The Ashcan Painters: beauty and brutality in American art

"Pictures from life" at the National Gallery.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most influential American painters of the early 20th century and yet his work is not widely known in the UK. The National Gallery's new exhibition An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters introduces this important artist and his peers, ahead of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013.

Named the Ashcan group in reference to their realist approach, Bellows and his contemporaries were concerned with new ways of presenting American life, valuing honesty and immediacy. Much of their work depicts New York, which by the 1880s was developing rapidly into an urban centre of teeming humanity and burgeoning industry.

As the wild landscapes of the New World metamorphosed into scenes of modernity, these artists explored the shifting nature of American identity. Each of the twelve paintings in the exhibition displays this arresting "Ashcan" quality. In Bellows' North River (1908), urban endeavour is intercepted by the vast, looming landscape of the Hudson river and Palisade cliffs beyond it. The untrammelled energy of the city is captured in Excavation at Night (1908). In the foreground, floodlights illuminate a pit where labourers toil over what would become Pennsylvania Station, itself a monument of "Gilded Age" New York. The Manhattan city street above glowers in murky shades of blue and amber, the paint laid on "with the density of mud".

The Ashcanners did not flinch from poverty and malaise. John Sloan's Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, New York City (1907) makes use of a stark visual language, perhaps a legacy of his early training as a newspaper illustrator. A woman, scantily-clad, staggers across a street, clutching what appears to be a can of beer. Her hair is an unkempt mop, her features indelicate and ruddy. To her side, a couple of promenading prostitutes glance back at her in apparent amusement, themselves subject to the gaze of top-hatted city gents. Above all this, the steel girders of the railway line cut through the scene while the pavement is lined with billboards.

The importance of creating a new kind of American art by engaging with contemporary life and common people was articulated by Bellows, who praised Sloan's work as "big and rough and simple. Rough in colour and without polish. These pictures have a distinction as human documents, which I believe to be the rarest quality." The abject situation of Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street is testament to Sloan's combination of compassion and vivid characterisation. (Looking at this painting, I couldn't help but be riled by the unduly loud comments of one middle-aged woman standing behind me, who remarked to her friend that "this is what my mother-in-law would call 'ho-hum'". The other woman concurred, knowingly, with a grunt).

In his own depiction of the human form, Bellows eschewed traditional ideals of beauty. Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall (1909) presents the viewer with the pale, rumpled flesh of a large woman- the expansive, mottled thigh and rolls of the stomach are rendered through thick, bold brushwork. The woman, holding her ankle, seems simultaneously enigmatic and blank. But another female figure in the exhibition creates a striking contrast to the nude. Robert Henri's The Art Student (1906) is a portrait of 22-year-old Josephine Nivison, a student of Henri's at the New York School of Art who later married Edward Hopper. Here she is depicted as a determined and vigorous young woman. Wearing a floor length smock and gripping her paintbrushes, she gazes back unflinchingly at the viewer.

This small collection exhibits the Ashcan group's bold engagement with the beauty and ugliness, the enterprise and entropy of the developing modern metropolis, bringing to mind John Dos Passos' prose image of the city in his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer: "Outside the lemoncoloured dawn was drenching the empty streets, dripping from cornices, from the rails of fire escapes, from the rims of ashcans, shattering the blocks of shadow between buildings."

An American Experiment is open until 30th May. Admission is free.

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As the language of break-ups changes, are we regarding our ex-partners differently?

From “conscious uncoupling” to “LAT” couples, we are learning to retain friendly – even familial – post-romantic bonds with former lovers.

Is the conversation around break-ups changing?

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” in March 2014, I was among the bemused detractors. Was it just a hippy-dippy euphemism, a nicer way of dressing up a plain old separation? Wasn’t a break-up bound to be easier if you had money and several houses?

Yet, almost two years on, it’s hard to deny that it seems to have worked well for them. “We’re still very much a family, even though we don’t have a romantic relationship. He’s like my brother,” she told Glamour magazine last week.

They’ve holidayed together and been photographed smiling and laughing like dear old friends. Perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t prevented either from moving on to new romantic partners.

Even some of my (non-Hollywood) peer group are starting to come round to the idea. “I may be the only person in the world who likes the term,” posted one friend in a Facebook thread when I announced that I’d done such a volte-face that I was going to call my new solo show The Conscious Uncoupling.

It quickly turned out that she wasn’t the only person at all, as other friends added that they rather liked it too. Mind you, comedian Kate Smurthwaite commented that she’d only be likely to utter the words if she’d “accidentally swallowed poison and needed to regurgitate it”.

Now that we have an alternative phrase, albeit one that carries a divisive whiff of pretension, it does seem to be empowering us to behave differently, thinking more carefully about bringing greater compassion and communication to this life-changing painful process.

A male comedian friend described to me how he and his wife had, “agreed and admitted that this might all be over but we would still want to be friends – because at heart, we are.

He added: “No one teaches us that this can happen. If you split up, you must scream and shout and never talk to the other person again. Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Yet perhaps this behaviour did already exist. In previous decades, lesbians typically went through lengthy, turbulent transitions to form lasting family-like connections with ex-partners. The community was so small and secret that you “simply had to get on”, according to Dr Jane Traies, who conducted a comprehensive survey of older gay women in the UK.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the gay community have been pioneers of trends that have caught on enough to generate their own new language. They were “living apart together” long before anyone talked about so-called “LAT” couples.

So for those of us embracing the concept and ideology of conscious uncoupling yet not wanting to associate too strongly with Paltrow, how about an alternative term?

I’ve tended to talk about “post-romantic” relationships, while the writer Anna Freeman says she has used the word “metamorphosis” to describe “a changing closeness”.

I’ve also mooted the idea of a “decompression year”, a consensually agreed 12-month untangling, as opposed to abrupt endings that usually come as a shock to one party and render ongoing friendship impossible.

New York psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently called for greater “relationship accountability” in the wake of alarming new trends, “ghosting” and “icing”, which respectively see partners disappearing without explanation or finding excuses to suspend a relationship and put it on hold.

If we extend a sense of accountability to online dating and short-term flings, maybe we should offer a suitable substitute match to everyone we reject.

It’s not a million miles from a popular comedy industry ethos whereby you offer a replacement of an equivalent quality and experience level whenever you drop out of a gig.

In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending.

Whatever our feelings about conscious uncoupling, the idea of embracing the good things about your ex seems a pretty sound one. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who claims that she coined the phrase, has added something important to the conversation around breaking up – while celebrity endorsement of it has simply made more of us sit up and pay attention.

Rosie Wilby is a stand-up comedian, broadcaster and writer.