4.17 / Review

From London: George Bellows (1882–1925)

By Larissa Archer June 13, 2013
George Bellows. Stag at Sharkey's, 1909; oil on canvas; 36.2 x 44.3 in. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection, Cleveland. © The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I 
often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them! —Walt Whitman, Mannahatta

________

The American painter George Bellows is widely remembered for his early masterpiece, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), a painting that represents a particularly American moment in art (one cannot imagine a French movement calling itself the “Ashcan School” ). Its depiction of a casual, democratic amalgam of high and low classes, unchecked criminality, bald financial opportunism, and exalted violence rendered with bravura and rough strokes make it exemplary of America’s penchant to elevate self-definition to the status of mythmaking. The work’s likely kindred is Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), or the later films noir, or even the Group Theater’s populist agitprop of the 1930s. It’s the sort of painting, and Bellows is the sort of painter, that people describe as masculine. Even the artist’s name sounds like a Bronx cheer shattering the polite silence of a museum.

The Royal Academy of Arts’s Bellows retrospective of seventy-one works displays a wider range of the artist’s talents while simultaneously zeroing in on why Stag at Sharkey’s has become his chef-d’oeuvre. In his Excavation series (1907–08), which depicts the section of Midtown New York razed to prepare for the future Penn Station, Bellows paints the vast construction site like a wound, with minute, bug-like workers against the muddy snow. He evokes a sense of destruction later associated with the station, which, less than sixty years later, was itself razed, one of the country’s most infamous desecrations of a historical and architectural treasure. Bellows avoids sentimentality, however, leaving no references to the less grand victims of this project: the demolished apartment blocks that once stood on this spot or their displaced inhabitants.

He abandons such restraint in his World War I pieces, the subjects of which he often got from news stories and photography in publications such as Collier’s and the Bryce reports in the New York Times.  These paintings lack the punch of other great war-themed artworks, like Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Third of May, in which the antagonists are absent or faceless and war itself is the enemy. In The Germans Arrive (1918), on the other hand, Bellows depicts German soldiers as caricatured brutes with high cheekbones and Hun-style helmets, reducing the work to mere propaganda.1

Bellows also painted more genteel subjects, periodically returning to portraiture, but he seemed always compelled to expose some ugliness, inherent or perceived, in his sitters. His early portraits of children, such as Frankie, The Organ Boy (1907) or Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett) (1907), could be by John Singer Sargent if not for the subjects’ wonky eyes—the overly black pupils of both children—and the clumsy construction of Frankie’s face. When Bellows resists this penchant for the grotesque, he seems to lose interest. His depiction of the relaxed park visitors in A Day in June (1913) is lovely, but it’s also static; nothing seems to be going on, inwardly or outwardly, in these people’s lives. This artist, who could render flesh so ripe that one can practically smell the sweat off it, doesn’t do much more here than sketch the characters.

Even among Bellows’s boxing scenes, his most popular works, one can see him adjusting his style for maximum theatricality. Club Night (1907) depicts a scene similar to Stag at Sharkeys. Two men clobber away at each other, one putting his knee into the other; a crowd of mixed class and dress cheers (or bellows) at them. Yet Club Night does not achieve the movement Stag does: the boxer on the left stands solidly on his bent right leg. There is visible space between the two fighters. A single source of light illuminates just a sliver along the left sides of the men’s bodies. One senses that the tempo of this fight measures about one neat punch every three seconds, as the men creep around each other, rarely losing touch with the ground.

The fighters in Stag, however, are lit to contrast sharply against the arena. A viewer can see where physical exertion has brought a blush to the skin. One fighter’s leg is stretched gymnastically behind him, launching him into his opponent, whose torso curves into the punch. Their heads seem fused together, and their bodies and the umpire’s downward hand form a triangle with the ground. It looks like the kind of fight where one can’t tell where the blows are coming from or hear them apart. Bellows manages to evoke something primal in what was, and is, a highly choreographed sport while making the event of two men pummeling each other into a counterintuitively graceful, even elegant, spectacle.

Fifteen years later, Bellows returned to the ring to paint Dempsey and Firpo (1924), a famous fight in which one boxer was knocked into the stands. Despite the sensationalism of the event, this painting, like Club Night, curiously lacks vitality. It’s all a bit glam: soft, even light glints off pomaded hair and smart dress. Smoothly rendered details such as eyes, hands, and abs sap the painting of the drama of Stag, whose rough, thick brushstrokes imply in-the-moment speed, not fussiness. But by 1924, boxing was legal, an acceptable form of entertainment. Had Bellows ever painted a night at the ballet, would there be any stylistic difference between such a painting and Dempsey and Firpo?

Paintings from his Maine series (1911–17) shift from social commentary towards introspection: rocky coasts jutting into a fantastically turbulent sea suggest a man whose reflections have transcended the political, who looks not into the transient development and entertainments of a great city for his inspiration but, almost mystically, to the terrible, sublime seat of life and death. The Royal Academy’s retrospective provides rare and illuminating insight into the works of an artist whose repertoire is much broader and more varied than that for which he is most famous.

George Bellows. Love of Winter, 1914; oil on canvas; 32.5 x 40.5 in. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection, Chicago. © The Art Institute of Chicago.

 

George Bellows (1882–1925): Modern American Life was on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, England, through June 9, 2013.

Notes

  1. Subsequent criticism of this period in Bellows’s career suggests that both flawed reportage and heavy-handed artistic interpretations of the Germans duped the country into participating in a war it might wisely have avoided. See Charles Brock, ed., George Bellows (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2012), 264.

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