Last week my J-Term class went to the Whitney Museum to see the exhibition Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, which is on display through April 10. In our course, Hopper represents one strain of what William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff call “New York Modern,” a realist strain that is distinct from the avant-garde formal experimentations of “modernism” and his links to the vernacular free verse of Walt Whitman, the painting of Thomas Eakins, and the prose of Edith Wharton, among others. We made explicit connections to Whitman and Eakins as well as to the verismo of Puccini’s 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West, which we caught at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday.
Yesterday evening we went to see American Idiot, the Broadway adaptation of the 2004 album by the second-generation punk band Green Day. Separated in time by about four decades, Hopper and Billie Joe Armstrong, the band’s songwriter, guitarist, and lead singer, lived in different eras but they each produced art that takes a bleak view of urban modernity. Hopper’s paintings depict what E. B. White would term”the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Although he experienced the same crowded city streets depicted by Whitman’s poetry and by early silent films shot in New York, Hopper’s depictions of New York modernity invariably focus on lone individuals, often with their backs turned to the viewer, or individuals literally marginalized by their milieus and pushed to the margins of Hopper’s frames. In an essay from the show’s catalogue entitled “Urban Visions: The Ashcan School and Edward Hopper,” Rebecca Zurier writes, “For all the beauty and resonance of Hopper’s art, however, I would argue that its urban vision is somewhat limited. It fails to consider the ways in which cities have brought people together, both in Hopper’s time and since, and fails to take into account the complexity of the urban population.” I’d probably put it a different way: Hopper’s art deliberately limits itself in order to express an urban loneliness that exists despite the ways in which cities bring diverse peoples together.
Urban loneliness is a theme that runs throughout American Idiot as well. The narrator of the song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” sings
I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone
I walk this empty street
On the boulevard of broken dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I’m the only one and I walk alone …
The similarity between these visions isn’t accidental, because Armstrong’s song is indirectly in dialogue with Hopper’s art.
According to an interview with Billie Joe Armstrong on VH1’s Storytellers, the title of the song comes from the artist Gottfried Helnwein‘s famous reinterpretation of Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks (1942).
And here’s Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which places James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley into Hopper’s setting:
Here’s Green Day’s video for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”:
Frankly, I wish the video were more Hopper-like, because its images don’t seem to me to capture the loneliness depicted in the song’s lyrics: Billie Joe, after all, never does walk alone in it, because he’s always accompanied by bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tr