Boxing à la français
“George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life”, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 9 June
By Carey Gibbons.
This is the first monographic exhibition of the American artist, George Bellows, 1882-1925, in 30 years and the first ever in Britain. Although Bellows’ artistic career was ended in 1925 by his early death, aged 42, he produced an oeuvre that is remarkable for its variety of style and subject matter. His work was exhibited frequently and rewarded with positive reviews and prizes during his lifetime, but Bellows has received little recognition after his death, largely due to the focus on the Abstract Expressionists at the expense of earlier American modernists. Even when Bellows has been acknowledged, there has been a tendency to focus on his earlier work, particularly his paintings of boxing matches. This exhibition commendably wants us to consider Bellows' work in its entirety: urban scenes, landscapes, war subjects, portraits and illustrations engaging with the political, social and cultural issues of the day.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows moved to New York City, leaving behind his baseball-playing days at Ohio State University, and began studies in 1904 with Robert Henri. Henri had a small following of artists, later to become the Ashcan School. In the two years he was in New York, Bellows created Election Night, Times Square, 1906, a drawing in charcoal and crayon that captures both the energy and alienation of metropolitan life, a jumble of shoving, crowding figures wait for election returns. Forty-two Kids, 1907, depicts the street children of working-class immigrants skinny-dipping in the murky East River. The youthful nudes are engaged in an array of activities and gestures yet possess the same thin, pliable bodies, with an almost unnatural elasticity. Men become mere flecks of paint in Bellows’ paintings of the excavations for the construction of Penn Station (1907-09). Bellows expresses a fascination with the processes of man-made creation while observing the smallness of man in relation to the massive pit of stone, gravel, and dirt churned up by excavation and covered in snow.
Another highlight of the exhibition is Bellows’ well known Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), a painting depicting two boxers pushed to their physical limits. The interlocking and colliding forms of the boxers meld into a mixture of flesh, sweat and blood. The streaks and slurs of paint mimic bodily fluid, suggesting a liquid mobility that pervades the scene, extending to the smeared, fleshy blotches that indicate audience members. The painting is remarkable for its portrayal of both human strength and vulnerability, suggesting the power of impact as well as a loss of the body’s solidity.
After the 1913 Armory Show that exposed American audiences to contemporary French and other European art, Bellows began to experiment more with the possibilities of colour. Fantastical landscapes such as Fisherman’s Family, 1923, reflect the influence of artists like Seurat and Matisse. Bellows’ seascapes from summer trips to Mohegan Island off the coast of Maine are also remarkable for their vivid palette of marine hues. These works reveal a fascination with both the energy and stillness of the sea that resonates with the interplay between vital intensity and solitude amongst his figure paintings. The swells and explosive sprays of water in Forth and Back, 1913, contrast with the smooth, glistening surfaces in An Island in the Sea, 1911. Roughly half of Bellows’s painted oeuvre is of the sea, and one is left wishing that more than a few of them were included in the exhibition.
Bellows’s late works depicting the torture and killing of Belgian citizens by German soldiers, and his experiments with lithography present Bellows as a keen observer and commentator on the issues of his day. The war paintings are unsettling but honest explorations of human violence, and the illustrations engage with powerful themes such as social and racial injustice. The works add further evidence of the diversity of Bellows’ output but lack the spontaneity and animation of some of his other works.
The exhibition ends with Bellows’s portraits, many of which were made in his studio in Woodstock, NY in the 1920s. The works reflect an understanding of the traditions of portraiture and are reminiscent of the portrayals of introspective and enigmatic femininity by Manet and Whistler. The eyes of the women in these portraits recall those of the sitters in some of Bellows’ earlier depictions of urban characters. Their pupils are abnormally large, suggesting a fervent curiosity and willingness to look at life from every angle that resonates with Bellows’ experimental and all-encompassing approach to art. Yet the large, inky pupils also give them a bizarre, inhuman quality, seeming to suggest that one cannot engage with human life without acknowledging its inherent strangeness and vulnerability. Bodies in Bellows’ works can become jumbled masses or tiny flecks, take on the properties of elastic bands or mobile fluids, or fascinate and trouble the viewer with their wide-eyed gazes.
Carey Gibbons completed her MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art on the Aesthetic Movement and is now researching a PhD in the field of Victorian illustration.
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