George Bellows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A must-see rumination on New York City's abrasive beauty
George Bellows: Retrospective
Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 15, 2012-February 18, 2012
George Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School, the New York-centered realist art movement of the early 20th century. The so-called 'Apostles of Ugliness' -- at least, according to critics -- included John Sloan, Robert Henri and eventually Edward Hopper. Even the photography of Jacob Riis is considered indicative of the bold Ashcan style. Bellow's painting, in particular, are representative of the movement, using dramatic, almost geometric styling to depict everyday settings that were raw, lurid and sometimes unsettling..
But after a century of photography and film and decades of modern art, Bellows work now seems rather far from real, almost hallucinogenic. A romantic abstraction, the manipulation of light to evoke the senses of the flesh. The imperfections of his subjects, while sometimes ghastly, are flawless ones.
That was my personal impression of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's amazing new retrospective of the work of George Bellows, a stunning collection of oil paintings and drawings, most steeped in the rough and tumble of early 20th century New York City.
His subjects include lean boxers in the basement of Sharkey's Saloon on the Upper East Side, naked East River swimmers, fiery preacher Billy Sunday (Bellows paints Sunday's upper Manhattan revivals), strolls along Riverside Park, and the excavations of Penn Station. Collected together, you'll notice many of the images derive their motion from confident broad strokes, slightly distorted and blurred body frames, and a framework that's almost photographic.
My favorites surprised me with their use of radical light, like his blinding-white winter scene in Battery Park (below) and his stark-green, twisted views of a Newport, R.I., afternoon. The show makes a point of keeping his weirdest work -- inspired by not-quite-true stories of World War I atrocities -- confined to one room.
Bellows did seek to expose the ruddiness and chaos of urban life, but it wasn't just for its inherent ugliness that he found it so irresistible. It's no surprise to find that his home and studio at 146 East 19th Street happens to be on the so-called "Block Beautiful," Gramercy Park's most diversely gorgeous street. There's even a painting of his elegant home, with his printing press clearly seen on the top floor.
Bellows died prematurely in 1925 at age 42 at the height of his talents, abundantly clear in the exhibition's final room. It literally feels like an unfinished show, not by fault of the museum, but at the clear superiority of the final paintings.
I still personally think John Sloan is New York City's greatest painter, but, thank you Met, you've almost changed my mind.
By the way, there's another new show with a connection to New York City history you should check out while here -- African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.
Some proofreading might have helped so that veteran journo Sit Yin Fong's name does not appear as Sit Ying Fong. And I believe that the beer garden of Tivoli (a popular meeting place at a now-demolished building called The International) was located where The Paragon stands now, rather than Lucky Plaza.
The dramatic photographs are from the book. Buy it!
It's a different world: Illustrating the difficulty of a New York TV show set in the 1880s, above is a picture of the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The Reservoir is off to the left, where the New York Public Library is today. More on this photo here.
Ever since the announcement that 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes would be developing a show for NBC about 1880s New York, blogs have been excitedly speculating its contents. Will 'The Gilded Age' be have the same 'Upstairs Downstairs' dynamic that informed Fellowes' Oscar-winning script for 'Gosford Park'? Will it feature real-life New Yorkers like Alva Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan? Which American actress will be cast in a Maggie Smith-like dowager role? (Leading candidates may include Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones and -- if she can be wrested away from 'American Horror Story' -- Jessica Lange.)
This era is ripe for proper television treatment but, with its degree of difficulty, could easily run afoul of mediocrity. Some things hopefully show creators will consider:
-- Don't skimp: The 1880s is one of the more formative decades of New York history. It exists mostly in fantasy, as only a few notable buildings from before this period still exist, and many of New York's grandest structures were just being constructed (Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, among others). The tallest building in New York was the Equitable Building at a whopping seven floors. (I mentioned the Equitable in my post on the Williamsburg fire, as it burnt to the ground in 1912.) New Yorkers got around by elevated railroad and streetcar. They spent a Saturday afternoon strolling upon the Reservoir and or visiting the newly built Metropolitan Opera House near Herald Square.
-- Don't film in Burbank. Or London. Or Toronto: Even though the big set pieces will be created by matte painting and CGI, New York still enjoys hundreds of brownstones from this period, literally begging to be used. There are dozens of historic districts in New York; just edit out the Dunkin Donuts on the corner, and you're set! Do not make the 'Mad Men' mistake of thinking you can create an iconic vision of New York someplace else.
