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George Bellows's canvases show brutal reality of boxing

AMHERST -- The loser lies in a heap in the boxing ring, his face tucked into his right shoulder and covered with his gloved left hand. The referee kneels over him with two fingers raised in the air while the champion stands in his corner wiping his face, waiting for the count to finish.

For George Bellows, who painted "Counted Out" in the early 1900s, victory takes a back seat to brutal defeat. There's no celebration of a fight well fought, just the aftermath of a bloody knockout.

"People asked him why he painted all this ugliness," said Bill McBride, a Bellows fan and football and basketball coach at Amherst College, which is featuring the artist's work in "George Bellows: A Ringside Seat."

"But he was being a realist," McBride said. "He was just painting what he saw."

Such was the goal of Bellows and his fellow members of the Ashcan School , a small group of New York City artists trying to record the everyday happenings of their urban environment.

The work took Bellows to some unsavory places. A well-off architect's son who grew up in Ohio, Bellows moved to New York at the turn of the 20th century in hopes of getting noticed as an artist. He soon started spending time in Manhattan's saloons that doubled as boxing rings and provided a safe haven from statutes that outlawed the sport in public places.

But while those "private clubs" kept the law away, they invited plenty of brutality.

In "A Stag at Sharkey's," Bellows offers up a close encounter with two boxers literally locked in battle in the back room of a bar. The pugilists' heads are knocked together, their arms connecting with each others' obscured faces.

Never proclaiming to be a fan of boxing, Bellows said he was drawn to the brute force of the athletes.

"I don't know anything about boxing," he once said. "I am just painting two men trying to kill each other."

But the lithographs and paintings in the Amherst College collection on display through Sunday do illustrate Bellows' s understanding of the sport's highlights.

He captures Jack Johnson towering over a beaten Jim Jeffries, the "Great White Hope" put up to defeat the first black world heavyweight champion boxer. And he was commissioned to paint the 1923 fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo, which was the first time a Latin American fighter fought for the world heavyweight title.

Bellow's painting of Firpo punching Dempsey through the ropes into a cluster of sports writers only tells the early part of the match. Supposedly pushed back into the ring by Bellows -- who was sitting with the reporters -- Dempsey was declared the winner in a second-round knockout.

As comfortable as he seemed to the boxing ring, Bellows also took on other tough subjects. His so-called "War Series" comes across as an editorial against the atrocities of World War I. In one lithograph, he shows a German soldier pounding a Belgian resident with a rifle butt.

His "Village Massacre" is just that -- a grisly depiction the 612 Belgian villagers slaughtered by Germans. The victims look in helpless horror as guns point at them from the left of the frame, where only the barrels, not the soldiers aiming them, are in view.

But there was more to the artist and his work than grim world views. The Amherst College art exhibit -- curated by Trinkett Clark, who died in late October -- also features soft portraits that Bellows painted of his friends and family.

"He was beloved by his family and friends, and he had a wonderful sense of humor," said Daria D'Arienzo, who curated a complementary exhibit of Bellows's letters, diaries, and early drawings on display in the college's library.

Before he died at 42 in January 1925, Bellows had nearly finished his last painting, "The Picket Fence." A world removed from the barroom brawls he documented two decades before, the painting places a comfortable-looking house in a pleasant pastoral setting.

"The real challenge when you think about Bellows is that you really don't know what he would've done next," D'Arienzo said.

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