Review: George Bellows’ Modern American Life

George Bellows. Anyone? No? Like many others I hadn’t a clue who George Bellows was. Maybe I am a philistine. Compared to the other giants currently doing the London circuit (Picasso, Lichtenstein… Bowie), Bellows has not had much attention over here. In comparison to other 20th century American artists – Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell spring to mind – Bellows has been practically shunned by UK galleries. The Royal Academy is now showing his first UK retrospective.

The trouble with Bellows is that his was very much a career of two halves. The first was far superior to the second, and the division within Bellows’ catalogue is mirrored in the exhibition. The opening rooms pack a punch (quite literally), but this energy is lost, and in Bellows’ later work it is never recaptured.

Having quit college, Bellows began his artistic career at the New York School of Art in 1904 aged 22. Early works suggest a feeling of youthful adventure, a feeling reflected in his restless experimentation with style and form. Shunning the conventions of traditional academic painting Bellows sought to depict the raw urban experience of the Lower East side in a new artistic language. His quick and confident use of conte crayon, pastel and graphite give a dirty, raw energy to Street Fight (1907). This was a dirty, dangerous and violent underworld.

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Stag at Sharkey’s – 1909

Bellows’ most successful exploration of this underworld are his massive oil depictions of boxing matches. Boxing was a clandestine world because it was illegal in New York; matches were conducted in secret clubs at night. Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) captures the second when one boxer lands a blow on the face of another. The multiple viewpoints the painting presents break artistic convention and are shocking in their brutally honest depiction of human violence. Quick and energetic brushstrokes of crimson reds and china whites form a tricep, a bicep. The men become hulking forms yet retain a degree of valour and humanity that the grotesque audience can never posses.

Although they have less of a visual impact, Bellows’ depictions of New York above ground are fascinating time capsules. They capture a city on the brink of change. Horse drawn carriages jostle for space with new tramways. New York’s first skyscrapers tower above the hive of activity below. Whether he knew it or not, Bellows was depicting modern New York as we know it today.

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The Royal Academy of Arts shows George Bellows’ “Modern American Life” until June 9th 2013

Yet as his career progressed, Bellows turned his back on the city and directed his attention towards new subjects including the coastal strips and landscapes of Maine and Connecticut. The results are mixed; Bellows’ landscapes are both pleasing and yet undeniably pallid in comparison to what had gone before.

During the First World War Bellows embarked upon a series of large-scale war paintings depicting German soldiers brutally assaulting and killing Belgian citizens. However, Bellows never travelled to the front himself; instead he relied on Allied propaganda and the results are staged and reek of voyeurism. In comparison to the honesty and humility that characterized his earlier work, the war series leaves one feeling uncomfortable.

Bellows’ later catalogue consists of prints for newspapers, family portraits and some passé reworkings of old masterpieces. The most interesting of these are the prints. I would not suggest Bellows was a political artist, but he never shied away from confronting topical subjects; the prints expose the persecution of black people and the rise of evangelical religious movements. What is powerful about the prints is that in them Bellows challenged contemporary audiences to come to their own conclusions.

Because of this it is the prints that come closest to recalling and reviving the bravery of his earlier works. This was art with a purpose, but art that was not so conceited as to tell the audience what to think or feel. This is what Bellows did best. The best pieces in the exhibit are those where Bellows is honest with his audience, where he depicts life in all its ugliness and intensity. When he dodges that task or attempts to moralize his audience the results are often boring and stale. What Bellows’ work can teach us is that honest art is the most powerful art.


George Bellows: Modern American Life runs at the Royal Academy until the 9th June.

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