Commentary Magazine



• A large-scale retrospective of the paintings and works on paper of Edward Hopper is currently making the rounds of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (where it is up through August 19), Washington’s National Gallery of Art (Sept. 16-Jan. 21, 2008), and the Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 16-May 11, 2008). Like all Hopper shows, it will be very, very popular. Hopper has long been one of America’s best-loved artists, a painter whose appeal is so broad-based that PBS is actually airing a documentary about his life and work narrated by the comedian-filmmaker Steve Martin—who is, sure enough, a Hopper collector. This popularity has always fascinated me, since Hopper is “accessible” only in the sense that his paintings are unambiguously representational. They are also bleak, private, and unsettling, all to a degree one would scarcely expect in so well-liked an artist.

Walter Wells’s Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper (Phaidon, 264 pp., $69.95) is a coffee-table monograph that has been published just in time to coincide with the new Hopper show. Lavishly illustrated and handsomely printed, it would be pleasing to behold even if Wells had nothing of interest to say about his subject. In fact, he writes observantly and well, which makes Silent Theater a useful pendant to Gail Levin’s detailed but hectoring 1995 biography of Hopper and his long-suffering wife-model. Among other things, Wells goes out of his way to point out that Hopper’s paintings aren’t always quite so grim as advertised: “While it is hard to miss the persistent silence, or the tensions, or the lonely melancholy in Hopper’s pictures, what remains underappreciated, it seems to me, is their occasional drollness.”

No less convincing is his final verdict on Hopper’s place in the history of American art:

His universals have outlasted his perceived provincialism. Surrealism, abstraction, pop, op—each ism that once seemed to displace “realistic” painting, and hence his own, can, the more closely we look at his images, be found in them as well.

Nicely said.

• Daniel Tammet, the author of Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir (Free Press, 226 pp., $24), suffers—if that is the right word—from savant syndrome, the mental condition that was the subject of the 1988 movie Rain Man. Unlike Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tammet has a “high-functioning” form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, meaning that he is capable of living on his own, functioning more or less normally, and writing introspectively about his life. Hence this book, one of the most readable first-hand accounts of mental illness to have come my way.

So far as I know, this is the first time that anyone suffering from autism has taken the layman inside the heretofore unimaginably strange world of the autistic savant:

I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach.

This synesthetic perception of numbers allows Tammet to “handle and calculate huge numbers in [his] head without any conscious effort.” It also places a barrier between him and his fellow men, for his computational gifts go hand-in-hand with a severe impairment of his capacity to experience ordinary emotions:

Numbers are my first language, one I often think and feel in. Emotions can be hard for me to understand or know how to react to, so I often use numbers to help me. If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it.

It is fascinating to read of how Tammet converted to Christianity after reading the essays of G.K. Chesterton. Tammet recounts his religious awakening in the same flat, childlike tone with which he describes his virtuosic mathematical skills:

I do not often attend church, because I can become uncomfortable with having lots of people sitting and standing around me. However, on the few occasions when I have been inside a church I have found the experience very interesting and affecting.

Far more vivid, not to mention affecting, is the chapter in which Tammet tells how he memorized and recited the first 22,514 digits of pi (the irrational number that expresses the relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle) without making a single mistake:

Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.

That last sentence made me catch my breath. Like most aesthetes, I’m largely innocent of the niceties of higher mathematics, but Daniel Tammet has given me a fleeting glimpse of what I think Edna St. Vincent Millay must have meant when she claimed that “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.”

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