Is he a cliché? That’s the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper. On the face of it, the current show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,” doesn’t help answer the question. The show gives us paintings like “Soir Bleu” from 1914. We’re at a café in France somewhere. Patrons sit at the tables. Right there in the middle, facing us, is a clown. He is wearing a white, frilly get-up and his face is painted white, too, with red lips and a couple of red stripes down the eyes. He is smoking a cigarette.
This may, in fact, be the sad clown we’ve all heard so much about. I’ve toyed with the idea that “Soir Bleu” is making fun of itself. Or maybe it is making fun of us, the viewer?
But, no. Hopper is a painter without any sense of humor, which is a troubling fact. He paints without wit, without self-awareness. We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene. He was so moved by the depressed clown that he went and painted one of the silliest paintings of the era.