The Ashcan painters may have “lost” most battles during their time, but we should remember them by their goal: to paint the force of life. By Morgan Meis
Human history is written from the perspective of the winners. But it is also the case that the winners are, more often than not, assholes. Looking back over the wreckage of past ages, losers can come off looking pretty good in comparison. The story of what-could-have-been sometimes beats the story of what-actually-was. One scenario for meditations upon history’s winners and losers took place in New York City, 1913 when a group of painters decided to put on a show at the Armory building. The idea behind the show was simple. One of the organizers, John Quinn, expressed it in his opening address, “The members of this association have shown you that American artists — young American artists, that is — do not dread, and have no need to dread, the ideas or the culture of Europe.”
America was ready to confront the big boys (and a couple of girls) of European art. American art would no longer be perceived as the mostly provincial, second-order stuff of a colonial backwater. The Armory exhibit would display American artists like Oscar Bluemner, Patrick H. Bruce, James Earle Fraser, and Henry Twachtman alongside Cezanne, Redon, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Duchamp. Likewise, art enthusiasts in the U.S. would get their first glimpse of Continental art movements: Neo-Impressionism, Futurism, Fauvism, Abstraction, and Cubism.
Viewers of the exhibit were also going to see the newest creations of those American artists who had come to be known as The Ashcan School. Painters like William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and a young Edward Hopper. The Ashcan artists painted with a dark and sooty realism. They favored street scenes, often at night, frequently in less-savory parts of town. They were not prim and proper artists of the salon. They were artists making art about real people doing real things. In the confrontation with the newest in European painting, the Ashcan School was bringing to the Armory show a blend of social relevance and a brazen, forward-looking painting style. It was going to be a good fight.
Suffice it to say, the Ashcan School lost. Badly. A headline in the Sun — a New York newspaper of the time — read, “Cubists, Futurists, and Post Impressionists Win First Engagement, Leaving the Enemy Awestruck.” The Ashcans were overshadowed. They weren’t, it turned out, as radical as they thought they were. Next to the wild lines of a Kandinsky, the utter breakdown in form of a Duchamp, the Ashcan paintings looked tame.
The Ashcan School has since been deemed a minor movement. They failed at the Armory and they were forgotten. Art history, like all history, is usually written from the perspective of the winners. But of what does this “winning” really consist? The “victory” of, say, Futurism over the Ashcan School in 1913 has much to do with the outbreak of WWI one year later. Futurism’s vision of a mechanized and war-torn reality was confirmed by real-world events. But are we to judge the worth of a school of painting by its prophetic powers or by, in this case, its celebration of industrialized war? Maybe the road not taken deserves a second look. What do we really know about the Ashcan School?
Because the Ashcan painters often painted scenes from urban life, from the immigrant-strewn streets of New York City, their work is often judged, positively or negatively, as a form of journalism. They were thought to be “documenting” the reality of life on the Lower East Side, “editorializing” the plight of the urban poor. In fact, neither of these motivations drove the Ashcan painters.
The Ashcan painters followed a specific path that was laid down by the charismatic painter and teacher Robert Henri. Henri was born in 1865. He recognized, as did most painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, that painting was at a crossroads. Newer technologies like photography and early moving pictures had displaced painting as the means for creating documents of record. Painting was forced to find itself anew, forced to ask what it could do that a medium like photography could not.
