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Posts Tagged ‘Ashcan School’

John Sloan Dust Storm Fifth AvenueI was going through a book of painting that focused on New York City and came across an image of the fabled Flatiron Building, its three sided structure which gives it the look of a ship’s prow making it one of the more iconic building in the city.  It has been photographed  and painted numerous times, enough so that there is probably a book of just Flatiron images floating around somewhere.  It’s a striking building and one that I always am intrigued by in images and in person.

But I hadn’t seen this painting by John Sloan, the American artist who was part of the Ashcan School that painted the reality of the urban experience in the early decades of the 20th century.  I am a fan of this loose-knit group of  painters that includes George Bellows, Edward Hopper and Robert Henri, among others.

The painting was titled Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue and was painted in 1906.  It was an image looking down Fifth Avenue to where the Flatiron’s prow stood proudly as a black cloud hovered above.  On the ground below, the people scurried about  in a panic as the wind blew up huge clouds of dust as it funneled down the canyons of the city.  There’s a tremendous amount of movement in the painting that gives it great impact.

It made me wonder how accurate the image was.  Were these dust storms a normal occurrence in old New York?  It turns out that the Flatiron was notorious for the winds that gathered around its base and buffeted the pedestrians who happened that way, taking hats and lifting women’s skirts, exposing their legs to leering young men who would gather on the corner of 23rd Street for just such a purpose. The police would regularly have to disperse the gawkers which is supposedly where  the term 23 Skidoo originated, it being the phrase they would shout to get the crowd moving.

It’s always interesting to see the story behind an interesting image like the one Sloan captured, to see the real history being portrayed.  It makes me appreciate this painting even more. Here’s a short film from 1903 that shows  the mischief that the wind played on the passing crowd.

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Many of us are familiar with the work of Stuart Davis (1892- 1964), the American Modernist whose paintings presaged the Pop Art of the 60’s.  They were bold and colorful abstracted collages that use imagery from the landscape of the popular culture at the time they were created, creating works that immediately evoke a time.  When I see them I a transported to the New York or Paris of the 40’s and 50’s, with Jazz and poetry blossoming in the aftermath of a devastating war that really changed our perceptions of the world.

But it is Davis’ early work that always intrigues, particularly a small group that was painted not to far from where I live.  There are three landscapes painted just over the state line  in rural Tioga, Pennsylvania in 1919 that are very different from the work for which Davis is best known.  They show a young artist still working in the style of those artists who inspired him, trying on their style and brushstrokes in an effort to find his own voice. 

You can see how  he had been affected by seeing the work of Van Gogh and Picasso for the first time at the legendary Armory Show in 1913, where his own work hung among the emerging giants of modern painting.  Davis was then a student of Robert Henri and painted in a style associated with the  NYC Ashcan school of painters , of which Henri was a leader.  These three pieces have thick. expressive stokes of paint and scream of Van Gogh and have few hints at where Davis’ road would eventually lead him.

The pieces are very accomplished and have a certain charm but it is obvious that they are still derivative and that Davis is still in the midst of his evolution from talented mimic to an original voice.  To me, they are an interesting insight to how we synthesize our broad spectrum of  influences into something truly original.  I would be hard-pressed to say that the man who painted these pieces would eventually become a leading light of abstract modernism but they somehow moved him along in his search for his own distinct voice.  It only goes to show that we should take in everything that excites us even if it seems out of our normal area of comfort.  It may open new and exciting worlds to us that we could never foresee.

Stuart Davis--Self Portrait 1919

 

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Bellows Stag at SharkeysThis is Stag at Sharkeys, painted by George Bellows in the early part of the 1900’s.  Bellows was part of the Ashcan group of artists who depicted the reality of the time in their paintings, creating gritty scenes of city life and all that this entailed- street scenes, nightclubs, tenements, etc.Bellows Both Members of this Club

I’ve always been drawn to Bellows’ work particularly his several scenes of club fights.  There is such great movement and rawness in these pieces that you get the real sense of the fury of the violence taking place.  This is enhanced even more by the high contrast between the brightness of the fighters’ skin and the great blackness of the open space above the ring.  It all creates a great feeling of drama.

These paintings always bring to mind my grandfather, Shank.  This was his time and this was his world.  He had been a club wrestler which was the predecessor to professional wrestling except that it was real wrestling where one competitor might put a leg lock on the other and hold it for a long time until his opponent gave in.  The matches could last an hour or more.  Shank later went on to be a stage manager at on of the many vaudeville theaters that once  populated our city.  I remember as a kid, going to play bingo at the American Legion and this old cop, Sailor Devlin, who was at the time the oldest active police officer in the country as recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, would amble over to our table to talk with my dad.  He would always comment on Shank, who was at this point dead, calling him the toughest guy he ever met. That really resonated with me and I always valued toughness after that, putting high regard for those who  could, as they say, take it.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to these images.  The guys in these paintings can take it.

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