School of Hard Knocks 

UMFA looks at Edward Hopper and his Ashcan School contemporaries.

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It’s the dawn of a new century, and America is assessing its position in the world. War, economic uncertainty and new technologies all play a role in the zeitgeist of a new era. Artists respond as they always have, with depictions that define the moment.


But this isn’t the 2000s we’re talking about; it’s the early 1900s. While European artists were creating experimental new styles of painting like cubism and dadaism, their counterparts on this side of the ocean were looking at their world with a view to realistic scenes of everyday life, amid the turmoil of World War I and the Great Depression. Thus was the Ashcan School born.


Edward Hopper was the best-known practitioner of the Ashcan School, and Hopper’s work headlines a group show on tour from the Whitney Museum in New York. His 1942 painting “Nighthawks”—depicting characters gathered around the counter at a diner—has become an American icon. Works in this show examine his earlier output, from the early 1900s through 1930. In contrast to the clarity of his paintings, the prints “Night Shadows” and “East Side Interior” are shadowy, like film noir movie stills. The painting “Manhattan Bridge” is as architectural in composition as “Nighthawks,” but devoid of people.


Hopper went to Paris after studying with Ashcan School founder Robert Henri, and the light suffusing the city influenced his work as well. “Ecluse de la Monnaie” depicts a waterway lock reflecting a crystal-clear sky. When he returned home, he produced more photographic works, like “The El Station,” that, while not always directly depicting people, always contain evidence of life. If Hopper was somewhat detached, for which he is sometimes criticized, it was only, in his mind, in order to get a clearer view.


“Ashcan School artists responded to the boisterous energy of early 20th century life to try to create a genuine American expression, though Hopper’s scenes are more introspective,” explains Dr. Mary Francey, the university’s curator of the exhibit. To that extreme, Charles Sheeler’s “Architectural Cadences”—a 1954 piece almost too late to fit in with the school—is almost two-dimensional, tending towards abstraction and design elements that would later emerge in pop art.


Other artists had their own take on the realist school. Rafael Soyer’s “Office Girls” shows an impressionist influence, while Kenneth Hayes Miller’s “Box Party” is more upper-crust, yet somehow ironic. Georg Luks’ “Little Grey Girl” is Rembrandt-like in its use of shadow, and Karl Free’s “Equestrienne” creates a Brechtian, circus-like atmosphere. The wide-ranging views of the history of the period include the flamboyant flappers of John Sloan’s “Sixth Avenue Elevated at 3rd Street” to the absolute despair of Soyer’s “Employment Agency.” John Storr’s “Forms in Space” is purely architectural, as sprawling skyscrapers were as integral as Hopper’s long alleyways to American expansionism. All share a realist style, but express it in different ways.


Two precursors of the school are also included: George Bellows, and Robert Henri himself. Bellows’ large oil, an expressionist winter scene called “Floating Bridge,” is a focal point of the show, while Henri’s painting “Blackwell’s Island” is a sprawling result of what Henri called “big, strong seeing.”


This is the first exhibit at the UMFA to utilize headphone units for self-guided audio tours. The commentary is elementary enough for a broad audience while still providing enough information for scholarly interest. It’s used all over the country, and Francey plans to make it available for future shows here.


“The Ashcan School has broadened our understanding of what the modern is, which we have been redefining for decades,” says Francey. Part of that redefinition is a reflection on the effects of war and economic travail that are still with us.

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