A painter of working-class life

August 15, 2012

An exhibit of the work of visual artist George Bellows illuminates Bellows' concern with the intricacies of ordinary people's lives, writes Andrea Hektor.

WHILE WANDERING the halls of the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., recently, I unexpectedly came across an exhibit that was moving, inspiring and somewhat out of place at a museum I had always largely associated with portraits of wealthy individuals, paintings of frolicking 18th century garden parties, and barren landscapes of the early American West (these pieces, of course, intermixed with more thought-provoking pieces from all centuries).

The exhibit I was so inspired by was a selection of works by George Bellows that included more than 130 paintings, lithographs and sketches. With the exception of the short but insightful exhibit commentaries sprinkled throughout the exhibit, I knew nothing of Bellows as I viewed his work, which I had rarely seen before.

As a socialist and activist from a working-class background, Bellows' work immediately jumped out as something different than what I was used to seeing in a gallery, particularly from early 20th century artists. Paintings of the masses on the streets of New York. Crayon drawings of underground boxing matches and rough depictions of football players. Stark images showing the atrocities of the First World War, and laborers at work building ships and hauling snow.

A painting by George Bellows
A painting by George Bellows

The images were effective, accessible and emotionally moving works that traced the working class in a period where much of the art (at least, the art I am familiar with) requires either a short guidebook to understand or is a continuation of the idyllic images common in late 19th century art.

READING ABOUT Bellows after leaving the exhibit, I discovered a figure whose name I was surprised I had never heard before.

Born in the late 19th century, Bellows turned down a professional baseball contract and moved to New York City to study painting. Once there, he studied under Robert Henri, a leader of the early 20th century realist movement that strove to portray working-class life on the streets of New York. Henri was one of the founders of "The Eight," a movement that eventually came to be known as the Ashcan School of Art.

"The Eight" formed after fellow realist George Luk's work was rejected from a 1907 exhibition at the National Academy of Design. Henri, Luks and six others put on their own exhibition in 1908, a showing of considerable importance in the development of American art.

Review: Exhibit

The George Bellows exhibit is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through October 8. Following the NGA exhibition, the exhibit will be on tour in New York and London.

While the work of "The Eight" differed in nature, they were united by the idea that exhibition opportunities should be provided free of the jury system (in which a jury selects which pieces will actually be displayed), and they all desired to use techniques that were not officially sanctioned by the National Academy.

While Bellows was not a part of the "The Eight" exhibition--having come to New York and started his studies under Henri too late to be a participant--his work exemplifies the ideals of the that group's movement and was important in defining the Ashcan School movement that was an expansion of the ideals and methods of "The Eight."

Artistically, paintings from the Ashcan School often share the incorporation of working-class American life--often gritty, realistic scenes of working-class districts and people in large U.S. cities, particularly the streets of New York. The movement was unified in its desire to display the realities of city life. The vision, as stated by Robert Henri, was that he "wanted art to be akin to journalism...wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter." The reality Henri speaks of was the reality of the masses of urban workers.

As well as teaching him about art, Henri introduced Bellows to socialism. Bellows eventually came to associate more with anarchism than socialism, but worked with radicals of all stripes, becoming part of a group of radical artists and activists called the "Lyrical Left."

In the teens, he served on the editorial board of the socialist journal The Masses, edited by Max Eastman, to which he contributed a number of drawings and prints. He was always a staunch supporter of individual freedom and constantly argued for artistic independence from any editorial policies, a stance completely in line with the original movement of "The Eight."

His ideas about art as art often trumped his politics and confused his editor Eastman, as Bellows stated more than once that The Masses was not a political newspaper and that the art displayed in its pages should not be judged based on politics.

Along with the radical art circles he was involved with, Bellows knew and admired anarchist Emma Goldman and radical journalist John Reed. Not much information is readily available about Bellows' political life, but a general sense of his level of involvement can be gained from tidbits from his life.

In 1912, Bellows donated a piece of his art to an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fundraiser for children of striking millworkers in Lawrence, Mass. In 1914, he attended a demonstration by unemployed workers with Goldman. And, in 1916, when Goldman was charged under the Comstock law for supporting birth control, he attended a public dinner in her support. He attended marches in support of women's rights, and voted for Eugene Debs in the teens.

Regardless of whether Bellows' politics influenced his art or whether the art movement he was involved with influenced his politics, the correlation between the two cannot be discounted. His social consciousness certainly influenced his involvement with a movement that rebelled against traditional art institutions, boldly put forward imagery showing the realities of life while poor, and sometimes mockingly depicted wealthy individuals.

THE BELLOWS exhibit is laid out thematically and chronologically, with each room highlighting one or two series within his collection of work. It begins with his introduction to the streets of New York and the influence of Henri and others in the Ashcan movement.

Many of these early works are dark and completed with smudgy charcoal, pen and ink. "Election Night, Times Square" (1906) depicts the famous square filled with surging masses, all largely faceless with the exception of a woman supporting a fainting man. It is unclear which election Bellows refers to, but the energy and passion of people in the street is apparent.

