Jim Cowan reports on a brilliant show of an artist little known in Britain.
‘George Bellows, member of the Ashcan School, (early 20th century urban realist painters who recorded the people and places of New York on lower East Side) is on show at the Royal Academy. Encouraged to record street life, river, docks, tenement blocks and places of entertainment in a city that was expanding with a new immigrant population, George Bellows was the most successful of the group. A prodigiously talented energetic painter of the city and its surroundings, it is only now that a major exhibition of his work is being shown at the Royal Academy that his genius is revealed to UK audiences. Like so many of his compatriots- including Edward Hopper- there are no works to be found in public collections in this country. These young painters recorded the street life of New York with gritty uncompromising reality and a painterly approach that matched the frantic energy of the city. Much as Baudelaire had exhorted Manet to paint from modern life, Robert Henri, the leader of Ashcan, encouraged his students to do the same.
In this exhibition we see George Bellows as a forceful painter who had learned much from the example of Manet and Franz Hals, and who painted in a direct and expressionist manner. An athlete himself, his most famous pictures are those of boxing matches held at a time when boxing was illegal. The fights instead took place in private clubs, where boxers were given a day’s membership in order to conform to the strict regulations. There are two of his early series of boxing pictures, ‘Club Night’ 1907 and the more famous painting ‘Stag at Sharkey’s’ 1909,a visceral performance in paint in which the blurred, blooded and battered faces of the combatants are matched by the inane and aggressive faces of the baying audience. The darkness of Goya is evoked in a scene of naked aggressive power. This expressive use of paint is then put to good effect in a series of pictures of the building of the new Penn Station. The gigantic excavation hole is shown at night with the workers labouring in the depth of winter.
The rapid rebuilding and expansion of New York would absorb and affect the immigrant population that he documented. Bellows’ ‘42 Kids’ 1907 shows the children of the urban poor diving off a derelict wooden pier known as ‘splinter beach’. This picture had an unsettling effect on the good citizens of New York who were afraid of the influx of newcomers to their city. Less emotive subjects followed, showing the life on the river with boats between the Bronx and New Jersey, with the Palisade cliffs standing fortress-like on the opposite shore.
The wealthier citizens of New York are shown at their leisure in parks while his paintings of Polo matches stand comparison with Degas’s racetrack paintings, the action, speed and depiction of the horses and riders being well observed. During the summer months, Bellows holidayed at Maine and painted seascapes from Monhegan Island of which ‘The Big Dory’ 1913, although small in size, is a forceful example. Adept at illustration, his drawings and lithographs are well represented in the show, drawing being a vital ingredient in the composition of his pictures. Also included are propaganda paintings done to encourage American involvement and as a contribution to the war effort. These are by far the weakest paintings in the show. Propaganda plays havoc with the truth and these pictures, based on Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’, were done to excite and inspire men to enlist and wreak vengeance, were not his finest hour.
Later paintings vary in quality, showing Bellows’ openness to varying theories and styles. These pictures show him as a precursor to the American Scene painters who tried to paint an idyllic vision of American life.
The famous Armoury show of 1913 was unwittingly the downfall of the Ashcan School. They had helped to organise this exhibition, which showed contemporary American art alongside European painters and sculptors, but their art only looked dated next to these examples of European Modernism. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending a Staircase No 2 ’ 1912 a cubist masterpiece, was the painting that caught the attention of the press. Bellows may have, as a member of the Society of Independent Artists, rejected Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ 1917, but the movements of modern art that followed in its wake would in its turn deliver the knockout blow to this group of American artists. Together with their regionalist compatriots they were deemed haplessly provincial and deliberately side lined and ignored.
George Bellows’ death from peritonitis, in 1925 at the early age of 42, deprived America of one of its best painters. His career had lasted only 19 years. It is only now that with the heady days of Modernism firmly in the past and with the recognition that it was not the only art movement in town, that Bellows has been given the chance to be reassessed and introduced to a wider public. This exhibition at the Royal Academy is a timely reminder of his qualities and a rare chance to see in person a selection of some of his best work.’