Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A look at the Metropolitan's George Bellows Retrospective.

It's important for an artist to keep abreast of cultural currents; in particular, events and movements in the art world:  Art isn't created in a vacuum after all!  And for my second blogpost ever, I thought I'd try my hand at reviewing!  I had planned to write about contemporary art in my maiden review, but I've been crazy busy lately, what with Christmas coming up.  So, I haven't been to any gallery shows lately.  I did, however, manage a visit to the Metropolitan's retrospective of George Bellows.  Wow!  It was really comprehensive:  It included his depictions of the poor and working class; urban life on the edges; construction projects----such as the preliminary groundwork for Penn Station; depictions of the affluent at leisure; seascapes he did on trips to Maine; World War I propaganda paintings; portraits----including family ones; and some late pastoral landscapes with an unexplained mystical bent.  I love his earlier paintings; his later ones, not so much.

I found Bellows' early paintings to be as fascinating as social commentary, as I did visually arresting.  (As a life-long New Yorker, I'm always interested in seeing visual portrayals of the city and its inhabitants, both current and historical.)   Bellows' are gritty portrayals of early-twentieth century New York and its lower classes.  They depict the squalor in which the city's poor lived and labored.  In "Cliff Dwellers," Bellows showed the overcrowding in tenements of the period.  "River Rats" and "Forty-Two Kids" depict poor boys at play on broken, dilapidated piers along the East River.  I liked that Bellows avoids sentimentalizing the urban poor, instead he shows his lower class boys for the crude, cocky beings they very likely were:  "Forty-Two Kids" shows one boy smoking, another urinating and yet others strutting or bent over, oblivious to the viewer.

Forty-Two Kids, 1907.
Cliff Dwellers, 1913.

Bellows' fame rests on his early paintings and it's not hard to see why.  His enthusiasm for his subject matter is evident in the sheer energy of the paintings, most notably "Stag At Sharkey's."

Stag at Sharkey's, 1907.
The painting's sharply contrasted lights and darks, it's limited palette and the artificial illumination of the boxers against a dark background hark back to Caravaggio, who used chiaroscuro to great theatrical effect.  (As a painter, I always try to discern what makes for a successful composition:  Having sharp contrasts in values tends to make for stronger images, as Bellows' most successful paintings demonstrate.)  Bellows' early portraits---such as, "Paddy Flannigan,"1908 and "Little Girl in White (Queenie Bernett)"----also use well illuminated figures against dark backgrounds.

Little Girl in White
(Queenie Bernett).

Paddy Flannigan, 1908.

As the show's text notes,  that puts them in a traditional mode of portraiture, whose practitioners include Velazquez, Frans Hals and Manet.  All of whose work he would have seen, according to the show's notes.  Despite the obvious influences, those paintings of Bellows don't feel derivative though.  The exuberance and sheer energy Bellows brought to them---as well as the bravura brushwork----make his paintings seem very much his own.  And, of his own time, too!

Also visually arresting are his depictions of the preliminary construction work on Penn Station.  "Pennsylvania Excavation," for one, depicts an enormous pit being dug for the station's foundations with the city's buildings portrayed as if they are at a distance----it's as if the excavation is taking place outside of the city----outside of civilization itself.  The site workers and equipment look puny in comparison----ant-like:  Little, black brush marks against a pale gray, gaping hole!  The pit almost seems to swallow them, like some sort of monstrous, primordial maw.  This, and Bellows' other portrayals of construction projects, emphasize New York's transitional, ever-changing aspect.  This city is no museum piece frozen in time:  Instead, it's a living, breathing behemoth!

Pennsylvania Excavation, 1909:  The excavation consumes the fore and middle
grounds, while the city itself appears at a distance.
When not portraying urban scenes, Bellows doesn't fair so well.  (The exception being his Maine seascapes.)  His paintings of upperclass life all look inert, they lack the flair of his urban work.  Even though some of these paintings depict sporting events (tennis matches, polo matches), which you might have thought would make for some really dynamic paintings, but apparently not.  In addition, despite a more colorful palette, the compositions look strangely flat, perhaps because they lack the stark contrast of light against dark that gave Bellows' earlier paintings real punch.

But that wasn't the worst of the show.  The worst was his propaganda paintings, which depict reputed atrocities in a way that look stilted and histrionic, to boot. (These paintings show German troops slaughtering Belgian civilians in WW I.)  That the atrocities shown turned out not to have occurred, turns the paintings into outright embarrassments.  As the show's accompanying  text points out, Bellows obviously had no personal observations to rely on for these paintings----in contrast to his other works, which could explain why they seem so stilted.

I was also taken with the Maine seascapes, or coastal paintings.  (Since many of these paintings are really closeups of rocks and waves----without a horizon line, perhaps "seascape" is a misnomer.)  Some, in the show, depict waves crashing against rocks as seen from the perspective of someone standing on an elevation.  The perspective is vertiginous, one false step or stumble and the scene's observer will fall headlong onto the rocks below!  That sense of danger adds a human element to the already turbulent scene of waves crashing against rock.

Churn and Break, 1913.
The paintings are reminiscent of late Winslow Homer's, as the show notes.  But even if Bellows borrowed from Homer, he clearly had an affinity for the subject matter, and he made it as much his own as his early urban paintings!

All in all, I thought the show was really interesting as much for revealing Bellows' weaknesses as a painter, as for showing his strengths:  The sheer physicality he brought to many of his early paintings----as evidenced in his bravura brushwork----was a plus, but his apparent inability to combine a range of colors with a strong contrast of values was a real weakness.  One senses from the show, that the young painter was incredibly confident, cocky even----just like some of the street urchins he painted, but that the more mature painter may have suffered through periods of self-doubt.  But then, don't we all!

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