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Beyond New York — Bellows and World War I

George Bellows's painting, "Return of the Useless," depicts the harsh realities of World War I. Influenced by reports of atrocities, Bellows's work changed public opinion about the war. His series, including this painting, combined historical and contemporary elements, showing the power of art in political discourse.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in storage at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a large painting by George Bellows. Now, this is interesting, because when I think of George Bellows, I think of the ashcan painters, images of the New York streets, of immigrant communities, but that's not what this painting is. - [Dr. Padgett] This is from a rather unusual series in Bellows's work that was largely forgotten. It wasn't until the 1980s that there was a large exhibition of this series, the war series, from 1918. - [Dr. Zucker] The painting is called the Return of the Useless, and it's an image that's almost hard to look at. This is a painting of atrocities that were said to have occurred during the very beginning of the first World War in August 1914 when the Germans invaded Belgium. What we're seeing are Belgians that had been at a forced labor camp being returned because they can't work. They're too sick or too injured. - [Dr. Padgett] And you see the German soldiers, one on the left who stands with the butt of his rifle poised to strike the figure on the ground. You see also the soldier on the right hand side who, likewise, is about to strike a woman that seems to be turned from us and a man intervenes, even in his slumped state, to stop the swing of the rifle. - [Dr. Zucker] It's based on a series of reports, first a report that was produced by the Belgians, then by the French, and ultimately, the Bryce Report produced in England. - [Dr. Padgett] The Bryce Report was published in a shortened version in May of 1915 in the New York Times, and quickly became read across the US and globally. - [Dr. Zucker] And although the Bryce Report, and the Belgian and the French reports, were put forward as factual, the truth was more complex. But what's important is that this painting was largely influenced by these studies. - [Dr. Padgett] Many had long argued that the US shouldn't enter the war effort, and it was reports like the Bryce Report that pushed popular opinion. Bellows himself had been opposed to the war initially, but by 1917 upon having heard about all these different atrocities, his opinion had largely changed, and he actually volunteered for military service in 1917. - [Dr. Zucker] We're not seeing a painting that was made from sketches in Belgium. The artist is using his imagination and is creating a kind of staged representation of the atrocities. And all of this for an American audience. - [Dr. Padgett] This war series, which in total was about 20 lithographs, five large oil paintings, including this work, the Return of the Useless, and then more than 30 related drawings, created this visual account of the war that many said was not based on truth. Bellows was depicting a contemporary event of human pain and suffering by looking to traditions of history painting, and by looking to historic models such as Francisco Goya's Disasters of War series which Goya completed in response to the violence that was occurring after Napoleon invaded Spain. Bellows based the figure of the soldier on the far left on Bernini's Neptune, which was an interesting juncture between a contemporary event and a historical precedent. - [Dr. Zucker] My eye goes first to the young woman. We can see the environment out of which she's come. We see a woman lying on the ground. We see perhaps a mother, trying to protect a young child. And older male figure holding a young girl. And then a man, in the deep shadow, holding his own head. She emerges, almost trying to shield herself from the brutality that's before her. She's framed by this doorway that she seems to have just slid open, and we see the wooden siding of the boxcar painted in red, as if the train itself is somehow a reflection of the wounds of war. - [Dr. Padgett] The figure in the center is the one that you're drawn to immediately because of the strong spotlight on her as she emerges from that darkened space, and the strong directionality of her hands. One pointing upward, the other pointing downward, adds to that sense of drama and theatricality. - [Dr. Zucker] It doesn't surprise me that this is a painting that was not widely exhibited after the war's conclusion. This is a painting that is very much of its historical moment. But it's a reminder that the visual arts can be turned to political purpose. - [Dr. Padgett] Bellows's war series actually was used to directly contribute to the war effort as one of the other images in the series appeared in an ad for liberty bonds in September of 1918. I think that speaks directly to the utilization and mobilization of art for a political purpose during that period. (jazzy piano music)