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George Bellows: Master Draftsman and Lithographer

While George Bellows, American (1882-1925), is best known for his virtuosity and vision in painting, his graphic oeuvre remains less well known, but is similarly impressive. This exhibition at Childs Gallery, in association with Thomas French Fine Art, illustrates through lithography Bellows’s masterful skill as a draftsman. The show runs concurrently with the Boston Public Library’s exhibition The Powerful Hand of George Belllows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library, which showcases some of the best examples of Bellows’s graphic art and will feature many of the drawings made in preparation for the lithographs.

Fueled by memories of childhood taunting and a childhood spent in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows drew on his past experiences in forming a distinctive style after moving to New York City in 1904. Forced as a child to stay inside on Sundays listening to his mother recite the Bible, Bellows developed an early love of drawing. Bellows’s reaction to his Methodist and Republican upbringing is explicitly seen in Billy Sunday (1923) depicting the “cheap hysterics” of the popular evangelist Billy Sunday, whom Bellows referred to as “death to imagination, to spirituality, to art.” Bellows’s quick and violent strokes in representing boxing matches belie Bellows’s athletic legacy at Ohio State University, after which he turned down a future in professional baseball to travel to New York City to study art. Upon arriving in New York, Bellows met Robert Henri and became prominent member of the Ashcan School, adopting its urban realism in focusing on the gritty climate of the early twentieth century city.
According to Thomas French Fine Art, Bellows “exploited the technique of lithography to make prints that are as fresh and natural-looking as a charcoal sketch.” He worked with the master printer Bolton Brown to produce lithographs “with a silvery delicacy that almost perfectly matches a pencil line, and gives Bellows’s prints the fresh, silvery appearance of actual drawings.” With such a technique, Bellows was able to react to the world around him through lithography with spontaneous strokes in order to recreate the excitement of the city and events around him. According to Bellows, “every artist is looking for news” and he subsequently put into print the news he saw unfold before him in a dynamic New York. With rich textures and quick, sharp lines, Bellows’s lithographs excite the eye and bring the viewer in direct contact with New York businessmen, prize fighters, or the casualties of war.

While a majority of current scholarship has focused on his paintings, George Bellows: Master Draftsman and Lithographer focuses on Bellows’s lithographs spanning a wide breadth of subjects. Ranging from his everyday observations, such as at the West Side YMCA in Business-Men’s Class (1916) to vivid depictions of early prize fights, Bellows addressed important social aspects of a changing urban world in his lithographs. Continuing in the realist tradition, Business-Men’s Class is a humorous fusion of commercial and fine art that captured the nuances of urban life. Bellows’s energetic boxing lithographs parallel the sport’s rise to legal prominence across the United States. By participating in the popular athletic culture surrounding the fights, Bellows not only increased his popularity, but also challenged the idea of the artist as an “effete academic.” While capturing the energy and ferocity of a fight, Preliminaries (Preliminaries to the Big Bout, 1916) depicts a scene from the first prize fight open to female spectators at Madison Square Garden in 1916. Many of Bellows’s boxing lithographs similarly delve deeper into important contemporaneous social themes of gender and violence surrounding the athletic culture. Though not completely dismissing the fight, Bellows relegates the fighters to the background, while the women dressed in gowns with their escorts dominate the center of the scene.

Bellows generally maintained a journalistic distance from his subjects, but in 1918 Bellows responded to reports of German atrocities in Belgium with his polemical War Series which included fourteen lithographs following in the European tradition of directly addressing the horrors of war in the vein of Goya or Otto Dix. With The Barricade (1918), Bellows recalls classical forms to emphasize his outrage over the brutality of the German war effort. Other lithographs from the War Series can be seen in the exhibition, including Return of the Useless (1918), which further reinforces the terrible plight of civilians during war alongside The Barricade.

The relationship between Bellows’s drawings and lithographs is an important avenue of study to understand his creative process. Many of Bellows’s most well-known prints originate in earlier drawings that differ from the later final lithograph. Some lithographs are direct transfers from earlier drawings, while others reveal a process of revision and experimentation. It is thus important to recognize Bellows’s skill in a large variety of media and his use of other media to test and revise his ideas. Splinter Beach (1916), for example went through a number of crayon and ink incarnations in 1912 and 1913 before the final lithograph in 1916. Working in concert with the exhibition of drawings at the Boston Public Library, George Bellows: Master Draftsman and Lithographer seeks to emphasize George Bellows’s legacy through his use of multiple media forms across his career.

In addition to his mastery of various media, Bellows also experimented with compositional styles including Dynamic Symmetry, which he learned from its creator Jay Hambidge in 1917 and used periodically until his death in 1925. Bellows utilized this system of proportions based on the division of rectangles along set ratios in his 1918 War Series, contributing to the harsh angles and twisted limbs central to the emotional gravity of the images. Bellows’s use of multiple systems of spatial composition alongside Dynamic Symmetry throughout his career combined with his sense of spontaneity and natural organization to generate works that remain socially and aesthetically pertinent today. A twenty-first century viewer is not only able to step back into Bellows’s New York, but is also reminded of pressing social issues that still resonate today. Bellows continually reminds us of America’s diversity, while also inspiring new questions for successive generations of viewers. Please view the exhibition in the gallery from September 15 through November 8, 2008.

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