Andrew Lambirth

George Bellows; Sydney Lee RA

George Bellows; Sydney Lee RA
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George Bellows: Modern American Life

Royal Academy, until 9 June

From the Shadows: The Prints of Sydney Lee RA

Tennant Gallery and Council Room, Royal Academy, until 26 May

The American artist George Bellows (1882–1925) is best known for his boxing paintings, but as this surprising exhibition reveals, that was only the half of it. We don’t really know his work in this country, apart from the odd picture in a mixed show, but here is indisputable evidence that we have been missing out. Bellows died from appendicitis aged only 42, so this exhibition inevitably offers us work which varies wildly in style and competence, as he tried his hand at different approaches and different subjects. Nevertheless there are at least half-a-dozen paintings of real worth and presence, in addition to the boxing pictures, which I personally find of limited interest, though Bellows’s handling of bodies in dynamic movement is dramatic and convincing.

There are some 70 works in the exhibition, spanning his 20-year career, including paintings, drawings and lithographs. Bellows studied with Robert Henri in New York, a leading light in the famous Ashcan School, and grew fascinated by the crowded tenement life of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, developing a brand of vigorous realist painting that soon began to attract attention. In the first room is a trio of rather good drawings of such subjects as Mardi Gras, a street fight and ‘Election Night, Times Square’ (1906). Also here is an odd but eye-catching figure painting, ‘Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall’, and another group of gritty drawings of a dog scavenging and a tin can battle. The second room introduces the boxing pictures but is much more memorable to me for the trio of Pennsylvania Excavation paintings, focusing on the site of the new railroad station.

These paintings beg comparison with the building-site paintings of Frank Auerbach, and show something of the same preoccupation with an inventive use of paint to make a physical equivalent of the experience of looking. Although the boxing paintings are primarily powerful images, they also use paint in interesting ways and treat the dramatis personae to an interpretation worthy of Daumier and Goya. (There even seems to be a foreshadowing of Francis Bacon.) The Excavation paintings explore the character of place through the ebullient movement of paint: this is very exciting.

Energy is Bellows’s watchword, and this comes out also in his paintings of the Hudson River. I much admired his high viewpoint panoramas ‘North River’ and ‘Rain on the River’: note, especially, the luscious bravura paintwork in the foreground of the latter. I also relished the rather peculiar but not ineffective ‘Summer Night, Riverside Drive’ (1909), in which different light effects from streetlamp to bonfire and fireworks are played out against a greeny-blue velvety dark. Bellows was also good at the blues in snow, seen to particular effect in ‘Snow-Capped River’, and at the mighty flux and myriad opportunities for texture in painting the sea; though from the lavish catalogue, the best sea paintings were shown in Washington and New York — whence the exhibition has travelled — but sadly not in London.

Instead, we have a very peculiar room of war pictures, painted at second hand from newspaper reports, which perhaps accounts for their rather forced theatricality. Then comes a whole room of lithographs, demonstrating the more illustrational side of his work. There are inevitably some boxing images, together with street and beach scenes, and such extreme subjects as ‘Dance in a Madhouse’ and ‘Electrocution’. The last room descends into portraits and figure paintings, pretty horrible on the whole. Robert Hughes blamed the Armory Show of 1913, and the sight of modern European painting: Bellows started trying to compete. He should have stayed with the direct response he was good at, and forgotten the modernist theory. His best work is really very good.

Sydney Lee (1866–1949) is not a familiar figure even to devotees of Modern British art, and it is no surprise to learn that the Academy’s enjoyable new show of his work is the first since 1945. Lee was a painter-printmaker, but it is his prints that arouse most interest these days. There are two paintings in this show — one of them down in the main foyer — and although they are impressive (slightly like the architectural paintings of James Pryde, though drier and without the fantasy), they do not generate the excitement of his best prints. Lee was an important figure in the revival of wood engraving, and a key exponent of the colour woodcut, as adopted and adapted for the English market from the Japanese. He liked to experiment, and was formally innovative as well as working on a larger than expected scale. (This may have told against him in commercial terms.) He trained at Manchester School of Art, then Paris, and set himself up in a studio in Holland Park Road, Kensington, the fashionable artists’ quarter. He was active at the RA, serving as treasurer from 1932 to 1940, and it’s highly appropriate that the Academy should now be paying tribute to his considerable achievement.

In the Tennant Gallery there’s a wall of his colour woodblocks that’s quite a revelation. All but two (of the Bridge at Staithes) are of St Ives, and demonstrate his skill in the medium, showing different times of day in different colours. There’s a marvellous large wood engraving called ‘The Ravine’ and a really impressive mezzotint and etching of ‘The Bridge at Walberswick by Moonlight’ (1913). There are more splendid things in the Council Room, including examples of his extraordinarily effective, slightly blurry aquatint treatment (‘A Mountain Fortress’ and ‘The Grimsel Pass’). The Fine Rooms at the Academy have strange openings hours (Tuesday to Friday 1 to 4.30 p.m., Saturday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) so don’t be caught out. The exhibition is accompanied by a very beautiful book, the second in a series of catalogues raisonnés dealing with the Academy’s most distinguished printmakers. The first was devoted to Henry Rushbury, and this new book on Sydney Lee is, if anything, even more sumptuous in design and content, owing to the colour woodcuts which make such a welcome addition to Lee’s oeuvre. The book is produced in hardback, costs £29.95 and would make a splendid addition to any art lover’s library.