe that this sentence is reliable proof that New York artist could have travelled to Cartagena –and maybe met the colleagues he admired so much?– during his visit to Spain from May 26 to July 11, of 1910. We have, however, a considerable amount of information about Hopper´s single tour of Spain. We know about Madrid as his main destination, the impact that the Prado had on him, the visit to Toledo, and the emotional experience he had when he attended a bullfight. There is nothing, on the other hand, about a journey to Cartagena; but neither is there anything to rule out have been little time in such a short visit –Hopper was in Spain for just fifteen days– to include a trip to the Murcia area. But it also turns out to be strange that, having found himself in places that had made such an impression on him, these did not leave some resonance in his work. And of that Spanish adventure, we know all that remains is a water-colour with his personal interpretation of a picador demonstrating his skills with the lance.
Whatever the case, what is certain is that the affair of the Spanish painters made a good deal of noise for a while. It was even thought that a congress should be organized dedicated to the subject. But, gradually, the spirit cooled, owing, above all, to the frustrating frailty of the materials that had been found –fascinating in what they suggested, but unable to supply a sufficiently clear direction for further study. That is not to say that the subject remains once and for all forgotten, because the issue still surfaces from time to time and up until recently someone has cleared the dust from an old testimony that logically went unnoticed in its time. In this attention, a neighbour of the Hoppers stated that they remembered two Spaniards who, one summer in the late 1930s, stayed in Bird Cage Cottage going out every morning with their host to paint views of the surrounding landscape.
The temptation is, perhaps, great; even if surely not legitimate. But we should never lose the dream that someday those canvasses will appear, nor that they were in truth (what we yearn for) the fruit of a journey –in return for hospitality that Hopper has previously received- from Cartagena to Cape Cod.
In the book Cape Cod / Cabo de Palos (Tras las huellas de Hopper). Blanco, Cartagena 1997.