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‘Diciamo semplicemente che il deserto è un impulso. Avevo deciso di punto in bianco di cambiare volo, prendere una macchina e andare per strade poco battute. C’è qualcosa riguardo ai vecchi tempi che viene soddisfatto dalla spontaneità. Più in fretta uno decide, meglio si libera del debito con la memoria. Volevo rivederla, provare qualcosa e dire qualcosa, poche parole, non troppe, e poi tornar via nella lontananza ventosa. Era tutto lontananza. Era una distesa ininterrotta di terra arida e cielo, e un’impalpabile traccia di montagne, basse e accovacciate in fondo, montagne o nuvole, a forma di gatto, di puma – com’è umano vedere una cosa come qualcos’altro.’ da Underworld, Don DeLillo
tastes good, doesn’t it Tracklist 1. Soak the Sin 2.Tones of Home 3. I Wonder 4. Paper Scratcher 5. Dear Ol’ Dad 6. Change (Hoon) 7. No Rain 8. Deserted 9. Sleepyhouse 10. Holyman 11. Seed to a Tree 12. Drive
Di Nina Simone si dice essere stata una musicista molto severa, puntuale, bad tempered, e di poche moine. Qualche tempo fa mi capitò leggere la sua autobiografia, ‘I put a spell on you’, che prende il titolo da uno dei suoi meravigliosi brani. Nel libro la Simone racconta della propria carriera, iniziata da piccolissima, al pianoforte della Chiesa locale, e conclusasi negli anni ’90 con un successo che l’ha resa famosa in tutto il mondo. Giusto nelle ultime pagine del libro la Simone fa riferimento a un episodio accaduto proprio qui a Londra, che segna la rottura con l’agente Sannucci e la cancellazione di una settimana di concerti al Ronnie Scott’s, un jazz club in Soho, dove la Simone era solita esibirsi intorno agli anni ’80. A causa della lite l’agente rientra in America da solo, la Simone si trattiene ancora in Europa, tra Liberia e Francia, Svizzera e Olanda, intanto esibendosi in concerti.
Il libro è del 1991, ed è nel Gennaio del’91 che la Simone partecipa in America a una parata per celebrare il compleanno di Martin Luther King; appena negli anni ’60 il brano ‘Mississippi Goddam‘, contenuto nell’album ‘Nina Simone In Concert’, ricorda l’omicidio di Medgar Evers e il borbardamento nei pressi di una chiesa in Alabama che costa la morte a quattro bambini neri; il brano viene recepito come una chiara denuncia al razzismo e segna un inizio nella lotta ai diritti civili portata avanti dalla Simone, che diversamente da Martin Luther King, però, invita i fratelli a ribellarsi alle armi, con le armi; anche per questo la Simone viene più volte allontanata dalla scena pubblica, sebbene nel libro viene solo fatto riferimento a un trasferimento nelle Barbados utilizzato come escamotage per non pagare le tasse e non finanziare lo stato americano, che negli anni ’60 va in guerra nel Vietnam.
Nel libro ci sono molti ricordi legati all’infanzia e alla Grande Depressione, alle ristrettezze economiche in cui versava la famiglia (otto figli), al duro apprendistato a cui prima che l’insegnante di piano sè stessa ha sottoposto attraverso rigide e ferree sedute di studio e totale dedizione alla musica; il primo amore, la scelta di abbandonare casa per trasferirisi da sola in città, dove approfondisce gli studi di pianoforte, inizia a suonare nei locali, fa carriera come musicista e vive l’età adulta, tra palcoscenici, viaggi, casinò, champagne, antidepressivi, due matrimoni, una figlia, un divorzio, un amante ammazzato, e un’etichetta, quella della musicista jazz, che non sopporta, le rode il fegato, a tutt’oggi sono sicura farebbe impazzire, e di proprio pugno, in prima persona, nella propria autobiografia, tiene a chiarire. Un poco stizzita
‘After Town Hall critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s songs in my performances, and those sort of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music. They finally ended up describing me as a ‘jazz-and-something-else-singer’. To me ‘jazz’ meant a way of thinking, a way of being, and the black man in America was jazz in everything he did – in the way he walked, talked, thought and acted. Jazz music was just another aspect of the whole thing, so in that sense because I was black I was a jazz singer, but in every other way I most definitely wasn’t. Because of ‘Porgy’ people often compared me to Billie Holiday, which I hated. That was just one song out of my repertoire, and anybody who saw me perform could see we were entirely different, What made me mad was that it meant people couldn’t get past the fact we were both black: if I had happened to be white nobody would have made the connection. And I didn’t like to be put in a box with other jazz singers because my musicianship was totally different, and in its own way superior. Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be. It was a racist thing; ‘If she’s black she must be a jazz singer’. It diminished me, exactly like Langston Hughes was diminished when people called him a ‘great black poet’. Langston was a great poet period, and it was up to him and him alone to say what part the colour of his skin had to do with that. If I had to be called something it should have been a folk singer, because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing.
