The Sackler Wing of Galleries at the Royal Academy was unveiled in 1991 by Norman Foster. It's was the first of those light and airy late-20th century spaces that (the RA argues) found their epitome in the Great Court of the British Museum. Their evident modernity makes them (in theory) a less oppressively Establishment space than the main exhibition halls downstairs - the halls whose Director declared in 1949 that he would kick Picasso's 'something...something' if he met him in the street. Despite (or perhaps because of) this pointed modernity, I have always found these upstairs galleries quite nebulous, and difficult to map precisely.
Though exhibited upstairs, George Bellows - Modern American Life is a fairly clearly intended summer pedant to this spring blockbuster Manet - Portraying Life (26 January – 14 April 2013), which, as the retrospective of an acknowledged Big Hitter, sat proudly in the main halls. There is the obvious similarity in the titles and 'modern' intention - though Manet is apparently more wide-ranging, addressing all of 'life' - but there is also a clear influence of the older on the younger. So Manet is portrayed throughout this second exhibition as 'Bellows' artistic idol'.
Thus, the first, trad-'Early Works' room of the Bellows contains several pieces that clearly allude to Manet. Of course, in so doing, they allude indirectly to Manet's own canonical sources - Bellows'Nude Girl (Miss Leslie Hall)harks back to Manet's Surprised Nymph, but through that to Rembrandt and Rubens; Miss Queenie Barnett is Bellows doing Manet doing Velasquez, via Whistler (notably Miss Cicely Alexander).
The interpretation highlights the 'creamy paint quality', which is certainly a feature the two 'life' painters share, but Bellows also brings a pronounced class consideration to these allusions - Miss Queenie Barnett is the daughter of the laundry-woman, not an American tycoon or a Spanish king - and these works are juxtaposed in Room 1 with Forty-two Kids, an originally prize-winning work whose prize was subsequently withdrawn for fear its nudity would cause offence. It was not the nudity that was the problem, argued Bellows, but the social status of the 'kids' (= 'gypsies' / tenement children) who were so nude depicted. Manet, too, brought something of these questions to bear - compare his notorious Olympia, in whom critics immediately detected a working-class prostitute, not a high-end courtesan (and thus the basis for their disgust).
"The early boxing pieces are masterpieces of suspended action and aggression"
Bellows' beautifully-observed strains of working class New York hold their note throughout the next few rooms, with the famous 'boxing' paintings their most obviously developed expression. The early boxing pieces - notably the famous Stag at Sharkey's - are masterpieces of suspended action and aggression. and had me thinking of Roland Barthes' classically-inflected analysis of wrestling (freeze-framed moments of agony) in Mythologies a couple of decades later. There's an interesting shift, though, from these early chiaroscuro slices of illegal entertainment dimly lit, to the bright - perhaps garish - floodlights of their state-sanctioned equivalent in the final room - Dempsy and Firpo (1924). I also enjoyed spotting the several-times-repeated grinning spectator figure looking out at us in the early works, and the studies for them also exhibited here. Originally in the bottom left, he disappears in Dempsy and Firpo, where the spectators are entirely absorbed in the spectacle. A lithograph study in the penultimate room shows a well-dressed middle class audience arriving in his place, some time after boxing was legalised in New York.
However, one of the features that becomes most striking as the exhibition continues is not so much light and shade as colour. Many of the splendid social scenes found in Room 3 (often featuring snow) combine an original rightness with subsequent wrongness - you suddenly realise that bush is bright purple, and the shadow on the snow is bluer than it should be (notably in Blue Snow the Battery, 1910). Such expressionist interjections feel almost unsettling, though I found these scenes among the most attractive in the exhibition.
"In some ways, this is a consciously and provocatively unfinished exhibition."
Hanging-wise, this exhibition sits strangely. The final room is entitled 'A Life Cut Short', highlighting Bellows' early death. That he should have died so early makes settling on a defined 'late style' a challenge for critics: the curators here agree upon a critical analysis that 'late' Bellows is changeable, but that 'this Bellows is still trying to show us things'. The final room is certainly a hodge-podge - statuesque nudes sit alongside family portraits (still with a Manet tone) and the 'dream-like' landscapes. Indeed, their pointedly pattern-less juxtaposition might make you wonder how 'true' the narrative of the early works, with their directed curatorial hand, might be - and in some ways, this is a consciously and provocatively unfinished exhibition.
Nevertheless, there are still 71 works on display here, and my minor gripe is that I think they could have used some space to breathe. Maybe it should have been in the main hall after all?
George Bellows: Modern American Life is nearly finished! It runs until 9 June 2013 at the Royal Academy, London.