Sunday, May 26, 2013

George Bellows. 1882-1925 Modern American Life @ Royal Academy London

George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey's, 1909

Hailed by the Metropolitan Museum installation of this exhibition, George Bellows was one of “America’s greatest artists when he died, at the age of forty-two from a ruptured appendix.” While I wouldn’t know to argue with the Metropolitan, when I read this very big claim, the first thought that goes through my mind and no doubt that of many visitors to the current exhibition at the Royal Academy must be: Edward Hopper. Bellows and Hopper were contemporaries and apparently studied together under Robert Henri in New York. And for my money, there’s no question as to who was the greater artist.

George Bellows, Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907
The exhibition at the Royal Academy is small compared to its installation in New York and so it’s difficult to know whether or not Bellows was more consistent than the examples represented here indicate. Or perhaps he was on the way to greatness, but he never quite found his style due to his premature death. The answers to such questions would be clearer if there was more of Bellows’ work on display. My first disappointment was with the limited size of the exhibition.

George Bellows, New York, 1911
That said, there are some lovely paintings interspersed throughout the exhibition, particularly, those that show the marginal life of New York City in Bellows’: the boxing paintings of Sharkey’s, a well-known joint hosting illegal activity at the time. Also impressive were the paintings that depicted empty spaces in New York such as the foundation hole in the ground that would become Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907. What I loved about these New York paintings was their depiction of something that did not exist, the space, the emptiness, the void of a world still to come. New York of this period is always depicted as a marvel of modernist invention: skyscrapers, elevated subways, icons such as the Woolworth Building, and the teeming turn of the century streets. But Bellows represents the emptiness of the ground before all of this is built. Even when he shows views along the Hudson and the East Rivers, it’s not the buildings in the background that capture his eye, it’s the light on the water, the reflections, the space of the river.

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912
In paintings such as Men of the Docks, 1912, Bellows interest in light at various times of day, its reflections, its refractions reminds me of Monet – he wants to capture the light as it reflects on the water, the night lights as they illuminate the pit that will become Penn Station. In these particular works, like those of the French impressionists, but with a much looser brush and a more dense use of paint, Bellows primary interest is in light, in color, in paint. He is less interested in the daily life of New York City. And so in the images of New York we see Bellows lean in towards being a significant modernist painter: an interest in form, in colour, in paint, light, and the simultaneous departure from a fixation on figuration. But this promise is never realized. As Bellows’ career progresses he becomes concerned with subject matter, and seems to leave behind the fascination with questions of aesthetics. Similarly, he stays squarely within the frame of representation, of traditional narrative painting. He never reaches into the uncertain territories of abstraction. When we remember that these works were being painted at the exact same time as Picasso was breaking apart the picture plane, and completely abstracting the human body, Bellows becomes less interesting and more derivative.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924
The other works that stand out in this exhibition are those for which Bellows is celebrated: the boxing works. In Dempsey and Firpo, 1924, or Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, the boxers occupy the empty space at the centre of the painting, illuminated as it is by color as light, in a reflection of the light of the performance. Again, in these paintings Bellows shows great promise in his fascination with light, with form, with paint. The entwined bodies are also interesting because they create a movement across the canvas that again gestures towards something original, but doesn’t seem to get fully realized in the oeuvre as it is presented here.

This is work that is derivative all the way. It’s work that lacks the uncertainty and the ambiguity that plagues and moves forward the development of modern art. In addition, Bellows is not inventing anything new, nothing we haven’t seen done earlier, usually in the late nineteenth century. Ultimately this makes his work unsatisfying and not so impressive. 

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