[Taken from I put a spell on you, the autobiography of Nina Simone, with Stephen Cleary, 1991]
Conoscendo la voce della Simone ho immaginato quella fra me e il libro una chiaccherata fra estranei che viaggiano nello stesso treno vuoto, scomparto fumatori, l’una seduta di fianco all’altra. Il tono di lei è severo, delle volte gentile, delle volte amichevole, quasi mai affettuoso; la Simone guarda fuori dal finestrino, lo sguardo fermo. Ogni tanto si interrompe, si schiarisce la voce, riprende a parlare. Delle volte polemizza, ci tiene a chiarire. Avverto è impacciata, preferirebbe starsene altrove.
Basterebbe interromperla un istante e chiederle di cantare per sapere cosa è davvero successo in tutti quegli anni di lunga carriera e fede incondizionata alla Musa. Sarebbe allora che la voce della Simone tradirebbe il mito e svelerebbe la donna, sola e vulnerabile, sincera finalmente e solo attraverso la musica.
_________________________________________________________January 13 A DARK, burdensome day. I stormed up from sleep this morning, not knowing what to do first – whether to reach for my slippers or begin immediately to dress, turn on the radio for the news, comb my hair, prepare to shave. I fell back into bed and spent an hour or so collecting myself, watching the dark beams from the slats of the blind wheeling on the upper wall. Then I rose. There were low clouds; the windows streamed. The surrounding roofs – green, raw red blackened brass – shone like potlids in a darkened kitchen. At eleven I had a haircut. I went as far as Sixty-third Street for lunch and ate at a white counter amid smells of frying fish, looking out on the iron piers in the street and the huge paving bricks like the plates of the boiler- room floor in a huge liner. Above the restaurant, on the other corner, a hamburger with arms and legs balanced on a fiery wire, leaned toward a jar of mustard. I wiped up the sweet sediment in my cup with a piece of bread and went out to walk through large melting flakes. I wandered through a ten- cent store, examining the comic valentines, thought of buying envelopes, and bought instead a bag of chocolate creams. I ate them hungrily. Next, I was drawn into a shooting gallery. I paid for twenty shots and fired less than half, hitting none of the targets. Back in the street, I warmed myself at a salamander flaming in an oil drum near a newsstand with its wall of magazines erected under the shelter of the El. Scenes of love and horror. Afterward, I went into a Christian Science reading room and picked up the Monitor. I did not read it. I sat holding it, trying to think of the name of the company whose gas stoves used to be advertised on the front page of the Manchester Guardian. A little later I was in the street again, in front of Coulon’s gymnasium, looking at photographs of boxers. ‘Young Salemi, now with the Rangers in the South Pacific.’ What beautiful shoulders! I started back, choosing unfamiliar streets. They turned out to be no different from the ones I knew. Two men were sawing a tree. A dog sprang from behind a fence without warning, yapping. I hate such dogs. A man in a mackinaw and red boots stood in the center of a lot, throwing boxes into a fire. At the high window of a stone house, a child, a blond boy, was playing king in a paper crown. He wore a blanket over his shoulders and, for a scepter, he held a thin green stick in his thin fingers. Catching sight of me, he suddenly converted his scepter into a rifle. He drew a bead on me and fired, his lips moving as he said, ‘Bang!’. He smiled when I took off my hat and pointed in dismay to an imaginary hole. The book arrived in the noon mail. I will find it tonight. I hope that will be the last deception imposed to me. Text entirely taken from Dangling Man, by Saul Bellow, 1944
La mancata consegna di un premio Pulitzer alla letteratura per l’edizione di quest’anno ha lasciato tutti interdetti e aperto dibattiti circa la questione. Saul Bellow è l’unico scrittore americano ad essere stato insignito di 3 National book awards con i romanzi ‘The adventures of Augie March’, ‘Herzog’, e ‘Mr Sammler’s Planet‘; nel 1975 di un Pulitzer Prize per il romanzo ‘Humboldt’s Gift‘; nel 1976 di un Nobel Prize in Literature‘for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work’ Dangling man, primo dei suoi romanzi pubblicato nel 1944, anticipa l’intera produzione letteraria dello scrittore e sembra rispondere alle polemiche circa il futuro della letteratura. Bellow colloca l’uomo al centro dell’indagine letteraria e lo fa ponendo particolareggiata attenzione