George Bellows at the RA

Forty Two Kids, 1909
Forty Two Kids, 1909

Tipped off by my wife, I went to the RA yesterday to see the exhibition of work by the American artist George Bellows (1882-1925).

What a revelation. Whilst the front of the RA is hung with an enormous and uninspiring hanging, and most of inside is closed up in preparation for the Summer Exhibition, there is a remarkable and powerful body of work illuminating the Sackler Galleries. The exhibition closes at the end of next week (9 June) but if you have a chance to visit before then, grab it.

I think it is generally accepted that the epicentre of development in art was Paris in the nineteenth century, and that by the middle of the twentieth century the centre had moved to New York. What this exhibition makes clear though is that the shift of energy and innovation across the Atlantic was already underway at the very beginning of the century.

Bellows had certainly absorbed a great deal of the European art tradition, from Paris and elsewhere. The inspiration of Degas, Manet, Goya and Velasquez runs through much of his work. But he imbued that tradition with a new energy and a new urban grittiness which reflects the harsh realities of life in New York.

Miss Leslie Hall, 1909
Miss Leslie Hall, 1909

The earliest works in the exhibition are to my mind some of the most powerful, reflecting both the realities of working class urban life (Forty Two Kids) and his absorption of painters like Manet (Miss Leslie Hall). The latter is one of a number of powerful female nudes which featured in his work and in this exhibition.

Stag at Sharkey's, 1909
Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909

At around this time, Bellows also started to use the boxing ring as a source of inspiration and the exhibition includes both paintings and drawings which reflect that period. Stag at Sharkeys is one of the best known and most powerful. This is only a small part of his creative work but, perhaps unfortunately, it has become emblematic of his career, over-shadowing other work of equal strength. Indeed if you were to look at the publicity material for this exhibition you might conclude it was an exhibition of boxing pictures when it is more, much more, than that.

As the boxing pictures showed, Bellows gained early mastery of exploiting the harsh artificial lighting of the modern city for powerful dramatic effect. This was the case in both interior and exterior paintings as Snow Dumpers shows, picturing the relentless task of moving snow and dumping it from horse drawn carts into the Hudson.

Snow Dumpers, 1911
Snow Dumpers, 1911

Also featured in the exhibition are a number of particularly powerful canvases, such as The Barricade, which Bellows painted after America’s entry into the First War. Drawing inspiration from Goya these pictures graphically depict the horrors of war, but could not be more different from much British art of the same period. Whilst much British war art of that period is suffused with sadness and even self-pity, reflecting the enormous loss of British life, Bellows work is suffused with anger and is, to a modern eye, provocatively accusatory. It is about the prosecution of war crimes, depicted as directly and brutally as possible.

The Barricade, 1918
The Barricade, 1918

Bellows died cruelly young from peritonitis, and we are left wondering where his talent would have taken him had he lived to the middle of the American century. The last room of the exhibition reflects a man who has moved on from the urgency of youth and is a more careful and considered painter, centred in his family. Whilst these pictures lack the raw energy of his early work, they gain in detailed observation. And they continue to reflect his absorption of art history as the parallels highlighted in the exhibition between Two Women and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love makes very clear.

Two Women, 1924
Two Women, 1924

Even at the time of his death, Bellows was a major artist who deserves much more recognition on this side of the Atlantic. Had he lived another thirty years he might well have become one of the very greatest American artists. Go and see this exhibition or, if that is not possible,  buy the beautiful catalogue. You will not be disappointed.

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