Tuesday, January 22, 2013

George Bellows

Metropolitan Museum Art

Bellows’ all too short life span of 42 years was fortunately, put to good use. What must have been a gruesome death from a “neglected” attack of appendicitis, abruptly ended his workman-like output at the pinnacle of a prodigious career.
His early mentor Robert Henri provided impetus to become immersed in street life and find inspiration where least expected. In fact, the moniker “Ashcan School” was apparently based on a derogatory observation by a fellow artist commenting on a supposed scene in one of Bellows paintings of trash pickers.
He was painter’s painter, an athletic (he could have become a pro baseball player) and aesthetic prodigy whose art for the most part sustained a lean, yet lushly representational physique.
His early New York City-scapes offer youthful enthusiasm and energetic grit, and are some of his most unencumbered work, raw, yet highly perceptive and well composed. These everyday scenes of street life gain heightened sensation and portend dramatic implications.
The steamy confines of mid summer heat are felt as much as seen in compositions such as “Noon” and “42 Kids”.

  March, 1908
  22in x 28in  

In particular the stark architecture of “Noon” prefigures Franz Kline, while “42 Kids” evokes a Dickens-sonian sense of oppressed humanity striving for release.   

42 Kids
August, 1907  42in x 60in

Although Bellows never visited Europe (I can only imagine what revelations a trip to Italy would have provided had he lived long enough to go) he studied the European masters intently. 
Early portraits such has “Paddy Flannigan” and “Frankie The Organ Boy” channel charged up, Caravaggio-esque distortions, subtly contorting the figurative gesture, as riveting stares emanate from jet black onyx eyes fixated with a pensive, animalistic tension.

Paddy Flannigan
  October, 1908
 30 1/4in x 25in

 Frankie the Organ Boy
 July, 1907
48in x 34 1/4in

“Stag At Sharkey’s” has become a seminal piece of Americana, right up there with American Gothic, Whistler’s Mother, and Nighthawks. This theater of violent gesture and compacted action, personifies a roguish narrative intrinsic to the early 20th century identity of brutally exuberant, and rugged Yankee individualism. The spectacle of pugnacious ballet seen in “Club Night”, confronts us with a tight configuration of pugilists, muscular and torqued, battling as rutting stags might do in combat.

Stag at Sharkey's
 August, 1909
 36 1/4in x 48 1/4in 

Club Night
 August, 1907
 43in x 53in 

The epitome of Bellows cityscapes come to fruition in the excavation scenes centered around the construction of Penn Station. Set at dusk (or dawn?) they establish an enthralling semiotic structure. In “Pennsylvania Station Excavation” streaks of white-ish yellow cloud stain a cerulean washed sky, backlighting a darkened architectural massif.
The mid ground stage set is encrusted with snow; a speck of fire centers the compositional focus, while steam “bellows” from heavy machinery. This expansive spatial volume is littered with curious details invoking a Bruegalian winter tale. The implications for a dramatic storyline are brought together by a saturated chromatic eloquence; Shakespeare could have set a scene here.
Bellows manages to succinctly transcend the literal narrative by immersing his painting in a lusciously earthed, yet ethereal atmosphere. This is one of the most difficult of maneuvers in painting; to represent the intimate fluidly fleeting moment, while embracing a formal, structured resolution of enduring stature. 

  Pennsylvania Station Excavation
31 1/4in x 38 1/4in 

 Excavation at Night
 December, 1908
34in x 44i

Bellows did at times, seem infatuated by 
bucolic fantasies of the bourgeoisie gathering in city parks that fawn over gaily attired swells. This kind of ode to upper crust recreation was better left to Seurat.  
His later portraiture tended to lapse into a conventional “day job” look that may have been the result of commission-itis.  
I also found some of his daytime river scenes over illuminated, flattened out, and fixated on technically obtuse principles of perspective that distracted from, and denuded his natural tendencies toward a freer hand in his draftsmanship. 
Generally I think his darker palette worked more effectively, encouraging more expressive flair.
Although the anti war series of large paintings may at first come off as stiff, they gain credibility has eloquent propaganda posters. Heartfelt and compelling, for political art they sustain an authentic, if static, emotional outrage. 

The Barricade
October, 1918
49 1/8in x 83 1/4in

Bellows true crowning achievement in landscape painting comes to the fore in Maine. The surf scenes from 1913-1914 are the epitome of their ilk. Rooted in Van Gogh and Courbet, they extend into a viscous notion of frothing sea; a deeply glowing gelatinous ocean from which all painterly instinct emerges.
Bellows total mastery of the seascape is apparent in “Churn & Break”. Crashing cobalt pale green waves illuminated by a steak of sun infused fog, subsume a rocky mass saturated by misty wind blown plumes of surf. Their graceful turmoil becomes an elementally elegant metaphor for the psychic interaction of creative intuition and perceptual awareness.    
While nature serves as the medium for these action paintings frozen in time, Bellows sweeping gestures of grandeur are drenched in pigment that becomes indistinguishable from the picture plane’s barometric flux.    

Churn and Break
October, 1913
18in x 22in
Monhegan Island, Maine
18in x 22in

The late landscapes make me pine for what may have come next. Prosaically ornate, they become almost allegorical meditations on country life. Although Bellows reaches the height of his powers as draftsman, these works suggest an unprepossessing manner, similar to the way outsider art can turn a landscape into a muse about time and place without didactic intent.

Lombardy Poplar, House & Mountain (Spring Hills)
 October, 1920
18in x 22in 

There may be aspects to Bellows career that seem anachronistic. Europe was bursting with creative innovation, and abstract art was careening around the corner. Staid realists from the American academy could be viewed askance, backwater bumpkins without much flair.
In the final analysis, perhaps Bellows was a 19th century painter at heart, but there is no doubt that he was also the culmination of a grand tradition. The last gasp really, before the dawn of a new era of non-representational art that would reject the long, tedious road to mastering the craft of representational pictorial supremacy.  

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