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Friday, November 5, 2010

The Ashcan School

America has always been in love with the landscape. Here I'm talking about the real thing as well as the poor imitations we try to render to canvas.  Surveys repeatedly show it to be the favorite type of art, not only in the U.S., but abroad as well. What started out with the primeval paintings of the Hudson River School 200 years ago gradually became more and more subdued as tastes changed to favor domestic farm scenes, then small, rural villages and their quaint genre activities, followed eventually by what has come to be called the urban landscape, with the emphasis on urban. As these misnamed "landscapes" became more and more citified the activities depicted became less and less quaint.  They became quite harsh, in fact. This transition began around 1900 and has since come to be called the Ashcan School.

Cross Streets of New York,
1899, Everett Shinn
 The Ashcan School was, of course, no more a school than the Hudson River School.  But like the Hudson River School, it was a group of artists with a single focus--in this case, the city. Usually it was New York, but Boston and Philadelphia each had "branches." And in most cases, the emphasis was on the harsh realities of the city. The pictures were not pretty. Often, they were often downright grim. The "school" grew up around the leadership of Robert Henri, who guided and nurtured this type of painting and the artists who painted it for some 50 years, until his death in 1951. Although the style of painting was often quite painterly, and (for lack of a better term) impressionistic, sometimes even expressionistic, it is often referred to as Social Realism (realism here having more to do with the content than the style of painting).

Italo-American Celebration,
Washington Square
1912, William Glackens

Though most of the artists tended to paint the middle or lower classes, some, like William Glackens and Maurice Prendergast chose to depict the life and times of the city's more well-to-do. Many of the Ashcan artists had more in mind than simply painting pictures. With their Socialist, even Marxist leanings, they intended their work to make a difference, to be a catalyst for change in the often harsh, miserable conditions they saw and painted. Artists such as John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and Reginald Marsh all worked to "shake up" not only the staid art world of the National Academy, but the political powers-that-be as well. The term, Ashcan School, is not elegant. Even given the fact that it was coined some thirty years after Henri and Sloan began. It was intended largely as a term of derision for a movement with enough impact to worry art critics and politicos alike.

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