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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Why we, and Theresa May, will be watching George Osborne carefully

Osborne will use the Standard as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

In his biography of the man who, in May, will become the new editor of the London Evening Standard while remaining as the MP for Tatton, the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh described how from an early age George Osborne “possessed a searing ambition to be a person of consequence”. Ganesh called Osborne “a psychological seer” and a “perspicacious analyst of people, including himself”. Moving through the gears, he added: “He has been a Pauline, a Bullingdon boy and a Bilderberg panjandrum, but he now belongs to the most truly privileged elite: those who are happy in their work.”

The Austerity Chancellor was published in 2012 when Osborne, who is 45, was considered to be David Cameron’s inevitable successor as leader of the Conservative Party and thus a future prime minister. As we all know, it did not quite turn out that way, the small matter of the EU referendum disrupting even the best-laid plans. Since being unceremoniously sacked last year by Theresa May, Osborne, who is an unapologetic liberal globaliser (he once told me that the book that had influenced him the most was Mill’s On Liberty), has been assiduously plotting his return to public life while assembling a portfolio of well-remunerated stipends, including a four-days-a-month contract with the asset management firm BlackRock, for which he is paid £650,000.

Before Christmas, Osborne was telling friends that he felt “unrepresented” by May’s Conservative Party. Because of the collapse of the Labour Party, he had concluded that the Brexit debate amounted, in essence, to an argument within the conservative family, among the Tory party, the press and the business community. The Scottish National Party naturally had a different view.

The first significant conversation I had with Osborne was at a Notting Hill drinks party – where else? I found him congenial and candid, and soon afterwards he invited me to accompany him on tours of the Nissan plant and the Hitachi factory, both in the north-east of England. The private Osborne is quite different from the public Osborne, who was booed at the 2012 Paralympics and has been caricatured as a “sneering Bullingdon boy”. Those who have worked closely with Osborne, including the former Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, speak well of him – of his intellect and knowledge of and interest in history, but also of his decency and, most surprisingly, his shyness.

As chancellor, Osborne’s record was mixed. At least two of his Budgets unravelled calamitously, undermining his reputation for strategic intelligence. His dogmatic pursuit of expansionary fiscal contraction delayed Britain’s recovery from the Great Recession and his “fiscal surplus rule”, by which he attempted to bind future governments to a Budget surplus, was humiliatingly abandoned.

Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Standard is fascinating on many levels. For a start, it throws up any number of potential conflicts of interest between his role as an MP and his duty as an editor to challenge power, break stories and create mischief; between  his being a champion of the “Northern Powerhouse” and a celebrant of all things London; between his advisory role at BlackRock and the integrity of the Standard’s City pages. There is, too, the conflict of interest between Osborne, the spurned Remainer, and the Prime Minister, who is thought to resent the insouciance of the Cameroon chumocracy.

It’s certain that Osborne will use the Standard, a free newspaper with a daily distribution of nearly 900,000 copies, as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

As an editor, I was relaxed about his appointment, even excited by it. It used to be common for politicians to write more than party propaganda for newspapers and magazines and for there to be free movement between Westminster and Fleet Street. Nigel Lawson is a former editor of the Spectator, as is Boris Johnson, who attempted and failed to be both an editor and an MP. Richard Crossman, a long-time contributing writer for the New Statesman, was our (unsuccessful) editor from 1970 to 1972 while staying on as an MP. John Freeman was a Labour MP before becoming a journalist; he edited the NS from 1961 to 1965. Michael Foot edited the Standard in his twenties, as well as Tribune after he entered the Commons.

I’ve no doubt that Osborne can succeed as an editor. Credentialism is overrated. He understands power, he has great contacts, he can write and, as a former applicant to the Times and Economist graduate trainee schemes, he has a long-standing interest in journalism. Whether he can combine editing with his obligations as an MP is for his constituents and his own conscience to decide.

Editing the Standard is no sinecure. Evgeny Lebedev is a hands-on proprietor and his staff have endured deep budget cuts. Osborne will bring to the role a touch of what Saul Bellow called “event-glamour”, as well as serious political purpose. The former austerity chancellor does not lack self-belief and his searing ambition to be a person of consequence is undiminished. Downing Street will be watching him very carefully, and so will his fellow journalists.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution