Thursday, September 5, 2013

"George Bellows and the American Experience" at the Columbus Museum of Art

The Columbus Museum of Art is proud of having the world's best collection of  George Bellows, a native son of this city, born in 1882. Visitors to George Bellows and the American Experience, running through January 4, 2014, will understand that the city claims the great artist not merely by virtue of an address at which he dwelt before achieving consciousness of the world beyond his toes. 

George Bellows, Portrait of My Father, 1906. Oil on canvas,
Unframed: 28 3/8 x 22 in.
Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of Howard B. Monett

The first gallery of this spectacular show documents Bellows' Columbus childhood and youth through photographs, clippings, and notebooks. He connived a way to disqualify himself from completing Ohio State so he could study art in New York, but the show displays many of his drawings and illustrations for Ohio State publicity and publications. Bellows played baseball and basketball for the Buckeyes and signed up to be rushed by fraternities—an unpleasant experience commemorated in edgy lithographs. James Thurber recognized Bellows as a presence  on campus.

Bellows painted commissioned portraits of a former Ohio State president and two eminent faculty members. On his own initiative he did a magnificent portrait of William Oxley Thompson, the president at the time. Though the University refused it because of the asking price, it won the portrait prize of the National Academy of Design in 1914. The painting eventually made its way to OSU anyway—to the William Oxley Thompson Library.

So Columbus claimed Bellows, and he claimed Columbus back. But when it comes down to it, we can make only a modest case that ties the spirit of so vast an artist to this place. If George Bellows and the American Experience has anything to demonstrate, it's Bellows'  magnitude and depth. We are shown how he puts his mastery of oil painting to use for a broad array of realistic subjects, from portraiture to cityscape, landscape and seascape, to social commentary, and sports. He paints tenement dwellers cooling on city docks and society mavens slumming it at banned boxing matches. His dramatic ocean views and his scenes of teeming New York streets are painted from the same almost divine heights. His portraits of his father, his wife and children, of famous men and street urchins are all delivered with equal spark and conviction of dignity. Bellows' command of color and painting technique run the gamut from almost entirely abstract (Polo at Lakewood, 1910to highly refined family portraits in the '20s.

Bellows lived only to the age of forty-three (he died in 1925), yet his painting alone has in it the sense of discovery and the range of a five or six-decade career—and not as in a single trajectory, but as occasion, invention, or spirit appear to have invited him to paint.

George Bellows, Polo at Lakewood, 1910. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 45.25 x 63.5." Columbus Museum of Art,
Columbus Art Association Purchase.
Polo at Lakewood is an immense canvas at almost four feet high and over six feet wide. If you can imagine standing in front of this image at that size, then imagine what brush strokes and daubs of paint form the cluster of women in the lower right corner, it won't take long to realize that they exist because they are fashioned as much from our expectations as from paint. On canvas, they are literally only a few unadorned, barely separated strokes of paint. But then, so is the whole painting. Shape, scale, placement, judicious use of light and dark: Those create action, drama, atmosphere, and time. The portrait of the artist's father, above, was painted in three hours; here, Bellows creates the illusion that the scene wasn't painted at all, but captured from the inside out—from its pounding heart—in the blink of an eye.

Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909. Oil on canvas, 36-3/16 x 48-1/4." The Cleveland Museum of Art. Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection 1133.1922.
As an athlete and as a painter drawn to every aspect of life as he found it, Bellows often drew and painted the action at the prizefighting club across the street from his New York. Prizefighting was illegal at the time and was promoted only at membership clubs like Sharkey's, so the lowlife subject was daring to begin with, and his painting of the entire scene dazzling. The entangled athletes composed of opposing forces and angles; the creation of immediate space with the ropes cutting across the action above our point of view and the backs of heads at our level; the blood-lust on the red faces opposite—we are almost sickeningly there. The dark, roiling sea of heads, the raw mountain of fighting flesh, and the stable island created by the ring: Add to these the magnificence of the composition with the hurricane of the emotion and movement, and we can begin to understand the impact this painting must have had in 1909. Stand in front of it today and feel your breath come shorter. How did you get in this situation? It's mesmerizing and appalling; real, tactile, and fleshy— so far beyond the stylized, technical violence we're used to as entertainment.
George Bellows, Blue Snow,The Battery,1910. Oil on canvas, unframed 34 x 44."
Columbus Museum of Art, Howald Fund Purchase.

