Saturday, 22 June 2013

Two American Georges

I've been to exhibitions by two American artists I've never heard of in the last month or so. Firstly, there was a retrospective of George Bellows at the Royal Academy of Arts and yesterday I went to the exhibition of George Catlin's portraits of Native Americans from around the 1830s. The Bellows exhibition has already closed and the Catlin exhibition closes this weekend.

George Bellows is, we're told, famous in America for his paintings of boxers in the early 1900s and one of them featured on the poster for the exhibition. Not being a fan of men hitting each other in the name of sport it didn't do much to attract me but he did so much more than boxing paintings. He painted scenes of New York in the early years of the 20th Century, helping to create an image of what New York was all about, the hustle and bustle, the parks, snow and ice, queues of men waiting for work, the countryside of New York state and much more.

I like his sort of chunky realism with blocky people filling his paintings. He liked crowds and he didn't like detail. He doesn't seem to really do faces but he likes lots of bodies to fill his paintings. Many of them are filled to bursting with people in different moods and poses. He also seemed to like horses but didn't quite get the hang of how to paint their heads.

One of my favourites was a painting of a busy street scene in New York with sky scrapers being built in the background and the foreground is full of traffic and people. He clearly loved his real subject - New York - giving over most of the painting to sketching out the buildings and helping to create that classic image of New York City.

He also liked snow and painted many pictures of snow in various guises, as the thing making you shiver waiting in line for a job, turning the Hudson River white, snowy landscapes and the winter fun of skating. He wrote, "I must always paint the snow at least once a year."

I liked this painting of ice skating on a frozen lake with skaters in the background and people standing round watching in the foreground. The colours of the clothes of the mother and daughter really stand out while the movement of the skaters behind them is mesmerising. The snowy hills in the background make me wonder where this is and where all the people have come from.

He also painted some painful paintings based on World War I propaganda designed to bring America into the war. Four of these were included in the exhibition and I couldn't look at them since they shrieked pain and woe. I immediately thought they represented his 'Guernica' moment and moved on.

In 1920 he wrote: "Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities."

George died at the age of 42 in 1925 and his later works were starting to move towards a more dreamy, surrealistic phase so who knows what he might have achieved if he'd lived. He wasn't scared to experiment and push his art forward so it's easy to speculate but who knows? I'm pleased I've been introduced to Mr Bellows.

The second artist is also a George, this time George Catlin. He was active around the 1830s and specialised in painting Native Americans. His exhibition is called 'American Indian Portraits' and that's exactly what it is, lots of portraits of Native Americans in all their finery and a few group scenes.

The narrative around the exhibition (and the catalogue book) is that George was recording the culture of Native American peoples for posterity but towards the end of the exhibition we're told that he brought a troupe of people from one nation over to Europe to put on shows to entertain his rich patrons. That sort of moves him from the role of angel to exploitation so I'm not entirely sure what I think of him. But the portraits are fascinating.

His paintings are primitive (as befits a trained lawyer who wants to break out of his shackles) and, as the name of the exhibition suggests, he focuses on portraits - head and shoulders and whatever finery his sitters wore. It's all quite fascinating but when I looked into the eyes of the models I saw sadness. Their way of life has gone and who remembers their ways today?

The paintings are all heavily captioned with the name of the sitter, some of their background and which tribe they were from. This young man, for example, was called Wash-ka-mon-ya, or Fast Dancer, and was one of the troupe of performers Catlin brought to perform in London and Paris in 1844-45. I wonder what he thought about coming to Europe with its big, dirty cities, with the jewels of the rich and the grinding poverty of the poor. Did he like it or did he yearn for the open spaces of his home? There are dozens of individual stories behind these portraits.

It's a fascinating exhibition that I managed to catch just days before it closed. It's good to see those faces, those dancers and hunters, see the buffalo and those folks long gone who posed for George. When he presented his paintings he hung them close together, frame to frame, for impact and that's how they were hung in the Smithsonian and how 24 are hung at the National Portrait Gallery. It creates a great impact walking into that room and seeing all those faces looking back at you.

I wonder if any of them ever dreamed we would look upon their faces and muse about their lives nearly 200 years later? 

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