P erhaps one of the most enduring qualities of Edward Hopper’s art is its familiarity—its remarkable ability to capture a specific time and place while simultaneously alluding to many places. Looking at Rooms for Tourists (1945), for example, one might be reminded of evening strolls along a quiet hometown neighborhood. The fact that Hopper’s painting is in fact a faithful recreation of a hotel in Provincetown, Massachusetts is probably beside the point. His art invites its viewers to project their own experiences, their own memories, and their own narratives into these scenes. By tapping into a collective subconscious, Hopper encourages viewers to psychologically engage with and enter his painted world. In recent months, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond invited its visitors to do that and more—for a limited time, you could spend the night in one of the artist’s paintings.
As part of its blockbuster exhibition, Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond constructed a 3-D version of Hopper’s 1957 painting Western Motel and offered overnight lodging inside the tableaux. There is an overwhelming suggestion of transience in the exhibition’s central painting, Hopper’s Western Motel—the green Buick outside and the packed suitcases allude more closely to a brief pit stop than an extended stay. There may be no better way to elicit a similar feeling of impermanence than to spend the night in a makeshift hotel room inside a temporary museum exhibition.
Dr. Leo G. Mazow, the Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator and Head of the Department of American Art at the VMFA, hinges the exhibition on a philosophical question: how is a painting like a hotel? To put it simply, he argues that both can function as ‘getaways’ and each offers a sort of transitory engagement. “Hopper made just such an equation in his art,” Mazow writes, “and the hotel is a useful metaphor for understanding much of his work in general […] Hopper viewed his art—and his paintings and watercolors in particular—as sites in which to invest ourselves temporarily (he certainly dwelled in neither for very long) and upon which to muse later with equal parts introspection and nostalgia. In the end, the artist shows that hotels are like paintings.” The VMFA took this idea one step further—it turned one of Hopper’s paintings into a functional hotel.
Check-in at the Hopper Hotel began at 9PM—too late to feel entirely settled into your new surroundings before turning in for the night. You entered the room through two large wooden doors that led to a lobby of sorts, which is not viewable from the exhibition space. Here, the museum provided all the accommodations you might expect from a motel, as well as additional luxuries such as complimentary VMFA robes, slippers, refreshments, period-specific magazines and board games. Fittingly, the entrance to the hotel room revealed its trickery and painted artifice. Here, you got a backstage look at the motel’s material construction, its wooden beams, and its lighting equipment. Once inside the room, however, you entered an entirely different world—you were physically immersed in Hopper’s Western Motel.
However momentarily that you engaged with the space—check-out was at 8AM sharp—the Hopper Hotel Experience provided an extraordinarily unique opportunity to consider the exhibition’s underlying philosophical question: how is a painting like a hotel? To find out, consider exploring Hopper’s motel imagery this June at the exhibition’s next stop, the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.