George Bellows – Modern American Life
Royal Academy, until 9th June 2013
George Bellows (1882-1925) is among the best-known of modern American artists, who made an extraordinarily varied contribution to America’s culture and self-image in the space of just 42 years.
Born in Ohio, he almost became a professional baseball player, but instead moved to New York in 1904 to pursue a career as a commercial illustrator. He early made a name for his impassioned and uncompromising portrayals of the seamier side of NY life, and became part of the jocularly entitled “Ashcan School” – whom over-refined critics nicknamed “the Apostles of Ugliness”.
His celebrated boxing images combine both impressionist and expressionist techniques – savagely side-lit, Futurism-influenced, the central protagonists grappling like blind but furious machines of war watched hungrily by sweaty and saturnine crowds with crudely rendered yet highly expressive faces. The most famous of these images is Stag at Sharkey’s, described by Joyce Carol Oates as
a Dionysian frenzy of faceless bodies hurtling together in virtual midair.
Bellows himself claimed
I don’t know anything about boxing. I’m just painting two men trying to kill each other.
Outside such shebeens, joints and dives, he wandered the streets endlessly around where he lived, and painted the poor engrossed in hard lives – longshoremen waiting for work beside ships like cliffs against a backdrop of sunlit skyscrapers, construction workers delving by frozen day and braziered night the huge crater that would one day be Penn Station, tugboats chugging up the choppy East River, naked children diving into the Hudson, feral dogs rooting for food, frantically busy intersections where tall cops try vainly to instill an idea of order on a chaos of carts, charabancs, pantechnicons, elevated trains and dashing pedestrians of all classes. There are also crepuscular pen-and-ink treatments of disturbing scenes, like “The Law is too Slow”, which shows a man being lynched, “The Benediction” in which a parson pontificates to an audience of slumped and hopeless black convicts, and the self-explanatory “Electrocution”. He also produced classically-informed portraits of street characters – urchins and ne’er do wells who would never normally have been depicted by any artist.
The contrasts between these tenement lives, and those of the rising rich who were raising skyscrapers and promenading in Central Park, impelled him – understandably enough – to work for a socialist newspaper called The Masses. But he was never active in politics, and would throw himself with equal assiduity into portraying parasol-ed picnickers and middle class jaunts into the countryside. He especially liked wintry scenes, which are well represented in this exhibition, and the opportunities whites and blues offered for contrasts with the butterfly-brilliant dresses of women, as seen in works like Easter Snow. The cumulative effect is an intoxicating evocation of the vitality, innovation and self-confidence of the city of his time, the cultural and financial capital of a burgeoning behemoth.
His focus shifted somewhat after 1911, when he began to visit the Maine coast, and produced seascapes that swell with power, even when, as with An Island in the Sea, the subject is simple almost to the point of abstraction – a deeply dark and treeless lump of rock off a bare promontory, the ensemble sent shimmering into life by a limitless, silvered segment of North Atlantic.
Having initially opposed American involvement in World War One, by 1918 he was producing suitably horrifying illustrations of real or alleged German atrocities in Belgium – these strongly influenced by Goya’s Peninsular War images of just over a century earlier. Bellows’ harrowing tableaux of martyred Belgian civilians being slaughtered by jowly, walrus-mustachioed, Pickelhaube-sporting demi-beasts undoubtedly helped to shape the climate of opinion which ended in the departure of the Doughboys to die in one of the old continent’s most pointless wars.
In the last seven years of his abridged existence, he devoted himself mostly to what in less skilled hands might have been schmaltzy subjects – family, friends, neighbours, horses, scenery – but even these often have disturbing qualities, like 1924‘s The Picnic. The painting is set in a breathlessly still, high summer Catskills landscape of hills and lake, and contains some domestic details – a cloth spread on the ground, a man fishing, a young girl with a skipping rope. Two sunlit hills are reflected almost too perfectly in a lake that is more like glass than water. But dwarfing these tame and lovely hillocks, the lake and the human interlopers, there rise all the way to the horizon much higher hills unlit by sun, a blue and mysterious massif without trace of humans, surmounted by a vast sky promising storms. In the right foreground, a family friend lies so helplessly prostrate with sleep that he could be a corpse.
Other paintings on show – like Fisherman’s Family and The White Horse – likewise possess surreal and hallucinogenic qualities which make us regret that he died so soon. But he was unclassifiable to the end, and was simultaneously turning out cleaner-line, commercial illustration-inspired artworks, as well as sombre studies like Elinor, Joan and Anna. The exhibition leaflet quotes Sherwood Anderson, who said Bellows’ late works
…keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.
Bellows may never have quite caught up with whatever it was he was pursuing, but he left behind an unforgettable slice of Americana.