Saturday 11 April 2015


Royal Academy, London

The latest in a long series of behind-time art exhibition reviews, in both senses of that word. It is, if any recompense, part of a short series on Modernist art and the city

”Here is a slice of New York... It is not pretty... When you paint a crab-apple don't paint us a luscious peach”
- New York Sun review of Bellows, 1909

George Bellows was part of the Ashcan School, a loose association of early Twentieth century American artists, who chose to paint contemporary subjects in an immediate style. Robert Hughes has said of them that they “wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter”. Indeed, his career essentially began with his move to New York City in 1904.

Street-Level Views

The immediacy begins pretty much immediately. For the first room is given over to his ink and charcoal drawings, and its notable how when his oils show up how little they depart from these. Its not just that they display the same roughness and vibrancy, they even retain the limited and quite sombre palettes.

For example, 'Forty-two Kids' (1907, above) is made up of shades of brown and blue-green, the frame divided in diagonal halves between these two dominant colours. The children's flesh is neither healthily tanned nor cleanly white, but somewhat sickly shades of orangey brown. The nudity, the array of both lolling and frolicking figures, these suggest at some bucolic nature scene. But this palette and the broken-up jetty on which they hang out quite deliberately vie with this, and make it clear this is not just an urban but a downtown scene. While the word “kids” in the title might seem innocuous to us, the vernacular term would have told a contemporary audience these were the poor children of newly arrived immigrants. Children swim in the public pool because they have a nickel. Kids made do with this.
At five feet across, 'New York' (1911, up top) is undertaken with a truly American sense of scale. Even today, to those of us who passed through the bustle of central London to get to the gallery, it's strikingly metropolitan. There's a quite rigid dividing line across the middle of the picture, skyscrapers above separated from the teeming figures below. The upper section is almost vertiginous, the sweeping buildings not just ascending but the street receding into the distance. While the lower section is almost claustrophobic, a cacophony of horizontal motion, with not one of the many figures looking up to the sights above them. That should be a street interchange in the middle distance, but instead of a neat switching mechanism its a convulsive jumble. We thereby see uptown and downtown in one cross section, just as horse-pulled carts coexist with buses.
”...a kettle forever on the boil... almost everything is aggressively man-made, a great interlocking of forces at war with each other... it is hard to look at any part of this painting because you see it all at once in all its razzmatazz, splashily impressionistic vigour, a cityscape that presses back at you, the rush and the clamour of it all, the seethe of humanity, that sense of being trapped, pent on a small and relatively narrow island where the only direction the buildings can go is up, and then up.”
This time it's not just an image of Lower East Side residents, top-hatted toffs co-exist with broom-pushing workmen on the street. But it's from the perspective of the poor blocks. The towering buildings seem canyons to the lowly footsore immigrants, as much as Monument Valley did to the pioneers of John Ford films. Though he didn't come from this bottom-rung background, it's probably important that Bellows wasn't a native New Yorker. He had to see those soaring skyscrapers and teeming streets with an outsider's eye, the better to convey them to the rest of us.
And the style and execution is as important as the imagery. The Ashcan School tended to progressive politics (Bellows himself largely moving in anarchist and libertarian-left circles). And in many ways we see the almost journalistic style we most associate with politically committed art – this is like reportage, someone setting down what they see. But the roughness of execution and impassioned thickness of the paint draws attention to its existence as a painting, leading to a creative tension.
It's not a perspective from any real place, it's an assemblage Bellows has put together to convey his point. As with 'Forty-two Kids' there's no intra-picture explanation for the vantage point. We're too high to be on the street among those hurried figures, in fact we feel slightly removed from them. Yet there's no suggestion of a window, or any location which would allow us to look down. In the language of art, that's often shorthand for seeing things from the perspective of the artist.

Though Bellows painted New York in different seasons he perhaps most excelled at winter scenes, to the point where he could have been crowned King of Cold. 'Men of the Docks' (1912, above) powerfully evokes the sense of air that bites - its skyscrapers blurring into the sky by the frozen equivalent of a heat haze, the slash of an icy blue river before them. It somehow looks vivid and muted at the same time, as if the cold has leeched the colour from it. The huddled figures are just distant enough that their features start to emerge but never quite resolve, pitched between ciphered representations of the working man and actual subjects. One steps away from the others to take a slash out in the open.
Why the fixation with weather? Of course, as an island, New York's weather does tend to extremes so Bellows was simply painting what was there. But there's more. Take this quote from Upton Sinclair's 1906 Chicago-set novel 'The Jungle':
”...each season had its trials, as they found. In the spring there were cold rains, that turned the streets into canals and bogs; the mud would be so deep that wagons would sink up to the hubs, so that half a dozen horses could not move them. Then, of course, it was impossible for any one to get to work with dry feet; and this was bad for men that were poorly clad and shod, and still worse for women and children. Later came midsummer, with the stifling heat... a very purgatory; one time, in a single day, three men fell dead from sunstroke... with the sun beating down, and the air motionless, the stench was enough to knock a man over...”
Both share the conceit that so harsh is city life that the very weather becomes exacerbated.