"Street Fight" and "Tin Can Battle" (1907) are similar crayon and graphite depictions of surging masses.

New York's immigrant population, namely children living in tenements, are also a theme in this period. "Forty-two Kids" (1907) is an image of gaunt, naked or half-naked children swimming off a pier. It won the Lippincott Prize at the annual Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibit in 1907, but the award was withdrawn for fear that the sponsor would object to naked children. "River Rats" (1906) contains similar imagery of naked children, only this time their swimming hole is much darker and obviously polluted.

Bellows' images of boxing matches are probably his most famous. Graphically violent, works including "Club Night" (1907), "Stag at Sharkey's" (1909), and "Both Members of This Club" (1909) were likely hard for wealthy, "high-brow" art patrons to stomach when first released. The paintings of muscular boxers and seething crowds from New York's underground boxing matches--organized when public boxing matches were illegal in the state--are a highlight of Bellows' career.

He returned to paintings of boxing matches later in his career, with "Counted Out, No. 1" and "Counted Out, No. 2" (1921) showing a knocked out fighter huddled on the floor of the ring, his contender standing over him. Less overtly violent, "Dempsey and Firpo" (1924) was completed after Bellows attended the famous Dempsey/Firpo fight. One of his latest paintings, it is more refined and not nearly as dark as his other boxing images.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Station series follows the toil of workers excavating the area between 31st and 33rd Streets and 7th to 9th Avenues in New York. Workers toil amidst dark clouds of smoke and small fires rising from machinery in a massive, multiple-city-block pit bordered by a factory spewing smoke in four paintings completed between 1907 and 1909. Everyday life for workers in New York is also portrayed in "Docks in Winter" (1911) and "Snow Dumpers" (1911).

Obviously connected to the labor movement, another series titled "Shipyard Society" (1916) is a group of images documenting construction of a 205-foot wooden ship in Camden, Maine. A quote from Bellows next to the series helps to contextualize his thoughts from this period: "When I paint the great beginning of a ship...I feel the reverence of the shipbuilder for his handiwork...I am filled with awe, and I am trying to paint as well as he builds, to paint my emotion about him."

This is a much lighter series than the images from New York City, likely due to Bellows' more positive view of this type of work and the understanding that shipbuilding was a craft much more enjoyable to the laborer than excavation work.

AN ENTIRE room of the exhibit is devoted to paintings portraying the horrors of the First World War, with four larger pieces more than eight feet long and six feet high centered on each wall and surrounded by smaller sketches and lithographs.

Along with his boxing paintings, these are some of Bellows' most graphic works. "Massacre at Dinant" (1918) depicts the murder of Belgian citizens by German troops. "The Germans Arrive" (1918) shows one man dead on the ground and women being throttled by German officers--but the centerpiece of the painting is a young man whose hands are being chopped off by a saber.

"Return of the Useless" (1918) is an ode to sick and dying prisoners of war being returned to Belgium on boxcars. A line of naked prisoners is used as a shield for troops in "The Barricade" (1918).

While small, one of the most graphic pieces is "The Cigarette" (1918), a grey and black lithograph in which a soldier sits smoking on a barrel next to a naked women whose left breast has been chopped off and whose left hand is staked with a knife to a wall.

Each of the images in this series could easily be used to articulate an antiwar position, but despite his left-leaning politics, Bellows was actually a supporter of U.S. entry into the war. It was a position he was conflicted about--so overwhelmed by the horrors of the war, he was most concerned with ending atrocities as soon as possible, even if that meant the involvement of U.S. troops and a temporary continuation of war crimes.

Many of Bellows' other later works are also more explicitly political than his earlier portrayals of working-class life. Even if he did not mean for them to convey a political stance, "Electrocution" (1917) is a realistic and unpleasant portrayal of the death penalty, and "The Law is Too Slow" (1923), which illustrated a magazine story about a vigilante mob, was used by the NAACP in their campaigns against lynching.

Two copies of The Masses, each with Bellows' contributions, are also a part of the exhibit. One piece published in the magazine and later enlarged by Bellows, "Why Don't They Go To The Country For Vacation?" (1913), shows a teeming, seething crowd on the streets of New York and was intended to highlight the oblivion of wealthy New Yorkers to the plight of the working poor.

Bellows died in 1925 at too young an age--43--after ignoring a ruptured appendix. It was an unfortunately early death given the large number of years he could have had to continue contributing to the art world.

There are many other pieces in the exhibit--portraits, landscapes, more imagery of working-class life. The highlights mentioned here are merely a few of the paintings that stood out, but the remaining items in the collection are remarkable in their own right.

Part of the power of Bellow's work is that it not only portrays working-class life, but that it is accessible to a working-class audience. These pieces do not require a degree in art history to understand. And while many images of the paintings and drawings are available online, they are much more impressive in real life.

The exhibit is moving, thought provoking, and provides many reminders of how far the U.S. working class has come in the last 100 years. If "the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class," then it is hopeful to see that imagery of the brutalities of working-class life can be considered important. The exhibition solidifies the importance of art and culture in our movements today, if for no reason other than that both today in the future, others may be inspired by that art.

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