ai conflitti che derivano dal confronto con la società che lo circonda, lo opprime, lo ‘strania’ e verso cui prova un sentimento di alienazione. Il più della critica concerne stile della scrittura e gli elementi di cui Bellow si serve per configurare background e ragioni di un conflitto che rappresenta il teorema uomo – umanità – società moderna. E’ certo la sensibilità di Bellow nel trattare la materia umana deriva lui dall’essere figlio di mercanti ebrei emigrati in Canada e vissuti in Russia. Saul è ultimo di quattro figli cresciuti a Chicago e nati a Montreal. I genitori parlano fra loro ebraico e russo, i ragazzi inglese, yiddish e francese. L’identità culturale di Bellow attinge dalla ricca tradizione ebraica, francese e russa, e converge nella mistificazione e conseguente disillusione del sogno americano; sono gli anni della Grande Depressione, della grande immigrazione, del grande Gatsby, del quarto potere, della chiamata alle armi, del calypso e del rockabilly. Trovo il virtuosismo dell’America condensato tutto nell’intensità accelerata di quegli anni di grave crisi sociale che hanno piegato alle ginocchia milioni di persone e rimesso in discussione le sorti di una nazione intera. Io credo è stato soltanto allora che i bianchi si sono finalmente uniti ai neri, centinaia di lingue si sono mescolate alla lingua, decine di nazioni si sono strette in una, capace di risollevarsi dalle macerie attraverso duro lavoro, sacrifici e tanta immaginazione. Del virtuosismo americano amo il senso della possibilità, quel why not? che è ottimismo e apertura, un accogliere, uno sfidare la sorte, un giocare la partita, un pensare straordinario, immaginifico, lungimirante, in funzione del domani
Secondo il dizionario inglese che ho qui con me, to dangle ha due significati:
–transitive and intransitive verb hang loosely: to swing or hang loosely, or cause something to swing or hang loosely
–transitive verb offer something as inducement: to offer or display something as an enticement or inducement
Dangling man sembra appunto offrire an inducement, uno stimolo, un motivo, un incentivo a considerare la storia un punto d’arrivo e un’occasione di partenza, e l’uomo un ‘mezzo’, letteralmente un mezzo, a cui viene chiesto di attraversare il presente consapevolmente. In Dangling man Bellow attenta a descrivere da cosa deriva quella consapevolezza, che è coscienza individuale dunque esito sociale. Quella consapevolezza nasce da una colluttazione ideale di principi e forze opposte, ora l’esercizio di una volontà di potenza, il trionfo del Romanticismo, l’eroismo del Titano, ora l’assurdità delle guerre, un crollo di valori, l’oltre uomo in crisi esistenzialista, sviscerato dalla psicoanalisi e teso al nichilismo e all’isolazione.
Il romanzo è una retrospettiva che procede per date e minuziose digressioni all’infanzia e alla giovinezza. Joseph, il protagonista, sembra guardarsi allo specchio e non riconoscersi nell’immagine che vede di sè; si agita, è nervoso, perde il senno, sembra non avere più il controllo della propria vita e sulle proprie emozioni
L’edizione che ho qui, della Penguin, è introdotta da J. M. Coetzee, che del romanzo dice nel finale ‘Dangling Man is long on reflection, short on action. It occupies the uneasy ground between the novella proper and the personal essay or confession. Various personages come onstage and exchange words with the protagonist, but beyond Joseph in his two sketchy manifestations there are no characters, properly speaking. Behind the figure of Joseph can be discerned the lonely, humiliated clerks of Gogol and Dostoevsky, brooding upon revenge; the Roquentin of Sartre’s Nausea, the scholar who undergoes a strange metaphysical experience that estranges him from the world; and the lonely young poet of Rilke’s Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge. In this slim first book Bellow has not yet developed a vehicle adequate to the kind of novel he is feeling his way towards, one that will offer the customary novelistic satisfactions, including involvement in what feels like real- life conflict in a real-life world, and yet leave the author free to deploy his reading in European literature and thought in order to explore problems in contemporary life. For that step in Bellow’s evolution we will have to wait for Herzog (1964) J. M. Coetzee
Ho amato questo libro dalla prima all’ultima pagina, e dalla prima all’ultima pagina questo libro ha lenito un po’ della mia solitudine e fatto stare bene, fossero state le parole un abbraccio, una mano che tiene la mano, una lettera che dà conforto.
