To fight Trump, look to the vulgar style that’s long ruled American art.
In 2014, the National Gallery in London acquired their first American picture, George Bellows’s Men of the Docks (1912), in which hulking workers loiter in the dead of winter. White horses join the dockworkers just as the scene cracks with the faintest suggestion of activity. The ship and the city are an imposing frame for an otherwise bleak, bathetic subject. The work, when it comes, will be toil. But it’s better than the idle cold. This little drama never ends, really. Bellows leaves the men trapped somewhere between hope and despondence. It’s a vulgar scene.
If the Ohio-born Bellows walked through the National Gallery today, he might recoil at the gauntlet of gentility that lay before him. The Gallery doesn’t have an American wing. Instead, Men of the Docks hangs chronologically alongside the Gallery’s Impressionist and Modern masterpieces, standing out like a sore thumb alongside the l’art pour l’art of Cézanne and Van Gogh. It’s an even ruder departure from the National Gallery’s standard fare, where scarcely a room passes without a meditation on Ovid, a Madonna and Child, or a court-commissioned history painting. To an American of a certain persuasion, this all seems like a powder keg of Whig history. Bellows’s is the first and only painting whose figures appear unfazed by that history’s watchful eye. Read More