Encouraged by his teacher, Robert Henri, to use the city as inspiration, Bellows responded to everything he saw. His canvases tend to communicate the teeming aspect of the city, its crowded abundance, its muscle, its individuals in anonymous environments. But in George Bellows and the American Experience we sense that he for the most part painted directly what he saw: If his paintings are packed with people, it's because that's what he found. In the case of "Blue Snow, The Battery," the vast snowfield at day's end, crisscrossed by home-bound workers is as genuine as it is breathtaking. 

I mention my sense of the scene's reality since the painting is so masterful a study in blue: Can such color occur in the real world? Can the tired end of a working day—can the mundane—be filled with such an otherworldly beauty? This is an essential question about Bellows, it seems: To what extent are his paintings transformative of perceived reality? Was this surpassingly beautiful blue vista there to be seen? I'm keeping my eyes open for others like it, to see what Bellows was alive to.
George Bellows, New York,1911. Oil on canvas. Overall: 42 x 60."
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1986.72.1

New York depicts the same city, further uptown at the height of the business day. This isn't a day at the track, like Polo at Longwood. But more like Stag at Sharkey's, it's a scene  where Bellows studies action and resistance. Crowds of people lean into their brisk forward motion, in the foreground and in the midground at the base of the park. The stolid horses and fully loaded carts head in the opposite direction, upright and stalled. 

The tension of stop-and-go; the patchwork of dull colors among patchwork vertical and horizontal forms create a metallic puzzle in which humans strive. Yet Bellows keeps the painting lively with the brilliant flashes of light (the distant park; the near right corner bathed in a sunbeam) and color (the red-caped woman in the foreground, whose bright figure explodes the painting's sober palette). Though his technique is not quite as sketchy as in Polo at Longwood, this crammed, traffic-jammed city view is painted with similar suggestive, brisk technique: Very little is identified by more than a stroke or two. The whole world is suggested by size, placement, color, and direction of brushstrokes. Yet it is another masterpiece of realism.

George Bellows, Riverfront No. 1, 1915. Oil on canvas
Unframed: 45 3/8 x 63 1/8 in.
Columbus Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, Howald Fund

In this wonderful painting of the city's poor boys at their bathing beach—the riverfront docks—on a hot day, Bellows once again takes a low-life subject and exalts it with colors from a jewel box. The intensity of the blues; the extreme paleness of the boys' bodies; the explosive effect of the red hair and bathing suit turn our attention to the aesthetic aspects of the painting and divert it from the subject. Riverfront No. 1 struck me as a shift, in which Bellows' has stepped over a line he has been testing all along, that of revealing subjects with his painting, or vice versa. Neither this nor anything I've seen of his could be counted other than realist work, but there's a different emphasis, with less focus on the subject matter per se. Notes in the show explain Bellows' response to the 1913 Armory show bringing new directions from Europe; such emphasis on brilliant, saturated color had to have been one he responded to. 

For all of Bellows' prowess and experimentation as a painter, the Columbus show does not allow us to forget that he was the foremost lithographer of his day. In his work I see plenty that places him in honored comparison with Goya and Daumier, whose social and political passions were aggressively delineated on the litho stone. 

