Friday, April 1, 2016

How Art Helped Me See the Beauty in Loneliness

Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or 17th or 43rd floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability to find as much intimacy as is desired.

I know what that feels like. I’ve been a citizen of loneliness. I’ve done my time in empty rooms. A few years back I moved to New York, drifting through a succession of sublet apartments. A new relationship had abruptly turned to dust and though I had friends in the city I was paralysed by loneliness. The feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether until the intensity diminished.

The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed. (...)

I was by no means the only person who’d puzzled over these questions. All kinds of writers, artists, film-makers and songwriters have explored the subject of loneliness, attempting to gain purchase on it, to tackle the issues that it provokes. But I was at the time beginning to fall in love with images, to find a solace in them I didn’t find elsewhere, and so I conducted the majority of my investigations within the visual realm. I sought out artists who seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness, particularly as it manifests in cities.

The obvious place to start was with Edward Hopper, that rangy, taciturn man. Born at the tail end of the 19th century, he spent his working life documenting life in the electrically uneasy metropolis. Though he was often resistant to the notion that loneliness was his metier, his central theme, his scenes of men and women in deserted cafes, offices and hotel lobbies remain signature images of urban isolation.

Hopper’s people are often alone, or in fraught, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But this isn’t the only reason his work is so deeply associated with loneliness. He also succeeds in capturing something of how it feels, by way of the strange construction of his city layouts.

Take Nighthawks, which the novelist Joyce Carol Oates once described as “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness”. It shows a diner at night: an urban aquarium, a glass cell. Inside, in their livid yellow prison, are four figures. A spivvy couple, a counter-boy in a white uniform, and a man sitting with his back to the window, the open crescent of his jacket pocket the darkest point on the canvas. No one is talking. No one is looking at anyone else. Is the diner a refuge for the isolated, a place of succour, or does it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities? The painting’s brilliance derives from its instability, its refusal to commit.I’d been looking at it on laptop screens for years before I finally saw it in person, at the Whitney one sweltering October afternoon. The colour hit me first. Green walls, green shadows falling in spikes and diamonds on the green sidewalk. There is no shade in existence that more powerfully communicates urban alienation than this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city of glass towers, empty illuminated offices and neon signs.

But it was the window that really stopped me in my tracks: a bubble of glass that separated the diner from the street, curving sinuously back against itself. It was impossible to gaze through into the luminous interior without experiencing a swift apprehension of loneliness, of how it might feel to be shut out, standing alone in the cooling air.

Glass is a persistent symbol of loneliness, and for good reason. Almost as soon as I arrived in the city, I had the sense that I was trapped behind glass. I couldn’t reach out or make contact, and at the same time I felt dangerously exposed, vulnerable to judgment, particularly in situations where being alone felt awkward or wrong, where I was surrounded by couples or groups.

This is what Hopper replicates with his strange architectural configurations: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with near-unbearable exposure. “I probably am a lonely one,” he once told an interviewer, and his paintings radiate an empathic understanding of what that’s like. You might think this would make his work distressing, but on the contrary I found it eased the burden of my own feelings. Someone else had grappled with loneliness, and had found beauty, even value in it.

by  Olivia Laing, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Edward Hopper