Le parti del libro da citare sarebbero tantissime, ma ci sono due passi che fra tutti mi hanno colpita particolarmente
THIS AFTERNOON I emptied the closet of all its shoes and sat on the floor polishing them. Surrounded by rage, saddle soap, and brushes – the brown light of the street pressing in at the window, and the sparrows bickering in the dead twigs – I felt tranquil for a while and, as I set Iva’s shoes out in a row, I grew deeply satisfied. It was a borrowed satisfaction; it was doing something I had done as a child. In Montreal, on such afternoon as this, I often asked permission to spread a paper on the sitting- room floor and shine all the shoes in the house, including Aunt Dina’s with their long tongues and scores of eyelets. When I thrust my arm into one of her shoes it reached well above the elbow and I could feel the brush against my arm through the soft leather. The brow fog lay in St Dominique Street; in the sitting room, however, the stove shone on the devenport and on the oilcloth and on my forehead, drawing the skin pleasantly. I did not clean shoes because I was praised for it, but because of the work and the sensations of the room, closed off from the wet and the fog of the street, with its locked shutters and the faint green of the petal pipes along the copings of its houses. Nothing could have tempted me out of the house. I have never found another street that resembled St Dominique. It was in a slum between a market and a hospital. I was generally intensely preoccupied with what went on in it and watched from the stairs and the windows. Little since then has worked upon me with such force as, say, the sight of a driver trying to raise his fallen horse, of a funeral passing through the snow, or of a cripple who taunted his brother. And the pungency and staleness of its stores and cellars, the dogs, the boys, the French and immigrant women, the beggars with sores and deformities whose like I was not to meet again until I was old enough to read of Villon’s Paris, the very breezes in the narrow course of that street, have remained so clear to me that I sometimes think it it the only place where i was ever allowed to encounter reality. My father blamed himself bitterly for the poverty that forced him to bring us up in a slum and worried lest I see too much. And I did see, in a curtainless room near the market, a man rearing over a blond woman on his lap. But less easily forgotten were a cage with a rat in it thrown on a bonfire, and two quarrelling drunkards, one of whom walked away bleeding, drops falling from his head like the first slow drops of a heavy rain in summer, a crooked line of drops left on the pavement as he walked.
