Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Boxers of George Bellows

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an american painter who managed to capture in his work the birth of the modern era in the United States at the turn of the past century. Is it possible for an artist to paint not only what he sees but go beyond, capturing something larger than life? Something that becomes not just a picture but a definitive imprint of a bygone era? The distilled spirit of an age, the "zeitgeist" of say, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th? The answer is yes, if one looks at the work of George Bellows. Take for example his painting "Cliff Dwellers", depicting life in the ever sprawling neighborhoods of New York City dominated by tall, intersecting appartment blocks connected by washing lines. No skies and no horizons. Children are left to play in the street and the hustle and bustle of everyday life is so vividly portrayed that you cannot resist being drawn into the painting. Your eye travels in the picture, panning and zooming like a camera lens. After a while your imagination starts to fill in the gaps.You almost feel a strange nostalgia as if you were there once, lived among these people, shouted and cried and heard the noise of the tram passing by. George Bellows was eager to show how this world of industrial turmoil changed the urban landscape and how it affected the everyday lives of the common people. With a kin eye for detail and a talent for capturing the dynamic essence of a live, moving composition, he was the right man at the right time. 

Nowhere else is this more evident than in his paintings of boxers. Prize-fighting boxing at the time of George Bellows was illegal. It took place in seedy, underground joints hidden behind false brick walls that would slide open to reveal a noisy, smoke filled backroom, filled to capacity by a raw crowd, in a betting frenzy shouting, drinking and gesticulating around the ring. Often, the violence inside the ropes would spill over into the audience. Sometimes the cops would receive information and they would raid these places. Panic would then set in and the crowds would run to get away, leaving the two boxers up there, by themselves, oblivious of what is going on, up there, continuing to exchange the blows in front of the cops after all the crowds have cleared out and the only thing left are their hats, the odd shoe and broken bottles on the floor...     

Painted in the chiaroscuro style from the spotlights directed towards the ring, the boxers are caught in the thick of the action and even though they are off balance at the moment of defending or delivering a blow, they strike a perfect compositional balance by the perfect symmetry and complimentarity of the action. This is a brutal, head on collision dance. Their strained and blood stained muscles shining in the spotlight, their faces a blur or rather literarly a pulp, they are locked in combat in a fight that is a fight for survival.    

A noisy, passionate, deformed, ugly crowd follows closely the boxing match absorbed by the action. Painted with thick strokes, some faces could very well have been drawn by Honoré Daumier a little bit earlier at the other side of the Atlantic ocean. You get a glint of an eye here, a hideous mocking laugh there, all teeth shining. The blood red color of the boxers can be found also in some of the faces in the audience. They are an integral part of this brutal scene, tainted in red by their enthousiasm, anxiety, anger and anticipation as the match reaches the crucial minutes before the bell. With the sound of the bell some people will have gambled away their whole life. With the sound of the bell, the men in the tuxedos smile and money changes hands. 
With the sound of the bell you realise that you are in a gallery looking at a George Bellows painting. Then again, you get the impression that your clothes have a faint smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol and that your ears are still buzzing from the roar of the crowd when the referee started the countdown. A countdown that has lasted almost a hundred years...  

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