Monday, October 14, 2013

Rhetorical Image Analysis - "Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper and "Nighthawks at the Diner" by Cal Schenkel and Tom Waits

     A Rhetorical Analysis of Images                                               

                                                         Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

The painting “Nighthawks” from American artist, Edward Hopper, was made in the year 1942 and is often lauded for describing the loneliness of American nightlife. However, Hopper himself claimed that the painting was more about “the possibility of predators in the night, than with loneliness.” Additionally, he has claimed on many occasions to draw inspiration from the short stories “The Killers” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway.

    -     The painting’s use of dark, muted colors in the surrounding city streets highlights the sinister nature of what Hopper perceives to be the true nature of a city at night.

-   It is interesting to note that there is no one in the painting who is not in the diner, suggesting that the entire world of the city’s nightlife is manifest in the four figures at the bar counter. Hopper pays no concern to what is going on outside of this small setting as there is no insinuated movement or development going on outside of the diner’s walls.

-  The barkeep is wearing white while the two other men in the painting, who are seated around the counter, are wearing black. This could reflect a sort of angels and demons dichotomy between the man who is only up at late hours so that he can earn a paycheck versus the two men who are up late at night in order to do something more sinister.

-   There is no door leading from the street into the diner; the only door in the diner appears to lead to where a kitchen would be. Hopper could be suggesting a feeling of entrapment among the “predators in the night” or, alternatively, it could suggest the inescapable feeling which comes from insomnia or loneliness, particularly late at night.

-  The couple in the painting is intriguing, because it refutes, in many ways, the argument for loneliness that many suggest for the painting. Hopper wisely chooses to muddle up the ideas of danger in the night by putting a dangerous looking man with a lovely woman, who would appear to balance him out.

“Nighthawks at the Diner” cover by Cal Schenkel; album by Tom Waits

            Tom Waits’ third album, “Nighthawks at the Diner”, was released in 1975 and is a concept album loosely based around themes from Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks”. The cover design was made by Cal Schenkel, who was tasked with adapting Hopper’s painting and its themes to create a marketable album sleeve.

·        - The album cover is a photograph, which automatically creates a multitude of differences from the source material. Particularly, the photograph form allows the viewer to clearly see, analyze, and scrutinize the faces of those in the painting. Waits, who is at the forefront of the cover, is looking, with something akin to exhaustion or disillusionment, out a window, away from the other people in the diner. This suggests that Waits, who is the protagonist of the album’s light story arc, feels alienated even though he is in the midst of significantly more people than populate Hopper’s painting.

·        - Unlike Hopper’s painting, Schenkel opts to have only the diner in his photograph. This takes Hopper’s empty streets motif one step farther and suggests to the viewer that not only is nothing going on in the world outside the diner, but also that there is no other world outside this dingy little dive.

·        - The very fact that this album cover shows a clear protagonist distinguishes it from Hopper’s painting in several unique ways. It is possible, and even likely, that we are to see Waits as our “guide” of sorts through the diner as he identifies and analyzes all of the nighthawks he sees there. Where Hopper left us on the outside looking in to make our own conclusions, Schenkel gives us a protagonist to keep us engaged with the people Waits sees.

·       -  The color red is more prominent in this cover than in Hopper’s painting. Red, being a color frequently associated with passion, functions well here to show Waits’ focus on the interactions and quirks of the nighthawks with one another versus Hopper’s focus on the unseen “predators” as well as with themes of loneliness. Similarly, in Hopper’s painting, the only red is the woman’s dress which is also the only relationship shown in the painting. Schenkel wisely highlights that facet of Hopper’s painting by utilizing red in a more significant way.

·      -   In the bottom corner of the album cover, there appears to be a small figure crouching or doubled over just outside the window through which Waits is peering. This almost certainly harkens back to Hopper’s statement about “predators in the night” with which both Waits and Schenkel would have been familiar. The presence of this “predator” of sorts communicates that, although the album’s focus is on relationships of the nighthawks, the predators are still out there, lurking, and they deserve our attention.

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, 1942. Currently in the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, IL
“Nighthawks at the Diner” by Cal Schenkel, performed by Tom Waits, 1975. Asylum Records.

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