George Bellows is hardly known nowadays, but in America in the 1920s he was far more famous than his exact contemporary and friend, Edward Hopper. Hopper’s vision of cinematic stillness and urban alienation has grown ever more popular but Bellows, as a member of the ‘Ashcan’ group of painters, was attracted to a very different side of American city life. He was drawn to the energy and tumult, the crowds and clamour – from throngs of tenement kids bathing in New York’s muddy East River through heaving midtown traffic jams where horse-drawn carriages jostled the newfangled automobiles, to the picnicking middle-classes flocked across Central Park lawns. Indeed, if Bellows is remembered at all today, it’s for ‘Stag at Sharkey’s’ – one of several thrillingly action-packed paintings of boxing matches that made his name in 1909.
Certainly, it’s a doozy of a painting, capturing the pulsating violence of the clandestine prize-fighting scene (boxing was illegal at the time), with the pugilists reduced to sinuous, twisted knots of meat. No wonder Francis Bacon was such an admirer. Not just the boxers, but the baying and leering spectators, the thick, gestural paint handling – the whole thing radiates a kind of warped, exhilarating energy. Later on, too, in numerous lithograph commissions for left-wing magazines, Bellows displayed an almost Goya-like ability for caricature and physical depiction, portraying the demented fury of rabble-rousing Evangelist preachers, or the awful inhumanity of Southern racists burning an African-American man alive at the stake.
Even when he wasn’t painting crowds of people, there was often still a lurking sense of violence or chaos to his work.
In his studies of Penn Station being built, the construction site becomes something hellish and nightmarish – a blasted wasteland, a gaping, fiery wound in the surface of New York. And there’s a similar sense of confronting the raw face of nature, peeling back the veneer of civilization, in his numerous paintings of the limits of Manhattan island, looking off into the snowy wilds just beyond the Hudson River.
Yet, oddly, when it came to depicting the greatest violence of all, World War I, the results are something of a disappointment. Perhaps because he never actually visited Europe, instead basing his work on foreign accounts and propaganda reports, his quartet of vast war paintings is pure grand guignol – aiming to shock America into support for the war with images of evil, spike-helmeted Huns maiming helpless Belgian prisoners and civilians. Today, though, the pieces simply come off as a weird combination of stilted grandiosity and over-the-top schlock.
There’s a return to form towards the end of his life – or rather, to a completely different sort of form. His late, bucolic scenes, painted in high-register colours and with strange perspective effects, feel woozy, ethereal, even slightly surreal. Though he declared himself baffled by European modernism, it’s tempting to speculate where his art might have led – had he not died of peritonitis aged 42. Still, there’s more than enough in this fantastic exhibition to rehabilitate him, and to surely establish his status as one of America’s greatest and most visionary artists.