A friend clued me in that I would be missing something if I didn’t see the George Bellows Show currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York City. I had bypassed the exhibit a month earlier when tired images of boxing scenes materialized in my head as I read his name on the Met banners. With some friends, I opted for a photography show and Chinese garden paintings instead. .
|Paddy Flanagan (1908)|
Luckily, I got a second chance. After I made my way past a wall-size representation of one of the famous boxing paintings (which I was informed by a museum staff member was printed and laminated to the wall rather than replicated by artistic house elves) I was immediately overwhelmed by the first room full of painterly paintings. I picked one that I can’t remember now and tried to concentrate. It wasn’t until I got to the second room where I was confronted by Paddy Flanagan’s challenging stare that I began to relax, confident that I was in for a good experience. It was in that second room that the urban landscapes and crowds of people initiated me into the confident and frenetic brushwork of Bellows. In many paintings, such as “Rain on The River” (below) the economy and frenzy of the brushwork suggests a rapid desperation rather than studied application of more traditional painting techniques.
|Rain On The River (1908)|
Color is sometimes startling and purposefully belligerent. Trees and bushes and buildings and trains are sketched in paint with a crude fast accuracy. . This is drawing with paint! This is painting!
|Churn and Break (1913)|
I can’t help thinking that the boxers are the least interesting aspect of his body of work. I do think that one or two of the famous ones are actually not that well drawn. This thought was confirmed in the last room of the show where his later work was more stylized and stiff, with a complete loss of the rushed brushwork that so defined the paintings right around 1908-1913 or so. Of course, one can understand the difficulty inherent in catching boxers in the drama of their physical engagement with each other. Bellows would have been working from studies and may have lost some of the natural gesture and eloquence of the scene just through the difficulty of rendering the action. He didn’t have the same problem with the ever-moving ocean however. Compared to four roiling ocean paintings hung together in one corner of the show, the boxer paintings that I did glance at felt stiff and forced. Looking through images now, I see some variation in the boxer paintings, with one or two seeming to have more of the drama and eloquence of the painting experience still evident, while others seem stifled in every way, from a composition too lined up with the perpendicularity of the boxing “ring” and then the action rendered past any excitement in line, color, and paint.
|My House, Woodstock (1924)|
Finally, a painting towards the end of the show made me laugh. I immediately thought that it was the painting that I might shove in the closet if I had made it, realizing that it had got a little melodramatic with its color. It was wonderful in the context of the exhibit however, as it was a lurid example of the daring and “belligerent ” color that I mentioned above. And sometimes, the mountains around Woodstock do look like they could lift off and fly away with the clouds.