Published  16/05/2013

George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life

George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life

The Sackler Wing of Galleries
Royal Academy of Art, London
16 March—9 June 2013


Such is the historical window and nature of George Bellows’ rather short career that it seems unavoidable to think of his work in relation to the artistic and social transformations of the early 20th century.

Having moved to New York from Ohio in 1904, Bellows had by 1910 become one of the foremost practitioners of a certain model of progressive painting. Virile, technically adventurous and decidedly anti-academic, Bellows’ early work couples a bravura handling with what is most often described as an ‘unflinching’ realism. Taking off into the surging population and attendant poverty of downtown New York, Bellows subverted the bourgeois limitations of taste by following his teacher Robert Henri’s mantra that the artist must seek inspiration in all facets of contemporary life. In so doing, like Jacob Riis before, Bellows and Henri’s Ashcan group chronicled something of the ferocious inequality in which New York’s modernity was, lest we forget, established.

Against the formalism which became increasingly established in New York in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show this social focus has been seen as either anachronistic or heroic: a soon to be outdated stand for a fading realist approach or the last bastion of socially engaged art before the onset of Modernism. As one passes around the Royal Academy’s current retrospective (the first of the artist’s work to be held in this country) such broad sweeping illusions are hard to sustain. For if the stacked fleshy accumulations of his Stag at Sharkey’s will be familiar to all, the breadth of Bellows’ career will surely come as a surprise to most.

To many a sense of slight uneasiness will descend in the first room of this compact exhibition. Here three portraits dominate the main wall – Frankie the Organ Boy (1907), Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall (1909) and Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett)(1907). They possess an unidealised crudeness of approach and a lack of sentimentality that sums up Bellows’ apparently ‘unflinching’ eye. For all their directness, however, there remains a disturbing remove: the open mouth of the boy, the high viewpoints, the awkward poses, the apparent delight in the effects of putrid flesh on the model and the obscuring reflections across the eyes of the sitters, establish a dehumanising distance that brings to mind something of Ruskin’s admonishment of Murillo’s street urchins: ‘do not call this the painting of nature: it is mere delight in foulness’.

Bellows had his defence against morally conservative critics at the ready, condemning the “strange disease in peoples minds which makes them imagine themselves arbiters of beauty… a criticism of manners or morality which presents the cruelty of life is a horror to smug individuals”. But it is not against the lack of beauty or the exposure of cruelty that I would raise my objections – but rather against the essential conservatism of Bellows “criticism”. For despite the mythologies surrounding Bellows’ own political stance his work does little but give fuel to the wider social fears of the age. Never overcoming the distance of his own position as a middle class voyeur in the downtown scenes Bellows offers up removed and sensational presentations of the working class as an unkempt, violent and multiplying mob: in the street scenes they seem to stack up like Georgian nightmares of the procreating underclass; in the portraits they shock with a disarming ugliness. Whilst such scenes, therefore, offer an aesthetic treatment of the working class within the realms of “fine art”, we may ask if they do any more than Murillo’s street urchins (so popular with the British aristocracy) to address the inequality they treat.

This is driven home by the duplicity of Bellows’ approach – for where Hogarth, Goya or Dickens proved at least as critical of the hypocrisy of the higher classes as the depravity of the lower, as we move around the exhibition we realise that Bellows’ brush was not just adept at the fleshy distortions and brutalising carnality but equally capable of genteel delicacy. Be they roamers in central park or the members of his family - the middle class scenes are invariably portrayed with a soft focus and refined elegance that is altogether absent in the downtown scenes (Men of the Docks, 1912 providing a possible exception). All this gives weight to Marianne Doezema’s judgement that it was Bellows’ ability to "combine a 'revolutionary' style with an ingratiating message" that enabled him "to chart a delicate course between resistance and accommodation”, and rather undermines the attempts to claim him as a social realist.

