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Monday, October 1, 2012

'George Bellows' tape is a treat at the National Gallery of Art

George Bellows, Beach at Coney Island, 1908, private collection

Only precious few days remain to see the fabulous George Bellows show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before it departs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and later, the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The exhibition ends in Washington October 8.

An audiotape available at the entrance to the exhibition will make your visit more enjoyable and is certainly worth the $5 charge.  (Most art enthusiasts don't mind having to fork over a few bucks to hear professionals discuss great works and provide guidance, especially when institutions charge nothing for admission.)

One of the featured works on the tape is Forty-two Kids (1907) which shows boys having a lark of a time, swimming sans bathing suits, jumping off a broken wooden dock into a dark abyss, their future? 

George Bellows, Forty-two Kids, 1907, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund

Rather than a daytime scene, the light illuminates the naked boys on the dock which is surrounded by the black water and night, which consumes half the painting. Inspection reveals some of the children have already jumped in, and floating in the distance is a solitary boat, perhaps a life boat to rescue the children from their probable trajectory.    

The catalog says this painting came close to winning the annual Lippincott prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1908 but after voting 8-2 in its favor, the jury reversed its decision, probably because of a perception Mr. Lippincott might object to the work's nudity.

Said the artist, it was not the naked children which intimidated the jury, but "the naked painting."

Bellows (1882-1925) was associated with the "ashcan school" which concentrated on social conditions and life of poor people in New York tenements in the early 20th century.  He often portrayed the friction between modernity and the past.  

One example is Men of the Docks (1912) (an "ambitious, very successful picture," according to the curator on the tape). In the center of the work across the river are the city's tall buildings while in the foreground, emotionless longshoremen stand between a huge modern cruise ship in the sunlight and on the left, a small industrial boat in the shadows.  Those who do not have their heads hung low look to the left of the scene as if awaiting notice they have been replaced by modernity.  (Bellows painted Men of the Docks in the same year as the Titanic sinking.)

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912, Randolph College, founded as Randolph-Macon Women's College, 1891, Lynchburg

Both Members of This Club (1909) is one of Bellows's most famous renderings of an illegal sport and all its blood, sweat, and gore. The narrator says the fighters are literally trying to kill each other, and they look it.  Be sure and study the faces of the onlookers surrounding the ring and see if you spot evil. 

George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, 1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

Frankie, the Organ Boy (1907) makes a viewer wonder about his background and what became of him.  He seems bewildered and out of place in his formal suit in the dark as he clasps his hands: "What am I doing here?"

George Bellows, Frankie, The Organ Boy, 1907, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Purchase, acquired through the bequest of Ben and Clara Shlyen

The forlorn expression of the Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett) (1907), Bellows's laundry girl, offers a glimpse of what her childhood was like.   

The Saw Dust Trail (1916) shows the power of the evangelist Billy Sunday.  The catalog quotes Bellows:  "I paint Billy Sunday... to show the world what I do think of him.  Do you know, I think Billy Sunday is the worst thing that ever happened to America?  He is death to imagination, to spirituality, to art."

George Bellows, The Saw Dust Trail, 1916, Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection

And then there is Bellows's portrayal of horrible scenes, all based on reality.  Who will ever forget the powerful and wrenching The Barricade (1918) which shows Germans in World War I using naked Belgians as human shields, or The Law is Too Slow (1922-1923) based upon a 1903 newspaper story, dateline Wilmington, Delaware, about a black man who burns at the stake while a mob of perpetrators stand and watch. In an ironic twist, the captive seems to ascend in a geyser of flames in Bellows's rendering of crayon on paper which suggests a crucifixion. 

George Bellows, The Law is Too Slow, 1922-1923, Boston Public Library, Print Department, Albert H. Wiggin Collection

Last weekend the National Gallery and Bellows were packed.   I asked myself: What are all these folks doing in here on this gorgeous day? 

Allow about an hour to hear the tape, and more time, to see the entire show. 

What: George Bellows

When: Now through October 8, 2012, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Washington, D.C., between 3rd and 9th streets at Constitution Avenue, NW

How much: No charge

For more information: 202-737-4215 or

Metro stations: Judiciary Square, Navy Memorial-Archives, or the Smithsonian

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