Tuesday, June 19, 2012

`Darks on Lights, Lights of Darks'

We know George Bellows for his pictures of bloodied boxers, painted when prizefighting was illegal in New York City and other parts of the country – A Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), Both Members of This Club (1909), Dempsey and Firpo (1924). The first is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it became part of my childhood bank of American images, a corrective to what seemed like European prettiness. Yet four years after the hyper-masculine Sharkey’s, Bellows painted A Day in June, a pastoral scene in Central Park foregrounded with women and girls in white. In “America! America!” (When Can I See You Again?, 2010), one of his art essays written for the San Diego Reader, W.S. Di Piero calls the oil painting “a sheer pleasure-giver.” I didn’t know the picture, now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, but sought it out after reading the rest of Di Piero’s description:

“It’s a standardized impressionistic view of urban outdoor leisure: Central Park, parasols, balloons, girls in creamy white smocks, women in ankle-length crinolines, their hats as green as the hilly swards around them, men smoking cigarettes, couples playing ball, girls dancing and skipping. But the entire scene has a distinctly American, gutsy-sweet energy, played out in Bellow’s whippy, loaded brushstrokes.”

The subject recalls Seurat but Di Piero nails the giveaway American quality, “gutsy-sweet energy.” These people are having a better time than the cutouts strolling Île de la Grande Jatte, but Bellows’ background of shadowy, late afternoon trees is ominous, like the setting of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The title ironically closes the best-known line in James Russell Lowell’s “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” portions of which I had to memorize in junior high school:

“And what is so rare as a day in June?
   Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
   And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten.”

Bellows may have given us “a perfect day,” but the year is 1913 (the year of the Armory Show, in which Bellows – and Duchamp – exhibited) and war soon will erase the world that made simulations of perfection possible. Our retrospective knowledge adds poignancy to the happy scene. It’s that juxtaposition of gloom and brightly lit innocence and fun that makes the picture so interesting to look at. In his recently published poetry collection, Nitro Nights, Di Piero includes “Only in Things”:

“Some days, who can stare at swathes of sky,
leafage and bad-complected whale-gray streets,
tailpipes and smokestacks orating sepia exhaust,
or the smaller enthusiasms of pistil and mailbox key,
and not weep for the world's darks on lights, lights on darks,
how its half-tones stay unchanged in their changings,
or how turning wheels and wind-trash and revolving doors
weave us into wakefulness or dump us into distraction?
This constant stream of qualia we feel in our stomachs.
The big-leafed plant lifts its wings to greet the planet's chemistry,
the sun arrives on rooftops like a gentle stranger, rain rushes us
love to love, stop to stop, these veins of leaf, hand,
storm and stream, as if in pursuit of us and what we are becoming.”

It’s a painterly poem, relentlessly visual, and the fifth and sixth lines, and much else, recall A Day in June: “…weep for the world's darks on lights, lights on darks, / how its half-tones stay unchanged in their changings.”


Don said...

FYI, a "major" retrospective of Bellows is at the National Gallery in DC now through Oct. 8.

Dave Lull said...

"Another Round for a Realist Contender":