ABT HAS sent me a copy of a pamphlet he wrote on the government of the Territories. Expects a flattering comment, no doubt, and I shall have to rig one up. He will want me to tell him that no one else could have written such a pampleth. Suppose I were try to tell him what I thought of him. He would reply coldly, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He has a way of turning aside everything he has no desire to understand. Abt, more than anyone I have known, has lived continually in need of being consequential. Early in life he discovered that he was quicker, abler, than the rest of us, and that he could easily outstrip us in learning and in skills. He felt he could be great in anything he chose. We roomed together in Madison as freshmen. He was very busy that first year keeping us all his accomplishments, his music, his politics, his class work. Living with him had a bag effect on me, for I withdrew from any field he entered. People came from other campuses to consult him on doctrinal matters; no one had as much out-of-the-way information as he; he read foreign political journals the rest of us had never heard of, and reports of party congresses, those dun, mimeographed sheets on international decisions in France and Spain. No one was so subtle with opponents. Nor did many students get as much attention as he got from his teachers. A few were afraid of him and learned to avoid challenging him publicly. late afternoons, he played the piano. I would often stop by for him at the music building on the way to dinner and spend half an hour listening. He did not waste time maturing, he did not make any of the obvious mistakes. His hold was too good. That winter he was Lenin, Mozard, and Locke all rolled into one. But there was unfortunately not enough time to be all three. And so, in the spring, he passed through a crisis. It was necessary to make a choice. But, whatever it was he chose, that would be the most important. How could it be otherwise? He gave up attending meetings and practising the piano, he banished the party reports as trash, and decided to become a political philosopher. There was a general purge. Everything else went. Anti-Duhring and The Critique of the Gotha Program sank to the rear of the bottom shelf of his bookcase and were supplanted at the top by Bentham and Locke. Now he had decided, and in dead earnestness the followed greatness. Inevitably, he fell short of his models. He would never admit that he wanted to become another Locke, but there was, wearing himself thin with the effort of the emulation, increasingly angry at himself, and unable to admit that the scale of his ambition was defeating him. He is stubborn. Just as, in the old days, it disgraced him to confess that he was not familiar with a book or a statement that came under his jurisdiction, he now cannot acknowledge that his plan has miscarried. But then, it bothers him to be found guilty even of small errors. He does not like to forget a date or a name or the proper form of a foreign verb. He cannot be wrong, that is his difficulty. If you warn him that there is a fissure at his feet, he answers, ‘ no, you must be mistaken.’ But when it can no longer be ignored he says, ‘Do you see it?’ as though he has discovered it. Of course, we suffer from bottomless avidity. Our lives are so precious to us, we are so watchful of waste. Or perhaps a better name for it would be the Sense of Personal Destiny. Tes, I think that is better than avidity. Shall my life one-thousandth of an inch fall short of its ultimate possibility? It is a different thing to value oneself, and to prize oneself crazily. And then there are our plants, idealizations. These are dangerous, too. They can consume us like parasites, eat us, drink us, and leave us lifelessly prostrate. And yet we are always inviting the parasite, as if we were eager to be drained and eaten. It is because we have been taught there is no limit to what a man can be. Six hundred years ago, a man was what he was born to be. Satan and Church, representing God, did battle over him. He, by reason of his choice, partially decided the outcome. But whether, after life, he went to hell or to heaven, his place among other men was given. It could be contested. But, since, the stage has been reset and human being only walk on it, and, under this revision, we have, instead, history to answer to. We were important enough then for our souls to be fought over. Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness. And that, that greatness, is the rock our hearts are abraded on. Great minds, great beauties, great lovers and criminals surround us. from the great sadness and desperation of Werthers and Don Juans we went to the great ruling images of Napoleons; from these to murderers who had that right over victims because they were greater than the victims; to men who felt privileged to approach others with a whip; to schoolboys and clerks who roared like revolutionary lions; to those pimps and subway creatures, debaters in midnight cafeterias who believed they could be great in treachery and catch the throats of those they felt were sound and well in the lassos of their morbidity; to dreams of greatly beautiful shadows embracing on a flawless screen. because of these things we hate immoderately and punish ourselves and one another immoderately. The fear of lagging pursues and maddens us. The fear lies in us like a cloud. It makes an inner climate of darkness. And occasionally there is a storm and hate and wounding rain out of us.
Text entirely taken from ‘Dangling Man’, by Saul Bellow, 1944
“On the floor I am more at ease, I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around in it, work from the four sides and be literally in the painting.” -Jackson Pollock, 1947
Pollock, Jackson (1912-56), the chief American exponent of ACTION PAINTING, made studies for his apparently unpremeditated works, done on continuous lengths of canvas tacked to the floor, and later cut up with selective care. He abandoned the use of brushes in 1947, pouring the paint straight on to the canvas, but in 1953 he began to employ brushes again. He said of his paintings (1951): ‘I don’t work from drawings or color sketches. My painting is direct.. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.. When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about, I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.’ He used metallic paints and ordinary commercial synthetic enamel and plastic paint, with results that are already unfortunate. There are examples in London (Tate), Rio de Janeiro and many US museums. Taken from ‘Dictionary of Art and Artists, by Peter and Linda Murray, 1959