George Bellows at the National Gallery

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With its expansive exhibition of 130 canvasses, drawings and lithographs by American George Bellows at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, a partisan might claim the show demarks the end of representational painting. And for those with little appreciation of Modern Art, Bellows may represent the end of painting itself.

Bellows stood at the pivot between Victorian realism and its gentile depictions of a proper life, and the forlorn abstractions of artists seemingly unsure of the remaining utility of paint and canvas. As an Ashcan artist, Bellows demonstrated extraordinary confidence and epitomized the brazen effort to use the energy of painting itself to reveal the subject.

In a rare treat, the exhibition joins his iconic boxing paintings in a single room. The National Gallery already owns “Club Night” and “Both Members of this Club.” This exhibition adds canvasses from other collections, including “Stag at Sharkeys.” This collision of tangled bodies reveals the sinew and muscles of charging warriors. Faces obscured, Bellows focuses us instead on motion. We understand that one fighter will shortly be lifted and perhaps thrown. The referee, our proxy, finds himself twined in the grapple. He, like us, may soon find himself part of the fray.

Bellows shatters the image of the painter as a mommy’s boy. And it’s tempting to credit his background as an Ohio State University baseball star for the raw, muscular depictions of these boxing contests.

Bellows left Ohio to the Big Apple and studied under Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School. Under Henri, Bellows sought subjects from the street (which didn’t pay his rent) as well as the salon (which did). For example, rather than extol architecture, his “Pennsylvania Station Excavation” depicts the grit of early construction. As all cities are perpetually under construction or renovation, such scenes more fairly represent than do the cropped and retouched travel brochures.

Bellows wasn’t the first or last artist with a social conscience. Some of his efforts to highlight the squalor of New York’s underclass owe much to forebears such as Velazquez. In “River Rats” and “Forty-two Kids,” we watch this menagerie congregate and then plunge from a dock in the only “bathing suits” they probably can afford, namely, none. We don’t see many faces, but rather their skinny bodies. Perhaps most fun is the inverted youngster whose outstretched arms pierce the water as the bottom of his feet enjoy a fleeting moment in the sun.

In a World War I painting, Bellows alarmingly shows us a boy with his hands shorn by invading Germans in “The Germans Arrive.” Bellows supported American entry into the war, and such images may have served at least a small role in public decision. Bellows died at the young age of 42, before the Great Depression. One can only imagine how he might have helped dramatize the economic violence visited by a reckless Wall Street. Joining the street urchins, he might have shown us plight of fallen titans.

But Bellows did enter the drawing rooms of the ruling class and he could paint faces. Many depict his wife. He also painted seascapes (accounting for half his lifetime output) while resident in Maine. Here, too, he captures the violence of the sea.

Bellows fans span from Bill Gates, who paid $27 million for “Polo Crowd,” to President George W. Bush, who’s White House acquired “Three Children.” This exhibition will travel to New York and London. Bellows’ place in history has long been secure, and this exhibition will help emphasize why he deserves his prominent place in the pantheon of painters.

The George Bellows exhibit remains on view at the National Gallery through Oct. 8, 2012.

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