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The Columbus Museum of Art’s current show on George Bellows starts with cartoons and drawings he did for the Ohio State University yearbook while barely out of his teens. Bellows began drawing what he saw around him at an early age – first, sketching trains and parades for neighbors, and then as an OSU student, campus subjects such as a fraternity hazing and a prom-bound couple. The impulse to “report with a paintbrush” (and later with the lithographic crayon) stayed with him his entire artistic life, which spanned the first quarter of the 20th century.
A Columbus native, Bellows made his mark in New York City, joining a circle of artists led by the realist painter and teacher Robert Henri who broke out of the mold of academic art that dominated polite Victorian society. In a city teeming with new immigrants and the construction of office buildings, train terminals, and subways, Bellows found a rich array of subjects for his paintings. The subjects that attracted Bellows’ interest included portraits of people he happened upon walking the streets, swimmers packed into a riverside beach, a bustling downtown intersection, and a man seated with his dog at his feet.
George Bellows and the American Experience, showcases the museum’s Bellows collection and follows recent retrospectives on the artist in New York and London. The show demonstrates the range of Bellows’ talents as a painter of street scenes, landscapes, and portraits, and as a lithographer. Four full rooms organize the work thematically around his formative years as a caricaturist, along with his portraiture; New York City scenes; landscapes and seascapes in Maine; and lithographs.
The observer-artist was at his best in his painting Snow Dumpers (1911), in which a crew of laborers under city supervision dumps snow into the East River. The horse drawn carts, backed to the edge of the river, are obscured in the early morning shadows. Only one elaborately drawn animal, along with three of the city employees, are illuminated. The layering of the scene, from foreground to background – snow, horse carts, river, buildings – its light and dark contrasts, and the blend of the clearly articulated and muted figures – show Bellows’ mastery of composition, color and brushwork.
Two years after Snow Dumpers, and nine years after Bellows arrived in New York, the Armory Show of 1913 turned the art world upside down. The artistic revolution brewing in Europe, encompassing the new isms – Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism – came to America, dividing artists and shocking the public.
Bellows did not share the views of Marcel Duchamp, the French artist associated with Dadaism, and other artists who wanted to jettison realism. Bellows above all wanted to be free of constraint – for his approach to be dictated by the needs of the subject, not by dogma or tradition. He associated with a cluster of experimental artists known as the Ashcan School who conducted their own revolution of sorts – shedding the conventions of the National Academy of Design and portraying with honesty and directness the people and scenes of New York.
Bellows’ style could be literal and his brushwork detailed, as in the intimate portrait of his wife and two daughters, Emma and Her Children (1923) or it could be quick and snapshot-like as New York (1911), in which a few quick touches of the brush form faces and building features.
His painting of Monhegan Island in Maine, An Island in the Sea (1911), is one of a handful of landscapes that ventures toward abstraction. The island and the coastal rocks, painted with thick black brushstrokes, with accents of gray, seem as heavy as lumps of coal, engulfed in the greenish, waning light of the morning or late afternoon. The painting suggests Bellows’ instinctive understanding of the way light reflects and of the movement of the tides.
His work could have bite, as does Lone Tenement (1909), whose somber tone and minimally described figures underscore the desolation, if only temporary, caused by the construction of Penn Station. He could equally be exuberant, as in his fluid rendering of a packed crowd of swimmers in Riverfront, No. 1 (1915). Bellows harnessed elements of abstraction selectively, but never adopted it as a full-blown style as did his contemporary, Georgia O’Keefe.
Charles Brock, Associate Curator of American and British Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., speaking at a symposium on Bellows at the CMA in November, said because of the diversity of his work, Bellows is hard to classify. “He doesn’t fit into any neat artistic narratives,” Brock said. Although he documented the life of the lower classes, Brock said, it would be hard to say Bellows did so in order to challenge the social order. In his unfettered examination of life in his times, he touched on issues such as religion, fraternity hazing, and violence in sports. Brock said, “A lot of things he brings up in his work are still issues today.”
Even while his work focused on New York City and the East Coast, Bellows maintained his connection with Columbus, returning to visit his parents and friends. When he was in Columbus, he painted. His portrait of his mother at age 83, painted in 1920 (Portrait of My Mother, No. 1), is one of Bellows’ best pieces, evoking a gentle and kind quality. He again uses to good effect the technique of illuminating flesh – her face and hands in this case – in a darkened space.
A lesser known facet of the museum’s collection of Bellows’ work – recognized as the best in the world – is its holding of lithographs. Bellows’ affinity for printmaking, given his skill at drawing, is immediately apparent in scenes ranging from a playful one at a beach (Legs at the Sea, 1921), to a series of grim renderings of German atrocities during World War I. Its hard from our current perspective not to see these as propagandistic pieces, but the museum’s helpful wall placards tell us they were motivated purely by a fierce anger. In its graphic violence, The Return of the Useless (1918), showing German soldiers herding a ragged bunch of prisoners from a train, suggests sympathy with the oppressed and a hatred of violence. Looking at prints by Bellows such as one depicting the popular evangelist Billy Sunday gesturing emphatically before a disparate crowd, reorients us to Bellows’ fundamental skill as a caricaturist.
With the staging of two international shows, and now Columbus weighing in, it seems appropriate to ask where Bellows stands among the realist artists, and, for that matter, among all artists of his generation. Vividness and imagination come most clearly to mind when thinking of Bellows. Not only was he able to gather up a scene in his mind, picking out the most interesting elements, but was able to translate that nutshell into color and light in a most convincing way.
That he could tell it as it is – go places and report with an unbiased bent toward truth – is born out in his best boxing pieces – works that gained him international fame. Especially in these paintings Bellows broke through the conventional mode of thinking about artists as effete intellectuals who painted pristine scenes, according to another speaker at the symposium, Randall Griffey, Associate Curator of Modern American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
An avid sportsman who played semi-pro baseball and enjoyed vigorous physical exercise, Bellows felt equally comfortable painting a prize fight or a couple on a lamplit stroll on Riverside Drive. The CMA’s show clearly illustrates that his signature pugilistic portraits are just one indicator of an artistic storytelling ability that was second to none.
George Bellows and the American Experience continues through January 4, 2014.