The scope of Bellows' subjects is broad, but the point of view is always sharp and satirical, or compassionate where little kindness is otherwise to be had. An obvious subject for satire was the art critical establishment. Although he took that world by storm, every professional deals with an establishment that wishes to be questioned by no one at all and considered supremely authoritative by all.
George Bellows, Artists Judging Works of Art (First State),1916. Lithograph. 
Unframed:14 5/8 x 19 in. Columbus Museum of Art, Howald Fund Purchase
In this print we again face a teeming world, something we find in Bellows' painting in association with the city's poor and underclass. Portraits set notable people apart. Masses are the opposite, depicting no one of particular account. Like other satirical printmakers, he puts individuals in grotesque and uncouth poses that reflect no self-awareness. "Judge not..." and so forth.

Bellows also depicts throngs of the unfortunate, in whose images he calls forth  compassion or indignation. The incarcerated insane are guilty of nothing but the misfortune of illness or trauma and are due nothing but our empathy, however peculiar and distressing their manners may be to us. In Dance in a Madhouse, Bellows 
George Bellows, Dance in a Madhouse, 1917, Lithograph.
Image: 18 1/4 x 24 1/4 in., Framed: 32 x 42 in.
Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. George S. Munson

drew on his memory of just such an occasion, when he visited an insane asylum in Columbus with a friend whose mother was a matron there. The print shows a remarkable range of facial expressions. These reflect Bellows' great sensitivity to both the many frames of mind of the inhabitants, as well as to the ways visitors might react to them: with fear, compassion, or contempt. The vaulted shadow of the room impresses with a sense of doom that weighs down even the few instances of benign good spirits visible on inmate faces. It's worth noting similarities between the  angular postures of the dancers and the two critics in the left foreground of Artists Judging Works of Art. 

Another throng of inmates are the prisoners being blessed in Benediction in Georgia. One holds his head like the madwoman in the madhouse, evidently in utter despair. Where the asylum scene stirs strong feeling and every possible mixed emotion about the mad, this prison scene seems pointedly to enlist our sympathies for the prisoners, doomed to listen to
George Bellows,Benediction in Georgia (Second State), 1916. Lithograph.
Image: 16 1/8 x 20 in., Framed: 24 x 30 in. (Wood)
Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of Friends of Art
empty words of uplift from the respectable white preacher who can't keep even the seated guard upright. While the preacher's face is obscured, Bellows gives us poignant portraits of the several prisoners' strong faces, humanizing them and granting them intelligence. Hunched and shackled, with a world of space above them, we are urged to wonder about respectability's war on poverty, necessity, and race.

These three lithographs, like many in the show and like many of Bellows' paintings of New York City, are full of people. Through these scenes of masses he can call on a variety of emotions and tell a lot of stories, nearly always multi-faceted and complex. The White Hope is unusually blunt and single-minded in its satire. It makes me wonder if race was not an issue about which Bellows had particularly militant views. (Probably someone has written about this.) In Benediction in Georgia, all of the prisoners are Black. This would no doubt have been the case, as it very well may be today. But Bellows is careful in his depictions of faces, granting nobility to each, in contrast to the treatment of the guard at the desk, and the obscurity of the preacher. 

George Bellows, The White Hope,1921. Lithograph. Image: 15 1/8 x 
19 in., Unframed. Columbus Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, 
Mrs. H.B. Arnold Memorial Fund
In The White Hope, there are only three figures, two fighters and a referee. Unlike his custom in prizefighting paintings, Bellows does not bring our attention to the spectators who reflect the struggle: There is no struggle. The white fighter is down for the count, sitting in a posture of humiliated resignation. The Black boxer stands above him with an expression of cautious puzzlement—it's not fury or aggression on his brow.

The triangular composition is very simple, with the head of the Black contestant on the top and the folded legs and arms of the beaten "white hope" at the bottom. It can't get a lot simpler in any sense, so Bellows' anti-racist message is as clear as possible. His image is a single knockout blow.

Though the world—and the CMA giftshop—are filled with books about Bellows, I still regret that there is not a catalogue devoted to this particular show. It's high in didactic content and it would be wonderful to have a document and notes on the singular assembly of major works on loan from museums across the country. Still, all the more reason to plan to see the show before January, and to leave enough time to spend a few hours. George Bellows was a genius and every work in the show stops you in your tracks.

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