13 April 2013

George Bellows at the RA

As soon as I walked into George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life at the Royal Academy I had a feeling of déjà vu, or more accurately déjà vu all over again. Was it having seen a Hopper retrospective last year – he and Bellows were both pupils of Robert Henri at the New York School of Art? And then I remembered a small exhibition at the London National Gallery in 2011, An American Experiment George Bellows and The Ashcan Painters. That show, like the one now at the RA and Tate Modern’s current Lichtenstein retrospective, benefited from the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art. Their objective is “Bringing American Art to the World and the World to American Art” and hopefully the reach of their activities in the UK will spread beyond London in due course.

It’s the early parts of this exhibition (a version of earlier incarnations in Washington DC and New York which have been reduced to 70 works in London) which make the best impression on the visitor. Realist works like Stag at Sharkey’s 1909 (above and detail in the banner) and the wintry scenes of parks (Blue Snow the Battery 1910, left) and construction sites convey the energy and rawness of New York a century ago. World War 1 propaganda pieces like Massacre at Dinant 1918 (below) have little appeal to modern eyes forgetful of their context. The war had begun in Europe in July 1914 but the USA did not enter until April 1917 and then after a fierce national debate to overcome isolationist objections.

After the war Bellows and his family (the subject of late portraits like Emma and Her Children 1923 below) lived in an artists’ colony in New York State at Woodstock until his death from appendix-related peritonitis, not uncommon in the pre-antibiotic world (or, as we may discover, in a future post-antibiotic one). Perhaps if Burrows had lived beyond 42 and had ventured abroad to, say, Paris in the 1920s, his art might have developed in new and less retrospective directions. Not for the first time here, it is hard to disagree with one of Brian Sewell’s conclusions, in this case that “This exhibition is unlikely to convince an informed London audience that Bellows was a great painter.”

George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life continues until 9 June 2013.

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