Victor Burgin’s homage to Edward Hopper’s ‘Office at Night’
Hopper, Edward (1940) Office at Night
Hopper’s Office at Night depicts a traditional power-relationship between men and women and portrays a stereotypical representation of women as sexual objects. The office in this image is a small room containing what appears to be the boss’s desk, at which he sits and attends to his business while a woman who we presume is his secretary, stands, showing her whole body, as she attends to his filing. The woman is contorted and somehow manages to show the viewer her breasts and her bottom at the same time and her tight dress leaves very little to the imagination. She is presented as a sexual object but the boss is seemingly unaware of her as he studies his letters. However, the paper on the floor is a connection – will she bend and pick it up and deliver it to him? Will he ask her to pick it up and pass it to him? Will their fingers touch? The paper on the chair mirrors that on the floor and possibly has a similar erotic connotation since we could imagine the woman sitting on the chair and therefore on the paper. An element of tension is added by the open window and door, suggesting that if it were not for the possibility of someone entering without being heard, a very different scene might be expected.
Burgin in his The Office at Night photographs produced an homage to Hopper’s work. He used the original painting to inspire a different interpretation while maintaining the visual link with Hopper’s work.
Burgin. Victor (1986) The office at Night
Burgin’s images use different parts of the original paining to challenge the traditional gender and sexual roles evident in Hopper’s art. His secretary here has a normal stance; we see neither the shape of her breasts nor her bottom, and she is dressed in an appropriate business suit. She has high heels but her general presentation does not suggest a sexual role or provocative purpose. Further images in the series challenge Hopper’s message by showing a female boss instead of the original male one, for example.
I looked at these images after I had taken my photographs for EYV Exercise 5.2 and was interested in how an homage photograph could be used to subvert an original viewpoint and very successfully challenge an established social order, in this instance the social institution of patriarchy and the conventional relationships between men and women.
My tutor suggested I look at the Wikipedia (2017) entry for Office at Night and I was interested to read of the significance of other symbols within the painting. I have a particular interest in the representation of women, and the high viewpoint, described as ‘as if from an elevated train’ struck me as emphasising a voyeuristic element to the image (and consequent sexual implication) but also I felt that this viewpoint afforded the best opportunity to see the whole of the woman’s body. I had not noticed the square of artificial light on the wall between the man and the woman, but this could be interpreted as a stage setting, perhaps set for the playing out of the intimacy that may happen between the couple. I also had missed the significance of the curtain blowing in the breeze and the implication that this stirring represents a stirring of emotion or desire.
Homage photography is a new term to me. The definition of homage, from the Chambers Dictionary is ‘the display of great respect towards something’ (recognition, acknowledgement, tribute, honour, praise, admiration). Homage in photography then is the taking of an image that clearly acknowledges the original image with the aim of celebrating it while producing something new. Homage is not passing original work as your own, or simply producing something based on an initial influence:
‘The hackneyed idea of ‘influence’ is not at issue here. I am not interested in the question of what one artist may or may not have taken from another. I am referring to the universally familiar phenomenon of looking at one image and having another image spontaneously come to mind.’ (Tate 2017)
Burgin does not hide the fact that his work was inspired by Hopper’s. He celebrates the original painting and produces a response that clearly recognises the original artist while conveying something new and itself original.
List of Illustrations
1 Hopper, Edward (1940) Office at Night (photograph). At: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/03/the-separateness-of-things-victor-burgin (Accessed 28 March 2017)
2 Burgin, Victor (1986) The Office at Night (Photograph). At: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/03/the-separateness-of-things-victor-burgin (Accessed 28 March 2017)
En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Office at Night. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_at_Night(Accessed 29 Mar. 2017).
Tate.org.uk. (2017). The Separateness of Things, Victor Burgin. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/03/the-separateness-of-things-victor-burgin(Accessed 29 Mar. 2017)