Packing a punch

They are oversized, overwrought, over here – but too often they underwhelm. American paintings have invaded London this winter: every major museum in the capital is showing significant works from the US. Taken together, these exhibitions fascinatingly chronicle American art’s fraught relationship with European modernity from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

At the National Gallery, Frederic Church’s six-metre square “Niagara Falls” looks like a naive attempt to recast Turner’s romanticism in American terms. At the Barbican, Robert Rauschenberg’s unruly combines and Jasper Johns’ giant balloons painted with images from “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” exhilaratingly take flight from ideas of the French-born conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. Drier are Roy Lichtenstein’s monumental reprises of Picasso and Matisse in the language of pop at Tate Modern. And now the UK’s first retrospective of George Bellows arrives at the Royal Academy.

Unlike the other artists, Bellows never visited Europe. A prosperous builder’s son from Ohio born in 1882, a baseball and basketball player and a straightforward family man, he is the emblematic American pre-first world war painter: a gutsy, vigorous realist who aimed, he said, for “manliness, frankness, and love of the game”.

A fixation on strenuous American life – boxers, swimmers, dock workers – with an undertow of menace determines his oeuvre from the start. In the earliest work here, a charcoal drawing of seething crowds in “Election Night, Times Square” (1906), the mood already teeters towards violence. The first painting, “Forty-two Kids” (1907), portraying a gaggle of scrawny, pale, working class boys leaping from a dilapidated pier platform into the filthy Hudson river, heralds Bellows’ declared desire to capture “the steam and sweat of the street”.

The boys’ awkwardness was, perhaps, intended to parody the Arcadian youths in “Swimmers”, a celebrated canvas by the 19th-century American realist master Thomas Eakins. Or the cartoonish quality of the squirming waifs, likened by a contemporary critic to maggots, may have marked the moment Bellows successfully transferred his illustrator’s skills to oil paint. Either way, he rapidly progressed to a more savage subject: a series featuring boxing matches set in the private back rooms of seedy saloons, where all classes packed in to view a then illegal sport.

“Club Night” (1907) and “Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909) are Bellows’ signature works: their virtuoso expressive style conveys the ferocity and heat of movement with an exuberant physicality then unprecedented in American art. De Kooning’s “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented”, half a century later, comes to mind in front of the thick-loaded, viscous brushstrokes colliding the agitated forms of Bellows’ fighters.

“Pushing and moving and seeking,” was how Theodore Dreiser described Bellows’ paintings, “as life in its dumb blind masses is always pushing and seeking – like clouds, like smoke.” As Dreiser did in his gritty urban novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, so Bellows distilled the raw energy of the young American city. With its roughly painted slabs of dark buildings outlined against a garish twilit sky, and steam and fiery sparks billowing from the deep pit of an ice-lined building site, “Pennsylvania Station Excavation” (1909) endows New York with elemental force. The painting is among a group documenting the creation of what was the biggest crater in the US, dug to allow trains to enter Manhattan through a tunnel under the Hudson. Construction took a decade and mesmerised the public – as frequently with Bellows, there was opportunism in his choice of subject. The minute spectators perched at the edge, peering down, establish the scale of this unorthodox cityscape. To 21st-century audiences, the resonance is with Ground Zero. But Bellows’ contemporaries would have read an allusion to the gorges and canyons of the American sublime landscape – 20th-century man-made progress rivalling the thrust of nature.

Repeatedly, it is the hulking forms of industrial modernity that inspire Bellows’ most accomplished pictures. A train coursing along the bank puffs steam into the drizzly atmosphere of “Rain on the River” (1908). The rough surfaces of advertisement-plastered skyscrapers tower over a snowy street in the panorama “New York” (1911). Labourers hoping for work shudder beneath the grandeur of an ocean liner in “Men of the Docks” (1912); the city beyond is a weave of abrasive patterning, buildings vanishing into clouds and grey-white snow.

Formally, the play of light and variety of visual textures here derives from 19th-century realism melded with impressionism. Bellows brings muscular, fluid brushwork, dynamic composition, nationalistic subjects, but a look at any canvas by Manet, on display downstairs at Burlington House, shows the waning in power between the innovator of a movement and a second-generation interpreter.

Just as telling is a comparison between the patriotic “Men of the Docks” and Duchamp’s cubist/futurist musing on painting’s future in “Nude Descending A Staircase”, on show at the Barbican. Both works were painted in 1912 and, as it happened, Bellows helped install Duchamp’s picture at the landmark Armory show in 1913. On the evidence here, his own painting never recovered from the shock of direct confrontation with European modernism at the Armory.

With the exception of some impressive, abstracting seascapes – “Forth and Back”, “Churn and Break” – looking defiantly back to Winslow Homer, the post-1913 works in the second half of this show are simply dreadful. Virile realism gives way to feeble depictions of society at play. Portraits are static and insipid. Propaganda war pictures inventing German atrocities are embarrassingly hammy.

Bellows died of appendicitis, aged 42, in 1925. Many artists lost their way trying to assimilate the lessons of modernism in the 1920s, and it is impossible to tell if his stilted late style might have evolved into a take on surrealism, or the satire of Neue Sachlichkeit, or something different. As curator Charles Brock writes: “Bellows’ was an unfinished life, and that may ultimately be its most modern characteristic.”

‘George Bellows: Modern American Life’, Royal Academy, London, to June 9.

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