I was curious to see George Bellows at the Royal Academy, having learnt at the Hopper’s Grand Palais exhibition that Hopper and Bellows shared the same art teacher: Robert Henri. Henri was a leader of the Ashcan art movement, which was a New York-based urban realist school of art. He urged his students to “go out there” and paint their contemporary environment. Bellows himself was a key figure of the Ashcan movement’s second generation and the term ‘Ashcan School’ originated from a drawing by Bellows Disappointments of the Ash Can. Bellows visited poor neighbourhoods, clandestine boxing clubs and other urban landscapes to paint his reality. Interestingly, Manet, who also had a strong desire to depict modern life, was held in particularly high esteem by Bellows.
Bellows is a life drawer; his style is quick on-the-spot painting, using energetic brushstrokes and hachure, adapted to his street fighting and boxing scenes. His life drawings first made me think of him as a US equivalent of Lucian Freud. However, I was equally enthralled by the fine details of Bellows’ snow and river paintings without really knowing why. On some reflection, I was able to see that it was his different techniques of applying paint that appealed to me. Long palette-knife strokes for the snow or rain, short palette-knife touches for the river’s waves, application ranging from fluid/thin to heavy/glue-like – as if squeezed out of tubes! To me, he explored all possibilities of painting technique. The exhibition runs until 9 June.