-- Cast authentic faces, not big stars: Okay, sounds like an expensive show so far. The good news is that Fellowes has a huge following, and the show is concept driven. Outside a pivotal star or two, pull together a great list of actors from New York's huge acting pool that actually fit the part -- in comportment, body shape or profile. Handsome men then didn't look like Taylor Lautner. If you're casting for stunning beauties, hold up a picture of Lillian Russell (who arrived on the New York scene in 1885), not Kristen Stewart. Above: Ms. Russell in 1885
-- Consider changing the title: I like 'The Gilded Age' but perhaps it's a little too on-the-nose. And there's already a satirical classic with that title. (Although that didn't stop 'Nashville'.) One of the pleasures of 'Downton Abbey' is that it's rooted to an actual place, providing gravity to an ever-centrifugal drama. Perhaps find the same in New York. (This saves money too.) 'Fifth Avenue'? 'Madison Square'? The Villard Houses were built in 1884. Wouldn't that be a perfect setting? I mean, if it's good enough for Gossip Girl....
Too bad a most perfect title 'The 400' -- the name of Mrs. Astor's high society social circle -- conjures up images of a non-existent sequel to '300' full of sweaty gladiators. And if you decide to chuck the high society thing and go all gritty, may I suggest 'The Tenderloin'?
-- Watch 'Boardwalk Empire': The world of Fellowes' new show is going to have to interact with the real world even more than 'Downton Abbey' does. And while Martin Scorsese's HBO drama about 1920s Atlantic City feels narratively distant -- sometimes it's unforgivably boring -- it does incorporate historical figures into its storyline surprisingly well. It's not an easy thing to do, making melodramatic historical figures into flesh-and-blood characters, but that's been one of Boardwalk's more successful accomplishments.
-- The temptation of the Astors vs. the Vanderbilts: You can't touch upper crust Manhattan of the 1880s without discussing the old school Astors and the new money Vanderbilts, whose families collided in the narrow New York social sphere of the era. But it may be more prudent to watch this clash of style from an adjacent family, either real or fictional.
-- The potential of wacky supporting characters: Now I'm just being a total New York geek here, but in the periphery of such a show, one could find an excellent assortment of extraordinary oddballs. The 1880s had no shortage. Perpetual mayoral candidate Henry George, industrialist Peter Cooper and preacher Henry Ward Beecher in their final years, faded icon of scandal Victoria Woodhull, cigar-chewing Fifth Avenue Hotel power player Roscoe Conkling and the young, genius gadabout Stanford White.
-- And don't just stay in New York: There's Saratoga! Newport! Tuxedo Park! Manhattan Beach! Long Island's Gold Coast!
All right, so maybe I've just budgeted the show out of existence. Anyway, here's hoping for a drama as heartfelt and as addictive as 'Downton Abbey'.
|Long service awards. Maestro Lan Shui has been with the SSO for 15 years now!|
|The best dressed, as voted by the dinner guests were harpist Gulya Mashurova and Concertmaster Sasha Souptel.|
|A Hard Day's Night.|
|Concertmaster Sasha Souptel, Mrs Charlotte Goh and Maestro Lan Shui.|
|The Chans with power company. Cellist Chan Wei Shing, soprano Jeong Ae Ree of New Opera Singapore with Mrs Goh Chok Tong, Violinist Chan Yoong Han, Marketing Comms Manager Cindy Lim with Borard member Chng Hak Peng.|
|Concertmasters with their partners. Sasha Souptel with Masako Suzuki, and Lynnette Seah with re-elected "US President Barack Obama".|
|The Cool Crowd (SSO past present and future): Gillian Wong, Amy Yuen, Tang I Shyan, Jason Lai, Tan How Pang and Jenny Ting.|
The allure of the Empire State Building as a glamorous light spectacle has been around almost since the mast -- originally designed, but never used, as a mooring mast for zeppelins -- was raised in 1931.
Nearby Times Square was bathed in the light of neon advertisement, and its master of manipulation was lighting designer Douglas Leigh. The iconic beacon would have been irresistible to Leigh, and in 1941, he proposed for the top of the Empire State something that would have been easily his most ambitious, most striking lighting display to date -- an illuminated bottle of Coca-Cola.
According to author John Tauranac, the famous curvaceous bottle would have sat along the spire, changing color based upon the weather. It was one of several potential Empire State Building/Coke tie-ins planned, including a Coke-sponsored performance by the orchestra of Andre Kostelanetz performed at the top, broadcast nationwide on the radio. Coke products would have featured "a small guide to decipher the colors."
The Empire State Building could have used this publicity at this time, as owners were scrambling to fill vacancies within the building. With Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and dozens of other towers now constructed, midtown Manhattan was experiencing a glut of office space. A Coke sponsorship would have given the Empire State Building free publicity, not to mention sizable rental fees.