In a rapidly changing city, Bellows often painted scenes of construction, such as 'The Lone Tenement' (1909) or 'Pennsylvania Station Excavation' (1909, above). These tend to evoke the same sense of the industrial sublime as Turner before him, the built environment seen with the same sense of stupefied awe as nature. Unlike Turner there is an element of critique of the industrial in Bellows' work. With it's monumental gothic towers, it's plumes of fire and smoke and its dwarfed figures this scene has been described as “infernal”. And yet if its not fully celebrated its presented as an unstoppable transforming force.
The historian Henry Adams said of this time:“Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder has exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steel against the sky.”(Quoted in Jackson Lears' 'New York Knock Out', Royal Academy magazine 118, alas not currently available on-line.)
Pugilistic Painting

And this mention of power takes us to 'Stag At Sharkeys' (1908), perhaps the most famous of Bellow's work. It can be best understood by comparing it to the earlier and more conventional 'Club Night' (1907, both above). In 'Stag' the figures are more grotesquely distorted in what the show describes as “vigorous and slashing brushwork”, faces anonymised and only partly visible. They look to be morphing together even as they fight against one another. We're placed as if within the audience, semi-silhouetted heads bobbing up before us. The fighters are then lit as though they are the light source, an explosion of action at the centre of the frame. There's pre-echoes of Francis Bacon's morphing, fractious forms.
Boxing was then officially banned in New York, permitted only in private clubs. Like prohibition later, part of the attraction became the illicit, and toffs would thrill to rub shoulders with the common folk. The ruddy face at the right fighter's foot looks noticeably urbane rather than urban. (Doubtless at least some of Bellow's fans would have gained a similar frisson from seeing this work.) Unlike all the previous examples this is an interior. And yet it still seems to stand for the city, the war of each against all, a perpetual struggle with no possible victor.
The cartoonist Art Speigelman coined the tongue-in-cheek expression “two-fisted painters” and, with pun intended, this seems an ideal description of Bellows. There's something insistently masculine in his art, evident in every picture cited already, which is merely brought further to the fore by this bruising image. While nature can be gendered as female, even when its not being 'soft' or nurturing, the rough edges of the city are always made male. But Bellows is not just depicting the man-made, his art looks man-made - not just like it has come from a man but from someone who stridently (if mot necessarily consciously) identifies as male. There's an exulting in roughness, which may make this the perfect subject matter.
The result is an almost archetypically American paradox at the heart of Bellows' art - he is exposing the harshness of New York life for the poor, while simultaneously revelling in the strength of those who can withstand that harshness. Bellows and New York are the boxers, forever caught in that mix of struggle and embrace. As Peter Conrad said, writing in the Guardian:
”...he painted the city as a site where, as his mentor Robert Henri said, 'the battle of human evolution is going on'. The weather does its best to massacre his New Yorkers, tormenting them with frigid winters and suffocating summers; their response to the vital challenge is to show off the mettlesome resilience of the human animal.”
(See also Jackson Leers' use of Roosevelt's reference to “the strenuous life”.) If this is a bold and somewhat daunting new world, it has bold and somewhat daunting people in it.

Nature Tamed And Wild

Given that the sublimity of the natural and of the urban environment aren't just analogous but interdependent, it's not entirely surprising that Bellows also made 'wild nature' paintings - particularly through trips he made to Monegan island off Maine. In 'An Island in the Sea' (1911) the frighteningly stark sea barely separates from the sky, with the island a dominant and menacing block of blackness. Cottage and boats in the lower foreground are as dwarfed as the working men in 'Pennsylvania Station Excavation'. 'Forth & Back' (1913, both above) is almost an action shot, a close-up of the sea striking the shore. Had Sharkey's been like this, he'd have just painted the blow.

Perhaps more surprising to come across are what were dubbed the 'leisure views' – less the ravages of wild nature and more society scenes relocated outdoors. 'Love of Winter' (1914, above) has a title you'd find hard to imagine shifted to 'Men of the Docks'. Though its very similar in composition to 'New York', the skating figures move as consolidated mass. The pure white snow forms a clean background to frame the bright reds and mustard yellows of the smart coats of the foreground figures. Working men stopping to take a leak seem absent. There's something almost Bruegel about the quiet celebration of it all. Winter becomes a social activity, not a chill to your bones.

