I think there are about twenty, maybe thirty painters whose work, the first time I saw it, managed to kick me right out of my shoes – really changing the way I look at, see, understand, grasp, feel the world about me. In comparison, I think there are less singers who did the same to me, but that is a different story. My personal high-impact-painters are not necessarily the same as my favorite painters. Nor do I automatically identify with those painters who happened to be depressed personalities, or who tried to catch a depressed atmosphere in their paintings. Last December I showed you Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Old Man in Sorrow”, but that was primarily because that particular painting looked exactly right for illustrating my story.
To be honest, van Gogh never kicked me out of my shoes: he is not one of my most favorite painters. We know him as a depressed, eccentric nutter who cut off his own ear and eventually killed himself, but this knowledge should not influence the way we look at his paintings. I do like many of them, sure. But in my personal opinion Van Gogh was mainly brilliant in one way: by deliberately emphasizing the crudeness of his own brush strokes, he cloaked his mediocre abilities in something that shined. And in sunshine, at times. If only because of this, he fully deserves his fame.
All these things are of course a matter of individual taste. I hope you don’t mind if follow my own here. One of the painters who really struck me is Edward Hopper. His paintings are not just things to look at, but also, I don’t know how to put it, almost like glimpses of people locked all alone in some wordless parallel universe. In a depression? In a depressing situation? Not necessarily. Well, I’m not going to try to put into words what cannot be put into words. I am happy to leave that to the art experts.
Below is Hopper’s Automat, painted in 1927. A Google search will leave you with many webpages about this painting, all of them guessing its meaning, and often contradicting each other. Here, I just want to remind you that for the 1920s this painting was very modern: in style (the realistic “snapshot effect”), in composition (using the slightly skewed columns at the left side and a piece of a chair in the lower right corner to emphasize the snapshot effect, also using the lights’ reflection in the window to suggest that the actual depth is not where you are looking, but behind your back) and in content (the girl is dressed according to the very latest mid-1920s fashion: bare legs, no-frills hat, brightly-colored coat).
Please take a look. Then take a look again, but this time imagine you are in that universe, you stand there looking at that girl, she is your friend. What do you see? On your first impulse, what would you say to her?
Many reviewers, while agreeing on the girl’s overall sadness or depression, have detected their own different emotions in the girl that Hopper portrayed here. I myself see resignation on top of indignation: as if she is beginning to realize that her date will not turn up anymore. This is something I recognize all too well. Because more in general, such an inner conflict between hopeless resignation and bitter indignation is one of the things that can make a depression so exhausting. To me, it is this part of depression that Hopper caught with painful accuracy here.
Two weeks ago I posted something about 18th-Century Blues. In 1995, Time Magazine had a cover story about 20th-Century Blues – stress, anxiety and depression – and the cover illustration was this Automat painting: not a bad choice. One of my next posts will be about typical “city depression” and I am 100% sure that I will need another Hopper painting to illustrate it.
There is one thing I didn’t encounter in the many online speculations about this painting. As far as I could see, everyone interprets the painting’s title Automat as referring only to this waiterless selfservice cafeteria – another very modern thing in the 1920s. But the word actually comes from the Greek “automaton”, which primarily means some mechanical contraption that can move and act by itself: in short, a robot. And indeed there may be something robot-like in the way this girl is handling her cup of coffee mechanically, while her thoughts seem to be somewhere else entirely. Maybe the real Automat here is not the cafeteria, but the girl.
This robot-like functioning while being elsewhere in one’s thoughts is very typical for depression. I think we may very well say that a serious depression can make us into a robot, can make us do things on autopilot without even knowing where we are and what we are doing.
• tip: When you are very depressed, if you want to escape from the robot effect, try saying aloud what you are doing right now.
For example, at the breakfast table say aloud: “I am now eating a sandwich” and just to make sure, a few minutes later say clearly and slowly “I am now drinking orange juice”. I know this sounds silly, but sometimes it works.