George Bellows A Re-evaluation Too Far – Royal Academy London

In the world of academia there is a phenomenon known as ‘critical re-evaluation’.  This is where an artist that time has forgot for one reason or another is taken up and championed until people think that artist was great after all. This seems to happen most often with women or artists from ethnic minorities, based on the (often bang-on) assumption they were written out of ‘The Great Tradition’ by default because the writers of history were rich white men who only appreciated the work of rich white men.

There can also be other reasons of course. Commercial reasons or changes in aesthetic taste can set off a critical re-evaluation – El Greco, for example, is only really great after Cubism and Expressionism ‘proved’ him to be a visionary by happening themselves, as opposed to being a weird, anachronistically post-Byzantine painter during the High Renaissance. For George Bellows, whose exhibition at the Royal Academy begins with asserting he was very popular in his time but was subsequently out-shone by his also-American contemporary Edward Hopper, one doesn’t quite know what it is that has prompted this re-evaluation but my guess is a mix of commercial reasons and unrealistic American patriotism. Thus the mission of the TERRA Foundation for American Art, lobbyists for ‘historic’ American art, who have also supported ‘Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch’ at the National Gallery – a selection of boring landscapes significant only for being of America: ‘The Terra Foundation for American Art was established in 1978 by businessman, art collector, and cultural ambassador Daniel J. Terra (1911–1996) who thought the art of the United States was a dynamic and powerful expression of the nation’s history and identity.’ Nowhere does their website say it is any good.

The ego at work here seems to be that of the false memory of a now extremely artistically prolific country. In George Bellows’ time, however, the best way for an American to pursue a career in the arts was to take the first boat to Europe. America back then was seen as Qatar is now – a money-making powerhouse with no museums, where the first of the inessentials to acquire was olde-worlde European culture. The Frick was opened in 1913. Most of the attraction of George Bellows, therefore, must be that he never left the United States, just as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are occasionally slandered for turning European as opposed to the resolutely American William Carlos Williams. As Bill says to Jake in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (1926) (and Hemingway writes with his tongue in his cheek): “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.” America based its art on ‘fake European standards’ basically until the CIA threw money at Jackson Pollock.

George Bellows did not hang around in cafés. He was out there, painting gritty New York scenes as New York was being built. He painted American landscapes, sleazy underground boxing clubs, and middle-aged women who are Victorian despite a lack of monarch. He had limited contact with the painters the RA claims to have inspired him: Velasquez, Manet and Goya, seeing some in reproduction as well as (presumably) reproductions of the latest Impressionist painting.

It is perhaps because of this lack of contact that Bellows never quite gets the hang of what they were really doing. His real problem is in the finish. The compositions are strong, or at least have precedent, but on the portrait side of things he always avoids the technical challenges that Velasquez is great for solving: precise portrayal of eyes and mouth to create character; feet and hands, accurately drawn in any position, to contribute a humane mood and interest to the composition;, and the difficulty of getting the far side of the head to convincingly wrap rearwards around the three-dimensional head when the model is ¾ profile. In the first room we see Bellows shirk dealing with eyes and mouth altogether (Sargent, an expat, quipped that portraiture is “something wrong with the mouth” to emphasise their difficulty), giving us dark black splodges for pupils and in ‘Nude Girl’ (1909) smudging the far corner of the mouth with impasto so badly the entire far side of her head comes forward almost onto the picture plane.

Bellows was 27 when he painted this, and not quite out of art school, so in some ways it is unfair to go so strongly at an ‘emerging artist’ (as he would now be called), but the problem is that the American public at the time, desperate for something to happen near them, clapped Bellows in dollars and proclaimed him visionary, like Britain did with Britpop: that slightly heart-wrenching way that town hall meetings accidentally promise themselves a new dawn that will never come. It is the sadness of something small hoping it is important.

This fame seems to have resulted in Bellows not really bothering ever to really solve the problems facing a painter of the human figure. His extremely odd wartime work, such as ‘Massacre at Dinant’ (1918) – swallowing outlandish propaganda reports of German World War I cruelties hook line and sinker, and based on an Early Renaissance type of symmetry is less naturalistic than Masaccio (apart from when it looks like Edward Hopper). Masaccio struggled with feet too, but not as much as Bellows.

He also can’t paint water. The late portraits are similarly disastrous. The only remarkable head in the show is to be found on the left of ‘Elinor, Jean and Anna’ (1920). ‘Emma at the Piano’ (1914), a portrait of his long term muse and wife is passable sub-Renoir with an elbow 8/10 of the way up her right arm. His problem his simply that he doesn’t really understand modelling 3D form in a 2D medium. And he doesn’t look Impressionistic, he looks unfinished. Where he tries to subtly suggest volume in the figure he over-works it into oblivion. Instead of subtle changes of tone in modelling the figure he relies on dynamic lines; essentially unfit for the purpose of classical portraiture, which requires a certain delicacy.

This is arguably because he never stopped being an illustrator. His first wish was to be a commercial illustrator for newspapers in New York, and he is fantastic at that. Where he can rely on line – as in his commercial lithographs and WW I prints after Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series (1820, recently shown in the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Death’ exhibit) – Bellows is on home turf, and succeeds. He is similarly apt at street scenes that feature skyscrapers, space, and stick men. He also occasionally has a kind of meandering curve he uses for hills.

His illustrative, dynamic, expressive line found its only stand-out painterly use in the paintings of underground boxing matches, and these are what the RA leans on. The powerful, energetic lines are perfectly suited to capturing the bloodied energy and speed of underground boxing rings. Similar energy is in the hatching found in the lithographs.

Unfortunately, Bellows decided he wanted to be a genre painter rather than a painter of ‘Modern American Life’, as the show’s subtitle has it. The boxing paintings are an accidental blip in the career of an American painter who only found a way to paint America, rather than finding a truly American way to paint. As TERRA points out, Bellows is ‘a dynamic and powerful expression of the nation’s history and identity’, but not one of good painting. This is chiefly an American History exhibit.

Bellows is a painter and a human being, but is distinctly amateurish at the former. For the dignity of the latter we acknowledge his efforts, but we also must think of ourselves. Bellows isn’t awful, but most people aren’t really – most people are average, that’s why it’s called average -, and as we only go through this life once we are necessarily limited as to what we can take in. If you are set on seeing what was happening in art from 1882-1925, I would advise you to look at France, Spain or Russia, as well as the earlier painters that Bellows is a worse copy of. If your interests are in what was happening in 1910s New York, you should be looking at what was happening in New York (and perhaps you are already, in which case I regret not putting this at the beginning for your sakes). Maybe back in 1882-1925 when we didn’t know what was going to happen Bellows would be worth a look-see, but history is rattling by and is only getting longer, which makes his a re-evaluation too far. There is a lot more important than George Bellows, like keeping the RA in profit. Go to see Manet twice.

*** – 3 Stars

Image: George Bellows, ‘Stag at Sharkey’s’ (1909), Oil on canvas, 92 x 122.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection. © The Cleveland Museum of Art.

George Bellows: ‘Modern American Life’ is at The Royal Academy of Arts, 16 March – 9 June 2013.

Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2013

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