Below: Leigh's famous smoking Camel ad in midtown Manhattan. The Empire State Building can be seen up in the corner.
But Leigh's timing was terrible; even as the plan was being drafted, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and America entered World War II. During the war, there would be no lights at all atop the building or in its upper floors.
A few years later, in July 1945, a B-25 bomber would crash into the Empire State Building, killing the pilot and several within the building. More amazing facts about that tragic accident here.
Leigh never gave up his dream of transforming the Empire State Building. After the war, Leigh told Life Magazine he wanted to put a gigantic, lighted cigarette on the building. [source] Many decades later, Leigh would finally get his chance -- albeit without product placement -- designing a new, colorful lighting system in time for the country's 1976 Bicentennial celebration.
Williamsburg in flames: Explosion on the East River 1912, and a test for the five-borough fire department
The Williamsburg waterfront was a wall of industry over one hundred years ago and of a most combustible kind.
Manhattan had waterfront industry as well, but it was leveraged with rising skyscrapers. For instance, from the Williamsburg Bridge -- not a decade old in 1912 -- one could see the nearly-completed Woolworth Building emerging from the downtown skyline. When one turned to the Brooklyn side, however, you were greeted only with towers of belching smokestacks from warehouses and factories, dark, sooty and noxious.
And right in the middle of all that was the United Sulphur Company*, at Kent Avenue and North 10th Street. On the afternoon of November 25, 1912, an explosion here at the sulphur plant threatened to destroy the entire waterfront.
At right: Headline from the New York Tribune, November 26, 1912
Imagine both the sights and the smells of an exploding sulphur factory. Over 5,000 tons of crude sulphur were ignited, created a blast so powerful that some employees were literally blown into the river. Others were trapped in "suffocating fumes" and collapsed.
Newspaper reports made note of various acts of "unselfish heroism" as trained employees "plunge[d] into the yellow glare, shot with blue sulphur flame" to rescue unconscious co-workers.
Two more explosions spread the fire over three blocks, showering fiery embers into the hay bales over at the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal building and endangering the nearby oil and gas tanks.
Fire alarms rang throughout the entire city, as firefighters from other boroughs soon arrived to help combat the blaze. This was the second time in history that a 'borough call' -- essentially, all hands on deck -- had ever been made since the consolidation of New York in 1898.
The first would have been fresh on the minds of firefighters rushing to the scene -- the devastating blaze at the Equitable Building (in Manhattan, at 120 Broadway) which had killed six people that January. It appears the borough call was not yet in place or was simply not called in 1911, when the fire at the Triangle Factory Fire killed 146 workers.
"This was the hardest fire of its sort I ever experienced," said New York fire chief John Kenlon of the blaze. Taking seven hours to fully extinguish, the inferno was made worse by the billowing sulfurous fumes which knocked out more than a few firemen and at least four fire horses.
One benefit of the burning sulphur: it smelled so rancid that residents of tenements in the surrounding neighborhood fled early from the smell. A good thing, as the flames eventually destroyed a tenement on Berry Street. A local saloon also caught fire from wisps of burning hay.
Below: An almost abstract photo of the fire from the Tribune.
Hundreds of spectators watched the blaze from the vantage of the Williamsburg Bridge, the sulphur created a thick curtain of smoke; the New York Times claimed that "the flames showed like dancing green sprites through the fog of gas and smoke."
Unbelievably, despite dire headlines -- 'DEAD IN RUINS OF BROOKLYN FIRE' -- it appears there were no deaths due to the blaze, but dozens of injuries. It was a true test of the consolidated New York Fire Department, and one they ably passed.
*'Sulfur' is the more preferred spelling today, but as the original company used the British spelling 'sulphur', I have continued that spelling throughout the article for consistency.
Top illustration courtesy New York Public Library
|Strings and harps learn to play together!|
|Young harpists Lee Yun Chai (15) and Nicolette Chin (17), who played the King and Queen, receive their applause.|
|Katryna Tan (dark blue dress) and her harp gang take a final bow.|
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with family, lots of food, and maybe a little shopping. My family hosted Thanksgiving at our house this year which meant my mom and sister did most of the cooking. I helped in some ways (like making the Bloody Mary drinks for mom and I, ha) but couldn't do too much as I found watching my sister maneuvering around the kitchen amusing. She is a rookie in the kitchen and had a couple little humorous mishaps.
The movie ended just in time for shopping! I was able to score a couple deals for myself, part of my sisters gift and a gift for my mom. I think shopping was a success!