For those willing to overlook the discomfort of a painter who saved the excesses of his stylistic distortions for the proletariat whilst gently soothing his own class’ refined gentility, there is an undoubted accomplishment in the portrait of the young Frankie; a Velasquez-like balance of finish and tonal contrast, a compelling draw in the adultness of the hands. Elsewhere his graphic work reveals a searching mind and an adept ability with caricature – a schooling in Goya and the occasional composition that provides a match for Max Beckmann for awkwardness and tension. It is in these lithographs and drawings – produced largely for the radical journal The Masses, but also Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman’s journals - that we find the most accomplished balance between Bellows’ political convictions and his artistic practice. Here the reproductive format and his engaged journalistic approach transcend the sensationalisation of bourgeois fear to create compelling and timely advocacy – against racism, the invisibility of insane asylums and the immorality of incandescent preachers.

But praise of this political work is tempered by the tensions implicit in the 1917 series Bellows made in reaction to the first world war. Based on the essentially propagandist findings of the Comstock report and expanded in both paintings and graphic work, the series marks a sharp separation from the prevailing opinion of the American left with which Bellows had strengthened his relations through the 1910s, marking an unmistakable call to war. Combining the near Michelangelesque heroic form of the soon to be martyred Belgians with near Bosch-like demonisation of the German soldiers they reveal a forcefully violent and narrowly one-sided vision of conflict which characterises much of Bellows oeuvre. Whilst attempting to recall the spirit of Goya they suffer once more from their ultimate remove from their subject – revealing Bellows’ willingness to forego reasoned understanding or human empathy for dramatic pictorial effect. In so doing they seem much more akin to British anti-German propaganda campaigns than the works of a great painter.

If Bellows’ presentation of people often seems undone by an absence of empathy and critical understanding it is perhaps no coincidence that it is his landscape works which emerge as the most forceful and least problematic works of this exhibition. For it is here that we sense Bellows’ considerable painterly abilities combining with his desires for a wider range of subject matter, to transcend the bourgeois comfort of Impressionist scenes and capture something more of the New York landscape. The rough, scrubbed and scratched paintwork of his paintings of the Penn Station excavations, the smooth delicacy of winter light in the parkland scenes, the stacked visions of New York squares or even the elemental slickness of his coastal paintings reveal Bellows’ considerable abilities in creating emotive and compelling painterly surfaces that establish a physical and representative presence akin to the diverse scenes of the age.

The Penn Station works in particular stand out. Bringing to mind Frank Auerbach’s 1950s paintings of construction sites, their much thinner, but nonetheless dry, surfaces possess a rough-hewn physicality, which captures the crude brutality of the scenes upon which the modern world is founded. It is here, rather than in his brawling slums that I would argue Bellows hits the nail on the proverbial head – capturing the unprecedented productive and destructive forces that continue to define our understanding of modernity.

Bellows’ rise to prominence is perhaps most effectively bracketed by the advent of the 1913 Armory show. As Forbes Watson saw it:
if Bellows’ faith in himself could have been shaken it would have been shaken then…The Armory show proved a bomb which rent the art world limb from limb… He remained popular… but in the eyes of the novelty seekers he and his group were no longer the latest word”.

Whether caused by a crack in his self-confidence, pressure from “novelty seekers” or his move away from New York City, Bellows’ work did in fact change significantly over his late years. What is more difficult to assess is exactly in which direction it was moving. From swirling El Greco-like distortions, to the strange harmonies of a work like Two Women or the Hals-like portraits of his family, Bellows engaged in a diverse exploration of compositional strategies and most often romantic scenes. None quite seem to strike home or recover the surface play of his earlier landscapes. It was in the midst of these explorations that he died of peritonitis in 1925.

Straddling the moment of Modernism’s arrival in the US, Bellows’ career offers a challenge to those who would seek to draw clear binary distinctions between social engagement and Modernist removal. He reminds us that the position of the painter in such matters is fraught with complication, and that the politics of representation do not end with distinctions between realism, abstraction, subject matter and technique but are bound to the subtle interplays of such forces within the wider contexts of their times. Bellows’ was a diverse and complex career that deserves to be considered. At its best, a desire to search out new subject matter combined with an attention to surface effects to create lasting testaments to the landscapes of the age. Frequently, however, his work is shackled by the limitations of bourgeois voyeurism – feeding off, but not establishing a critical voice towards, the violence he sought to highlight.

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