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.

DON HOOPER/ALAMY
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage