Monday, 3 June 2013


I had meant to write about George Bellows right after I saw the exhibition a few weeks ago—now there's only a week left for you to get to Royal Academy and do the same, because it is a superlative show that reveals Bellows as a pivotal, and major, artist, and raises the question of where he might have gone had he not died at only 42.

The response in the local press was somewhat lukewarm. Most reviews concentrated on the work for which Bellows is best known, his boxing paintings, particularly Stag At Sharkey's (1909), which is a magnificent work, its power intensified in person and close up. Bellows himself was more interested in the atmosphere around the ring than the dynamic scene he paints inside it, and by the time he produced an oil of Dempsey and Firpo (1924) his perspective has changed considerably—Firpo is a figure of heroism in the centre of a more static crowd—and the lights up in the rafters look on like the staring eyes of jealous dieties. To miss the difference between these two approaches, which span virtually the whole of Bellows' serious career, is to miss his growth, and luckily the RA also shows Preliminaries To The Big Bout (1916), White Hope (1921—the Jess Willard/Jack Johnson fight) in which the battlers exude tiredness, and the triumphant Johnson seems seriously out of shape, and an earlier version, Dempsey Through The Ropes which focuses on the power of Firpo's follow-through.

This might make Bellows appear a genre painter, but he is far more than that, though again the British reviews seemed to care more about what he wasn't—namely an Impressionist. Yes you can see the influence of Manet, and Whistler, but to call him a failed Impressionist is to miss the point. Even Richard Dorment, who didn't miss the point and wrote of Bellows' relationship to Robert Henri and the Ash Can school (and linked it perceptively to Sickert and Camden Town) somehow managed to transform Bellows' contemporary John Sloan into John Soane! But seeing Bellows in terms of Impressionism is missing, most crucially, the point of the exhibition's subtitle, 'Modern American Life', and fails to put Bellows into his proper place, which I think of as being a powerful central figure in the early American Twentieth Century, linking the wide spectrum of styles that were growing in the hothouse of New York City throughout the early part of the century, right up to the Abstract Expressionists after World War II.

I started by thinking in terms of Bellows as a touchstone between the Ash Can painters, and their commitment to urban reality, and American Impressionism, which was a late-blooming thing which, pace Bellows' reviewers, hasn't always received enough credit for what it is, as opposed to what it is not. But the deeper you consider Bellows' work, the more links to his contemporaries you can make. Some early paintings, like 42 Kids (1907) recall Eakins, but his figures can also seem like children's book illustrations, almost stick figures. You can see Sloan in Election Night Times Square (1906), and there is no denying affinity with the Ash Can artists, which is no surprise as he studied under Robert Henri, alongside Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent

Bellows' second-best known works are probably his studies around the excavation of the Pennsylvania Station, in which New York City sits atop some primordial force, fires coming from within the earth, with the few human figures looking beaten down, and the lights of the city street pale against the workers' floodlights. This is a different sort of look at urban reality, one which is partly mythic and partly impressionist, recalling Whistler in its use of distinct lighting. You can see some of Hopper in the buildings in the background of Excavation At Night (1908), and you can also see Bellows' influence on later artists like Charles Demuth or Charles Sheeler, who celebrated the finished product of such excavation. It's a different dynamic to the Impressionists; yes, you can see the steam from a train while looking down Riverside Park in Rain On The River (1908) and you can sense the intrusion of the machine age, but Bellows is working at a time when rail is commonplace, and in a milieu where escape from New York is not the grail it was in Paris.

While Cliff Dwellers (1913), with its metaphorical title, can be seen in a genre context, it's a big step forward to New York (1911), a city scene which blends a number of New York squares into one, and populates it with a more fashionable sort of Lowry crowd. There are elements on abstract, say on the wagon pulling itself across the foreground. Way off in the distance, between two skyscrapers and almost crowning a third, is a cold-looking cloud, a kind of gateway to Bellows' most brilliant New York studies—painting after painting of the city frozen by winter, held in thrall to mother nature. His winter is brilliant sun-reflecting white and deep ice blue, and the wild spaces always extend right up to and even past the border of civilisation. It is as if he is returning the city to its proper place in the grand scheme of things, even when, as in Love Of Winter (1914--below left) it's only the sight of the pristine hills glowering in the background. There are elements of Rockwell Kent in some of the painting he did outside the city, in Maine (where Robert Henri summered, and which would be important for artists as diverse as Hopper and John Marin), for example (Forth and Back, 1913) which stands in comparison to Blue Snow, The Battery (1910) to remind us of Bellows' vision of a New York that remained part of unfettered nature. This is obvious in North River (1908), with its high point of view looking past the snow, past the boats on the river, to the seeming wilds of the Palisades.

