What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

George Bellows’s "Stag at Sharkey’s" and "Both Members of This Club"

George Bellows’s great boxing paintings Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) and Both Members of This Club (1909) have always been regarded as realist pictures, pitiless depictions of boxing’s viciousness. Peter Schjeldahl, in his recent "Young and Gifted" (The New Yorker, June 25, 2012), describes Stag at Sharkey’s as follows:

The fighters at Sharkey’s collide in no way that I’ve ever seen in the ring: each with a leg lifted far from the floor, as one man jams a forearm into the bloody face of the other, while cocking a blow to the body. Their livid flesh, radiating agony, is a marvel of colors blended in wet strokes on the canvas. The picture is at once a snapshot of Hell and an apotheosis of painting. It evinces sensitive restraint by muting the expressions of the riotous ringsiders. Almost as good, though flawed by overly indulged caricature, is “Both Members of This Club” (1909), in which a black fighter reduces a white one to a howling incarnation of pain.

David Peters Corbett, in An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters (2011), says of Both Members of This Club:

The prominent bone of the left-hand fighter’s raised forearm, his sharp ribcage above the meaty drop of his belly, his raw, red face and ribs, call to mind the unforgiving realism of Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef.

“Livid flesh, radiating agony,” “snapshot of Hell,” “howling incarnation of pain,” “raw, red face and ribs,” “unforgiving realism” – descriptions that reflect the standard realist reading of Bellows’s boxing paintings.

But Joyce Carol Oates, in her “George Bellows: The Boxing Paintings” [included in her 1989 essay collection (Woman) Writer], takes a slightly different view. She writes: “Stag at Sharkey’s and Both Members of This Club, realistic in conception, are dreamlike in execution; poetic rather than naturalistic.”

What does Oates mean by “poetic”? Is she suggesting that Bellows’s boxing paintings are, somehow, nonrealist? I recall George Segal’s comment on Edward Hopper: “What I like about Hopper is how far poetically he went, away from the real world” (quoted in John Updike’s “Hopper’s Polluted Silence,” Still Looking, 2007). Is Oates saying that Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s and Both Members of This Club depart, in some way, from “the real world”? I don’t think so. I think what she’s referring to is the way Bellows has painted them so as to emphasize the blood. She says, “However the eye moves outward it always circles back inward, irresistibly, to the center of frozen, contorted struggle, the blood-splattered core of life.” She contrasts Stag at Sharkey’s and Both Members of This Club with Bellows’s bloodless Dempsey and Firpo (1924), in which “Bellows makes no attempt to communicate what might be called the poetic essence of this barbaric fight.”

Reading Oates’s “George Bellows: The Boxing Paintings,” I was reminded of what she said, in her great “In Rough Country I: Cormac McCarthy” (In Rough Country, 2010), about McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “Blood Meridian is an epic accumulation of horrors, powerful in the way of Homer’s Iliad; its strategy isn’t ellipsis or indirection but an artillery barrage through hundreds of pages of wayward, unpredictable, brainless violence.” Oates likes works of art that unflinchingly show “the blood-splattered core of life.” Interestingly, she describes McCarthy’s prose as “poetic.” For her, it seems, blood and poetry are virtually synonymous.

Credit: The above painting is George Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s (1909).

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