Wednesday, 1 May 2013

George Bellows (1882-1925) Modern American Life Art Exhibition – Royal Academy, London

George Bellows (1882-1925) Modern American Life – Royal Academy, London – 16th March to 9th June 2013.

            The Royal Academy is hosting an important retrospective of the renowned American Modern artist, George Bellows. It is the first museum in the United Kingdom to display his work and includes all the focal and brilliant paintings that were part of his repertoire. Bellows was energetic, talented and one of the most influential painters of his time. His gritty, dark and intense depictions of New York City demonstrate that he was one of the greatest realist painters of his century.
Royal Academy, London

            Born in Ohio in 1882, Bellows moved to New York in 1904 and joined the New York school of Art where he studied with fellow artists such as Edward Hopper. There he met his soon to be wife and muse Emma Storey and  fell under the influence of his teacher Robert Henri. Both were to have a profound impact on his life and vision. Henri urged his students to move beyond the genteel scene that was favoured by the National Academy of Design and instead to experiment with other formats and subject matters. In response Bellows created powerful and emotional drawings and paintings depicting New York’s poor immigrant population. He was particularly drawn to the children who lived in the Tenements; in impoverished and harsh environments. “Tin Can Bottle, San Juan Hill, New York” is one such painting where he evocatively depicts gangs of unruly boys playing in the streets. Both their unbridled energy and the poverty that surrounded them is clear and Bellows uses lively brushstrokes and complex multi figure compositions. One of his most recognised and famous paintings which uses the same subject is his large canvas “Forty Two kids”. Here we see a collection of mainly thin boys, all in various stages of undress, swimming and jumping in the polluted river. Bellows not only painted groups but was also a talented portraitist. One of the most powerful paintings for me is his ‘Nude Girls– Miss Leslie Hall’. Here he captures both her vulnerability and her street sense; the detail of her leg muscles is remarkable as is her direct languid and tired gaze. The dark sombre background that seems to be invading her cleverly gives the impression of a hard life. Bellows is quite clearly repudiating the academic idealisation that was popular at the time.
Nude Girl - Miss Leslie Hall, 1909, George Bellows

            His talented ability to portray crowds and the faceless soul of the city is outstanding. In his grand painting, “New York” we see the all encompassing heart of New York  with its teeming crowds, high skyscrapers, horse drawn carts and so on. Specific landmarks are combined with generic details and the people are dwarfed by the immense buildings and noise of the great city. The nowhere and everywhere  quality of New York can be felt and we see how Bellows is simultaneously an abstract and realist artist.  Another of his preoccupations was the clandestine world of wrestling. At the time public fighting was outlawed so private clubs would circumvent the state ban and organise brutal fights behind closed doors.  Bellows’ outstanding “Stag at Sharkeys” is his signature masterpiece. Here the incredible power of the human body as the two fighters contort themselves and pit themselves against each other is poignant. One can almost feel and smell the sweat and the blood and hear the shouts of the audience. The red, white and pink of the flesh is gory and compete with the delighted and intense expressions of the crowds watching. Bellows was always experimenting with art and the naked human body was one of the forms he wanted to master as well as the underlying theme of human violence.

Stag at Sharkeys, George Bellows

            Intermingled with these various landscapes of city life are beautiful, poetic paintings that celebrate life and society. One such is Bellows’ depiction of a rainy and wet landscape in “Rain on River” and a small painting entitled “The Big Dory” where we see a picture of a rocky beach on which nine men heave a beautifully painted fishing boat into the water. There are details such as the blue hill in the background and the stormy sky but centre stage is the boat which spans almost the whole painting. Here we have working men in the beauty of natural landscape. Similarly evocative is his painting depicting well to do “New Yorkers in Central Park” where the colours and joyful aspect of the people are recorded. Moreover the mood of the exhibition changes greatly in the last room of the exhibition as we see family paintings and portraits in his later years. One such is an eerily still portrait of his wife, Emma Storey, in a stunning deep blue gown in “Emma at the Piano”. Her gaze stares back at us in a hard to decipher gaze as if we are interrupting her and yet there is an intimacy between the muse and the painter that is almost tangible. He once said to her “Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work”. One of my favourite paintings in the whole collection painting “The Picnic” where we see Bellows and his family and friend enjoying a picnic on the shores of the lake in Woodstock; a rural art colony where they used to go to take their holidays. The colours are heightened and the mood is dreamlike and idylic evoking a peaceful and naturally beautiful haven. In this sense Bellows reveals the scope of his artistic range as we see how different these paintings are in comparison to his wrestlers or grimy, powerful city landscapes
Emma at the Piano, 1914, George Bellows

            The show is quite small and won’t take you long to finish and in it are great masterpieces and works of art evoking New York at its grittiest and society in all walks of life. Tragically Bellows died at the young age of 42 from peritonitis cutting short what was an amazing career and full life.

-         By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

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