By contrast, Summer Night Riverside Drive (1909 below right) features lurking darkness and two bits of impressionistic light, including reflections off the river, while figures in the park look for privacy—a topic made plainer, but with less striking effects, in Strugglers Solitude (1913). By the start of World War I, I think you can point to Bellows as already reaching elements of synthesis between the forces in modern painting. The sheer scope of the works I've mentioned were produced in the space of eight years, by which time Bellows was one of New York's leading artists.

But he was also part of a group called The Lyrical Left, and by 1911 was on the board of The Masses. His drawings for the paper, along with other lithographs done for more upscale magazines like Harper's Weekly and Collier's are revealing because they show where Bellows channelled the social awareness we saw in his paintings. This becomes particularly evident after the start of the Great War, in his dramatic drawings in the series Disasters Of War, which deliberately recall Goya, in a magazine illustrayion of the murder of British nurse Edith Cavell, and in his five paintings titled War Scenes, which were inspired by the 1915 Bryce Report on German atrocities. These are pure propaganda, pure emotion, as powerful in their way as his boxing work, but with a broader focus. They reminded me immediately of John Singer Sargent's Gassed, which was completed in 1919 and hangs in the Imperial War Museum. There is a palpable sense of shock in both painters, as if they cannot totally comprehend the full horror of what they are painting.

He was more ironic and cutting but less shocked perhaps in works like Benediction In Georgia, Electrocution, and Dance In A Madhouse, all done in 1916-17, where convicts being preached to or executed don't look saved or blessed, and the mad look anything but. The last looks forward to the work of Jack Levine, in its chaotic beauty. There's an interesting boxing cover Bellows did for the New Masses, and two pages of contrasting illustrations: John Sloan's portrait of the upper crust on an ocean liner on one, Bellows' riverfront scene of meagre food in the other.

His later magazine work, if anything, is more emotionally powerful. His Billy Sunday (1923), a study of the fiery preacher whom he covered with John Reed, shows Sunday with his fist cocked, like a boxer, the press in the front rows like at a boxing match, and the crowd in expressions of fear, shock, and wonder. The Law Is Too Slow (1923) is a lithograph done for Century magazine, a black man being burned beneath a hanging tree by men in masks. In a sense you get the sense of a divide between this work and his painting, because by this time he was concentrating on portraiture, and they are hugely impressive portraits, which again recall Sargent.

Sargent used to paint watercolours for his own experiment and amusement, while concentrating on the portraits which earned him his acclaim and living. Bellows may well have been painting his portraits as much for their sense of safety, in the evident beauty he highlights in his wife and daughters, his main subjects, as for anything else. At the start of the exhibition, you see three of early portraits, done 1907-09. Frankie the Organ Boy stares directly at the viewer with eyes almost bugged out. His Nude Girl: Miss Leslie Hare does suggest Manet, but her face, like Frankie's seems to be making a statement, just slightly off a pose, perhaps indicating their background in the streets. But the portrait of the laundry girl Queenie Burnett (Little Girl In White) is magnificent in its efforts to imbue her with an almost fairy-tale royalty.

He can be as perfect as Sargent or Whistler in his portrait of Mr and Mrs Philip Wise (1924) but there is something almost reverential in Emma And Her Children which contrasts movingly with Emma At The Piano (1914). In the latter, she is part of the balance of lovely objects in an almost neo-impressionist way, while in the later work, the figures are more carefully delineated, with more depth, but set against an almost abstract background.

Finally, there is The Picnic (1924) with its Alice in Wonderland dreamlike quality, with his daughter holding a jump rope and looking off into the Wonderland across the Hudson River, while Bellows contemplates his fishing pole while his wife stares into the picnic blanket. It's hard not to see that as some sort of premonition of his departure from them; a burst appendix would lead to his death from blood poisoning in January 1925.
One gets the distinct impression that at the time of his death, Bellows was possibly reassessing his artistic direction, and given the variety of his earlier work, and the contrast between his illustration and painting in his later, I wonder how significant that abstract background in Emma And Her Children is. Because I see another link here, between Bellows and the Abstract Expressionists. Bellows was the most masculine of painters; like Franz Kline he had been a sports star who turned to painting, and like Kline his work conveys physical dynamism. With America, and American art, in flux in the Roaring Twenties, and about to entire the Depression, Bellows future, looked at retrospectively, almost shimmers with possibility. But what he left behind, as evidenced in this exhibition, is satisfying enough.

George Bellows 1882-1925: Modern American Life
Royal Academy of Art, until 9 June 2013

This essay also appears at Irresistible Targets (