Genius is always above its age

In part the National Gallery's exhibition is revisionist, challenging the general view that Bellows's best work was from the first fifteen or so years of the twentieth century, that his subsequent paintings, though good, lacked the exalted genius of those earlier works. This thesis, I believe, is more easily defended from an historical perspective than from a critical one. In the great canvases that predate and coincide with the Armory Show, you find an almost electric connection between the artist and his subjects that is less evident in his later works. It is as though Bellows were able, in a single glance, to grasp the formal and thematic demands of any given subject, as though he had from birth all the skills needed to transfer his visions to the canvas. This is abundantly true of the landscapes and cityscapes that I have already described, but it is no less true of his early and deeply touching portrait of the bare-chested Paddy Flannigan (Fig. 3), a homeless youth (or so it would seem) whose pale skin flashes, as though illuminated by lightning, against a dark ground.

In Bellows's later works, however, that intuitive spontaneity gives way to a more studied approach both to the application of paint and to the building of the composition. Only compare his early image of boxers, Both Members of This Club from 1909 (Fig. 6), with one of his later works, Dempsey and Firpo (Fig. 7). In the earlier work, there is an almost slippery gleam to the pigment that constitutes this scene of raw and unmediated violence. In the later work, however, the figures are more stylized, the composition more static, and the paint textures far flatter. These qualities become increasingly evident in Bellows's portraits of this period. The static balance of the impassive seated figures, one naked, the other clothed, in Two Women (Fig. 4), could hardly be more different in mood and execution from the depiction of Paddy Flannigan. Although in theory there is no reason to prefer spontaneity to classicism or classicism to spontaneity, Bellows's works of the 1920s, though not without their charms, are more stylized and conventional, and feel like something of a falling off when measured against the epiphanies of his earlier masterpieces.

Though it would hardly be fair to say that Bellows is unsung, the new exhibition in Washington should make clear that he deserves far more of the world's attention than he has thus far received. He is as eminent a painter as Edward Hopper and he exhibits, I believe, a greater mastery of his materials, even though he has never won the iconic prestige that surrounds Hopper. In one of the ironies of art history, Bellows was almost immediately greeted as the leading American artist of his generation, whereas Hopper, though born in the same year, began to win fame only after Bellows died. Of all the American painters who lived and worked in America before World War II, only Hopper is immediately recognized abroad. Bellows deserves such renown as well, and it is with that in mind that the Washington exhibition, after a visit to New York's Metropolitan Museum, will continue on to London's Royal Academy of Arts.

 

1 Quoted in Charles Brock, et al., George Bellows (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and Prestel, New York, 2012),
p. 20. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid., p. 190. 4 Ibid., p. 9. 5 Ibid., p. 17.

 

 

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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