The Ash Canners typically identified themselves against the Impressionists, who seemed too aestheticised, too European. Yet 'Snow-Capped River' (1911) uses their bright colours, even down to the patented purple-tinged snow. It doesn't just show their influence, it reproduces them at their prettiest. Perhaps significantly, you'd search in vain for a female face among the workingmen of 'Men of the Docks' or the nude urchins of 'Forty-two Kids', while women and girls are foregrounded here. Yet, for all the oddness of their co-existence with Stag At Sharky's' and 'New York' and for all their comparative unoriginality, it should be said these are in themselves strong works. All of which, alas, was to change...
Atrocious Wars
Though opposition to the First World War was virtually a default position among American Leftists, Bellows soon abandoned his former comrades to produce a series of anti-German paintings. The most likely explanation for this would be that he fell for something of a dodgy dossier. The Bryce Report aka the 'Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages', released in 1915, did much to marshall American public opinion for intervention. While the Report should not be seen as mere black propaganda, it seems to have instilled a feedback loop to lucidless frenzy in Bellows' mind. It's not that they're propaganda images hitched to an enlistment drive. You could as well say that Grosz and Heartfield dealt in propaganda images, and lack of nuance didn't stop them being two of the greatest artists of this era. It's not that they take a xenophobic and pro-war position. However disappointing that might be it wouldn't necessarily mar their aesthetic quality. Its simpler. Bellows' war atrocity pictures... frankly, they're atrocious.

For example, 'The Barricade' (1918, above) takes the allegation the German army used Belgian human shields and goes from there to depict the civilians as naked. The preposterous and histrionic image falls into a kind of uncanny valley - not realistic enough to be real, too cliched to be symbolic. The outstretched poses of the nudes might suggest Bellows is groping towards some kind of Classicism, echoed by the foliage in the background. Perhaps he thought appropriating such tropes might grant his pro-war message authority. If so, it didn't work very well.
Washed Up In Woodstock
Wikipedia gives the Ashcan school a short lifespan, dating it's end to the arrival of Modernism on America shores with the 1913 Armoury show exhibition. (“Their rebellion was over not long after it had begun. It was the fate of the Ashcan realists to be seen by many art lovers as too radical in 1910 and, by many more, as old-fashioned by 1920.”) Which may seem unduly neat, but stings of the truth. Bellows compounds this by choosing 1920 to move to smalltown Woodstock. And you can't help feeling this resolves an age-old question – when you take the boy out of New York, you do take New York out of the boy. As with Duncan Grant repairing to Charleston, rural relocation blew out the spark.

In this period he continually produces works reminiscent of earlier achievements, which are just inferior echoes – as if he'd become his own copyist. For example, 'Dempsey And Firpo' (1924, above) is another boxing picture. Theoretically it should look more dynamic than 'Stag at Sharky's' - one figure is knocking the other clean out the ring, straight at us. But it feels the opposite. The figures are stiffer, less plasticated and expressive, the victorious puncher sports a strangely dispassionate expression, the front of the crowd reacting more as you would to a summer shower than a hundred and eighty pounds of flesh descending upon you. Above all, the theme of two figures locked in ceaseless battle is lost. It's not a bad work as such, just a more conventional one. You're unsurprised to read in the indicia that by this time boxing had become legalised, and hence a society event. (The earlier lithograph 'Demspey Through the Ropes', 1923, is more effective.)

'The Picnic' (1924) has that slightly lurid quality of painting pressed into service as illustrational art. The skipping girl at the rather refined-looking picnic looks like something from the twee world of 'Alice in Wonderland'. While the hills in the background look ominous less from the edging darkness but from weather which seems unable to make its mind up.
Peter Conrad comments: “The later works in the show are dire: portraits of rich crones, fluffy socialites and their obnoxious lapdogs, plus some magic-realist landscapes that are too fancifully magical to be realistic. When Bellows died in 1925, aged only 42, Edmund Wilson praised his appetite for ugliness; but by then he had acquired a taste for beauty.”
Harsh, Peter Conrad, but fair. Yet if Bellows' truly productive career was brief and chiefly confined to the New York streets, when he was hitting he hit with an impact. He was the right artist for the right time, the right place. His works from the Nineteen Hundred and Tens still strike us, a century or more later.

Coming soon! Most likely something else before the second of these...

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