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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How Tetsuya Mizuguchi reinvented video games with his love of synaesthesia

The Japanese designer on using music, movement, art and colour to create truly pioneering games.

It has taken six months and communicating across three different time zones to finally speak to Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Somehow, we’ve finally managed to meet on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Brighton. It’s the best chance I’ll have to ask him something I’ve always wanted to know. But I didn’t want to be too rude.

“How do I ask whether you’ve taken any psychedelics?”

“You’re asking about getting high? I’m pretty normal,” replies the pioneering Japanese video game designer. But not before a burst of laughter.

Mizuguchi’s background is unusual for a games industry professional. Having graduated in media aesthetics from Nihon University in Japan, it wasn’t until he saw a photo of Nasa’s VIEW virtual reality (VR) headset that he decided to enter the gaming world by joining Sega in 1990. And this was Sega before they unleashed Sonic the Hedgehog into the world.


Nasa VIEW headset. Photo: Nasa

“We had a long, long history of 2D over 100 years, including movies, TV, games. Everything was 2D and squared,” says Mizuguchi, on the challenges he faced in his early years.

He was tasked with creating one of the first powerful 3D games, Sega Rally, which upon its release in 1994 was unlike anything the industry had seen. It would later influence many other arcade racers for years to come, including Gran Turismo and the Colin McRae Rally series.

However, after one sequel in 1998, Mizuguchi headed for Zurich, where a music festival made him realise the new potential of powerful, modern games by combining visuals, music and player input into one reactive loop.

“I went to the party at night and it was a thousand people not dancing but moving,” he recalls. “The music changed, the sounds changed, the movement changed and the colours changed. I watched from the view and I remembered the word synaesthesia.”

From that moment, he focused primarily on music games, releasing Space Channel 5 (and its sequel), Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden. Despite the critical success of each title, Rez is the game that continues to live on, from its first release on the Dreamcast back in 2001 to a VR-enabled update last year known as Rez Infinite.

You play as a virus flying through the inside of a supercomputer tasked with saving an all-powerful AI named Eden, while fending off attacks from firewalls. The buttons you press, the enemies you attack and the environmental changes all feed into the multisensory game-playing experience.

Rez Infinite via GIPHY

Although it sounds like a bizarre idea for a video game, there’s no denying Rez is a moving, out-of-this-world experience. Mizuguchi reflects on whether anyone outside of Japan could have produced the game. “When I made Rez, we were talking about that all the time. It should be timeless, placeless, cultureless. So we asked what is the deep, deep point of the human being, what is our basic instinct?”

Mizuguchi is an innovative auteur in the same class as fellow game designers such as Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises.

Despite his love of music across many genres, and being a writer and producer for songs and videos (such as those featured in Rez’s spiritual successor Child of Eden), he doesn’t label himself as a musician or game designer, but a “technologist” and “futurist”.

“Technology makes people hunger,” he declares. “I think we are in a transition. I think in ten or 20 years people… won’t be so closed. VR is closed. It’s going to open soon, with talking and mixing with each other. I believe it’s going to get us back to being much more human.”


Tetsuya Mizuguchi talking about synaesthesia. Photo: Emad Ahmed

It’s quite an achievement for a designer to have transferred so fluidly and successfully to different gaming technologies over the years, from 2D to 3D, portable gaming, high definition visuals and now VR. It’s something he says is important for everyone in the industry. “All the time, I have a big influence from new technologies.”

Mizuguchi looks at the PSP handheld console I place on the table at the bustling hotel restaurant. “When I first got this, Ken Kutaragi [known as ‘The Father of the PlayStation’] said, ‘this is an interactive, 21st century Walkman’, and that was the first time I can bring games outside. Music like this, anytime, anywhere, any style.”

This gave him the idea to create Lumines, the music-based handheld puzzle game. “And with Kinect technology, what kind of game can you play? Oh, I want to play like a conductor.” Here, he’s referencing Child of Eden, which gives players the option to use the Xbox’s body-tracking camera instead of the standard button-bashing fare.

Mizuguchi is always thinking about creative design in this holistic way. “I love to combine many elements, the music, the storytelling, many things, as one architecture. I don’t care about the genre, I want to create a fresh new thing. Also, I want to break something,” he laughs.

I share with him a story of my first visit to London’s Tate Modern where I decided to stroll through one of the gift shops and amuse myself with the quirky ornaments being offered to the public. But as I was leaving, a stunning piece of artwork on the wall caught my eye. The Nineties vibe it was radiating was part of the appeal, so you can imagine my shock when I learned it was in fact painted in 1925. It was abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky's Swinging. I bought a print. It’s the same artist I later realise has inspired Mizuguchi all these years, after first seeing Kandinsky’s Red Square in Moscow.



Swinging and Red Square in Moscow by Kandinsky. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

“I love artists from a hundred years ago, I love their concepts,” he responds, explaining how he draws inspiration from them – so much so that he credits Kandinsky at the end of Rez Infinite.

“They have the same kind of image and I’m always thinking about the same dream. Now we have technology, so I believe we can create a much deeper experience,” he says. “It’s a good thing you mention Kandinsky. Maybe it’s a good thing games can be the first encounter with artists. Gaming is also a new art form.”

So what other ideas does the artist in front of me have at the moment?

“Many ideas!” he grins. There’s no doubt that Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s next dance with synaesthesia will be just as exhilarating as his last.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.