Art Review Archives:
The Powerful Hand of George Bellows:
Milwaukee Art Museum
The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library is on exhibit through March 23rd. There are the boxing prints, deservedly celebrated; but those unfamiliar with the breadth of Bellows' (1882-1925) output will delight in the wider range of works to savor in this exhibition of 55 pieces, including sketches, finished drawings, and lithographic prints drawn from the Wiggin Collection of the Boston Public Library. The selections show the diversity of Bellows' subject matter, from socialist observations on the absurdities of class to outraged commentary on the injustices of war. Such breadth provides an opportunity to see, across the variety of subjects, the qualities that make Bellows' work so enduring: his ability to capture the most fleeting evidence of wistfulness or pomposity in face and figure, his facility in treading the line between caricature and truthfulness that brings an element of elastic vitality to each of his characterizations. Here in his parade of humanity are wiry evangelists, pious churchgoers, gangling city boys gathered for a swim, gun-bearing men engaged in brutal acts of war, the thousand follies and absurdities of human character. Here as well are works which show Bellows' depth of outrage and sensitivity -- outrage at the cruelty, sensitivity to the pathos possible in the short span of human life -- all magnificently rendered in rich passages of grays and near-blacks, drawn from his experience with lithography and represented as well in his preliminary sketches with graphite or ink.
Among the most compelling of these images are the strange and moving Punchinello In The House of Death and the emotional subtleties of The Appeal to the People, both of which show Bellows' ability to evoke complexities of human reactions. Punchinello In The House of Death (lithograph, 1923; accompanied by its preparatory sketch (crayon, black ink & brush, and graphite, 1922) was one of fifteen illustrations commissioned from Bellows for the novel The Wind Bloweth (1922) by Irish writer Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne. The image is an expression of the deep contrasts of human existence, death and life, solemnity and shallowness. In the house of death, setting of a wake, the deceased is laid out in a background rendered dim and solemn by Bellows' application of deep shading. Though death may be laid out in the next room, the focus is on the foreground, in a pool of light cast by the overhead paraffin lamp in which one of the guests cuts a lively mocking gesture, half puppetry, half dance, reflecting Donn-Byrne's description of the coarse carelessness at the wake:
Bellows' skillful framing of the dead woman in a recessed space interpolates an intervening room to provide a dark, solid edge. The transition from the solemnity of death to the derisive gesture in the foreground is accomplished with effective economy through a row of four figures connecting the dead woman to the capering man.
The Appeal to the People (graphite and crayon on paper: 14 1/8 x 18 3/8 in.: summer/fall 1923) portrays Irish leader Eamon de Valera lecturing in County Clare. De Valera stands at the center of the image, placed solidly, arms resting easily on a fence rail. Though presented frontally, as if a portrait, his slightly downcast eyes disengage him from the viewer, caught up in his speech, a quiet one in this small area before the Irish cottages, but one clearly moving to the people around him whose reactions are rapt and varied: the intent yearning on the face of the man just below and to the right of De Valera is an example of Bellows' facility for facial expressions suggestive of deep-welling emotion. De Valera is the only still point in this composition, whose close-pressed gathering of individuals and strongly-worked opposing diagonals of the house roofs in the back, and the fence rails in the foreground, otherwise suggest the revolving atmosphere of turmoil of the Irish Troubles.
From the rapt promise of a free Northern Ireland to the theatrical acrobatics of a traveling evangelist, several works compass 'The Sawdust Trail', in which Bellows represented the wildly popular proselytizing of preacher Billy Sunday. In Billy Sunday (crayon and ink: 15 x 28 in.: 1915) Bellows captures Sunday in pose of exaggerated energy, straddling the top of the wooden platform, forcing home a point with a vigorous forward thrust of his hand. The image contrasts Sunday's energetic delivery with the torpid, well-fed complacency of his well-to-do listeners, and with the smug businesslike efficiency of the members of Sunday's entourage, seated near but below him on the wooden construction of the podium.
Over thirty figures populate the preparatory drawing for Splinter Beach (pencil and wash: 10-1/2 x 20-1/2 in.: 1911), a summer scene of middle-class enjoyment and one of the artist's many evocations of New York city life. With only a few swift suggestions of line Bellows captures an encyclopedia of common types and characters as well as the noise and aimlessness of the crowd, who seek only amusement and diversion on their crowded riverside. The meaner side of city life, the gritty realism which caused Bellows and his fellow artists to be dismissively labeled "The Ashcan School", is expressed in Dogs, Early Morning (Hungry Dogs) (1907), a tense, wiry image of stray dogs scavenging near an overflowing trash can. Bellows' murky atmosphere intensifies the sense of dereliction created by the ramshackle shutter and beslimed garbage can. The poses of the dogs evoke character even without human feature: they seem on the brink of squabbling over the morsels they've dug out. Drawn lines, piercing the murk toward the far back of the image, lend depth to this image which at its most basic is a play of shadows. The white wiry hindquarters of the mongrel in the center, and the suggestion of rising light or streetlight from the upper left obscured by the shutter, are the only hints at redemption.
And there is no redemption at all for the human brutality of Bellows' war series, The Tragedies of the War in Belgium (1918), portraying the abuse of civilians and prisoners-of-war in wartime, and closer to home, his searing depiction of a lynching in The Law Is Too Slow (1922). These several works, among his most controversial, reveal Bellows' unflinching look at the depths to which humanity can descend.
Experience with lithography gave Bellows a rich framework for modeling figures in swift strokes of line, picking them out against infinite gradations of grays which proved particularly appropriate for his gritty urban settings. A keen sensibility to the human condition gave him the capacity to model it in his drawings, capturing every facet of the human kaleidoscope. Touching on the major subjects favored by the artist, The Powerful Hand of George Bellows is a welcome revisiting of the power, appeal, and range of Bellows' drawings and prints.
The touring works in this exhibition are from the Wiggin Collection of the Boston Public Library, one of the largest public collections of prints in the United States. Ten works by Bellows from the Milwaukee Art Museum's own collection are also included, notably Bellows' rendition in oil of The Sawdust Trail (1916). A 159-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition and is available at the museum. The Powerful Hand of George Bellows is touring through March 2009 in a variety of venues. From Milwaukee it will go to the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME, April 10 - June 1, 2008; the San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX, June 21 - August 31, 2008; and the Boston Public Library, January 15 - March 9, 2009.
--Katherine R. Lieber