American Realism and American Realist Artists in the weekly section of Michael Bell, MBELLART, on Yareah magazine. Remember! Every Wednesday! Interview by Isabel del Rio.
I.R.- Hi Michael. You know, I love these artists who appear in Art Books under the name of “American Realists.” From George Wesley Bellows and his boxers to Alfred Stieglitz photos of New York and other iconic places, they were so fresh in their way of recording the grit and true reality of the early 20th century in America, once liberated of European influences. As an American artist, what do you think of their influence and legacy?
M.B.- As you know, Isabel, my Grandfather was a former professional boxer who left his large family at the age of seventeen to head out West and become a contender, so of course, I’m drawn to Bellows’ work. I’ve seen his work in person at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the power of experiencing his paintings in person makes you feel as though time stands still and you’re there, in the crowd, in front of two warriors battling for their lives. Bellows’ portrayal is realistic enough to believably “enter the work”, and his expressive brushwork, academy award winning lighting and strong colors are enough for you to feel the power of each punch. That’s what a powerful painting can do, and that – in my opinion, is something no abstract piece or any photograph could ever truly capture or ever evoke in me. With that said, I believe their influence and legacy are “here to stay.” He was also an artist, like me, very invested in “the process” as opposed to just the “product.” He created numerous studies for his works, and also many lithographs of his paintings. Here’s “A Stag at Sharkey’s”, 1917 which though it’s quite similar to the original, but not a mirror image of the painting, so as to preserve the uniqueness of his original paintings.
Here’s a great video clip from the National Gallery of Art on the Art of Boxing and on three of Bellows’ boxing paintings.
M.B.- Another powerful series of Bellows’ that are a must see are the works he did on the World War I depicting the terror and horror of the times, which also remind me a lot of Goya’s works on this subject. The fact that he only did five of these paintings within a span of one year before going back to portraits and lithographs shows effect the war had on him. Two of my personal favorites from this mini-series of five thematic works are “The Barricade”, 1918, and “The Germans Arrive”, also 1918, showing German soldiers marching into a village while using innocents to shield themselves.
“The Germans Arrive” was based on an actual account from the Bryce Commission and illustrates a German soldier restraining a young Belgian teenager whose hands had just been severed. This and the other paintings in the series accused Bellows of taking liberties when capturing the horrors of war on canvas. Bellows shot back with the fact he had not been aware that the great Leonardo da Vinci ”had a ticket of admission to the Last Supper”.
You’ve gotta love Bellows!
I.R.- With the exception of Edward Hopper, these American Realists are not very popular today. Why? Maybe a cause of the power of Abstract art?
M.B.- I don’t believe in the power of Abstract Art. As a movement, it had power absolutely, but personally, for me, the work itself does nothing for me. It’s a world devoid of shadows and light and for me, that’s where the mystery in painting is. It’s the same conversation as why people think photography will replace realist painting, which I also strongly disagree with on many levels. While you certainly can capture historical moments with the click of a button now, a painting is a moment that is “arrived at” for me…one that is born into life through an accumulation of the artist’s emotional experience, not one taken out of life as a captured moment. I once heard Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P. say the answer is paradoxical: “paintings can represent reality as it really is, not just as it looks.” I think this is pretty accurate.
I think Photography is great at recording an encounter but two elements of reality that photographs, no matter how great they are, just don’t capture as well as a painting will for me, and those are: emotions and meaning.
It’s not just about what is painted, but how it is painted. Think about Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”, which became an iconic image and one that registers an emotional and cultural reference, and “Snow Hill”, a lesser known work does a wonderful job of capturing the beautiful feeling of joy amid a haunting, bleak winter.
M.B.- Through art, and all mediums for that matter, including painting, literature and music, American Realism attempted to portray the feelings, textures and sounds of the city to influence the color, texture and outlook of life. Musicians picked up on the fast paced lifestyle of the early 20th century and responded with a fast, new tempo. Writers and authors, starting with Mark Twain, abandoned the English tone to tell American stories with American slang. Then arrived Eric Fischl in the 1970’s, painting the American suburban scene gone wild. The Ashcan School created this core of the new American Modernism in the visual arts and I believe they will always have their place.
For me, it’s about the genre of “true crime.” What humans are capable of doing to each other always has intrigued me. You can’t write something as good as it truly happens. To make a work incredibly affecting in some way I think it’s important not to over explain it or completely resolve it, but to leave you still thinking about it and allow the viewer to try and figure it out themselves. At its best that’s what great cinema does and should do. This also happens to be a genre I can speak of with the most authenticity. Here’s a piece still in progress from my new Carnevale Italiano series that best illustrates my wanting the viewer to become a participant (as the large looming shadow over the figure wrapped in plastic suggests), or at least make the viewer an “accomplice” in the re-enactment of what may have just happened or what is about to happen in the piece
M.B.- Subjects that draw us into our life as artists will continue to draw us in. Patterns we respond to we will continue to respond to. Artistic evidence of this shows in the way most artists return to the same two or three stories again and again. It shows in the palette of Van Gogh, the characters of Hemingway, the orchestration of your favorite composer. We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in – and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? Here’s a couple more works that support this.
I.R.- Speaking about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, what do you think? I saw some photos of you which could have some influence. Am I right?
M.B.- I’d love to know which works of mine you feel have Hopper’s influence? Please, do share Isabel!
As far as what I think about Hopper, he’s one of my favorites as well, right up there with Munch, Fischl, Bellows, Bacon…I love haunting works that are filled with meaning, up for the audience to interpret. I found this interesting for your readers that many may not know…Hopper and his wife Josephine kept a visual journal in which he would sketch a drawing of each of his paintings, along with a precise description of certain technical details. Jo Hopper would then add additional thoughts.
A review of the page on which Nighthawks is entered shows (in Edward Hopper’s handwriting) that the intended name of the work was actually Night Hawks and that the painting was completed on January 21, 1942.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles ¾ across canvas—at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre door into kitchen right.
Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back—at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark—Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street—at edge of stretch of top of window[/quote]
I.R.- Thanks, Michael. Enjoy the week.