George Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s
“I am not interested in the morality of prize fighting. But let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves…”
“I don’t know anything about boxing. I’m just painting two men trying to kill each other.”—George Bellows
For a sport said to represent the lowest common denominator, in the rarified air of sports in general no less than in “civilization” itself, boxing has attracted more than its fair share of highbrow commentary. Much of that commentary has come via the written word, starting with Homer and Virgil and extending through the millennia to include Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Ben Johnson, William Hazlitt, Lord Byron, Pierce Egan, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer and Wilfrid Sheed, not to mention scores of sportswriters who had something to say and the chops to say it, in an informed, artful, stylish, and literate manner.
Yet visual artists also found the “manly art” as compelling as their scribbling brethren. One of the first known examples of boxing art dates from Cyprus, circa 1600 B.C. Called Boxing Rython, it’s a Minoan vase showing two men sparring. From that time forth, culture after culture recognized boxing as an activity that was not only memorable but unforgettable, a subject worth recording and recounting for the ages.
Closer to our own time, we have Andy Warhol’s glimmering lithograph of Muhammad Ali (whose 70th birthday is tomorrow). It’s easy to dismiss Warhol, he was after all the freak’s freak and then some, but ignorance and lack of curiosity are no excuse to trash art history. The silver-haired wonder chose his subjects with care, at least early on, and that he linked The Greatest with other indelible American icons like Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie O, John Wayne, and the delectable Marilyn Monroe speaks volumes about boxing’s place in the culture at large.
The painting considered the finest boxing painting of all time is Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows (1882-1925), which has been part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collection since 1922. Bellows created dozens of paintings, prints and lithographs depicting fighters and fights. His best-known work is the highly stylized Dempsey and Firpo (1924), which depicts the greatest heavyweight title fight of the era. Stag at Sharkey’s, by contrast, is in a sense generic, despite its title characterless in that it focuses on neither specific fighters nor a historic fight. The exuberant Stag at Sharkey’s, which towers over Dempsey and Firpo, celebrates boxing, masculinity, voyeurism, violence and painting all at once, and it’s unlikely that an artist of Bellows’ caliber will ever put his brush to canvas and give us an image so alive to the fighter’s art.
Bellows grew up in the Midwest and played baseball and basketball in college. He was offered a contract to play semi-pro baseball, but art was his calling and in 1904 at the age of 22 made his way to the New York School of Art. He first moved into a YMCA located at West 57th Street and Broadway. In those days the YMCAs were known for their wholesome environments that linked exercise to morality, cleanliness and godliness.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Sports weren’t the all-consuming, bedwetting passion they’ve become today. Athletics were, for the most part, about having a body fit enough and mind strong enough to resist the temptations of cursing, billiards, booze and fornication that slink from the shadows to corrupt weak willed men and women.
As President Theodore Roosevelt noted, he “didn’t like to see young Christians with shoulders that slope like a champagne bottle.” Yet even he condemned prizefighting as “simply brutal and degrading.”
Bellows moved into his first studio in 1906. “Before I married and became semi-respectable,” he wrote, “I lived on Broadway opposite the Sharkey Athletic Club where it was possible under the law to become a ‘member’ and see the fights for a price.
“I am not interested in the morality of prize fighting. But let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.”
Sharkey’s was run by retired heavyweight contender “Sailor” Tom Sharkey in the basement of his saloon at West 65th Street and Broadway. There was nothing fancy about Sharkey’s, or about “Sailor” Tom himself, but the all-male audience could watch stags, impromptu prizefights fought not for love of titles or love of money but for love of the fights.
Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School (also known derogatorily as the “Apostles of Ugliness”), a school of painting that was radical in its day in that it challenged the idealistic landscapes, wide open spaces, and undulating prairies that were popular in favor of gritty street life and urban slums.
The painting Stag at Sharkey’s isn’t a realistic rendering of two men fighting. It is impressionistic, while the application of paint with its slashing brushstrokes is expressionistic, yet both serve the interests of capturing not just a moment in time, but enlivening the cathartic intensity, the paradoxical coupling of Eros and Thanatos that two men fighting for their lives bring to the ring.
The atmosphere in Sharkey’s is sordid, smoky, claustrophobic, drenched as much in testosterone as linseed oil. If one looks away from the anonymous fighters to the amorphous, sweaty crowd, one can see the feral madness in those faces expressing an urge that is as atavistic as it is vicarious and eternal.
Joyce Carol Oates, in describing Stag at Sharkey’s, writes that Bellows “renders a fleeting moment of uncalculated reflexive action, a Dionysian frenzy of faceless bodies hurtling together in virtual midair.
“What more compelling metaphor of man’s aggression than the boxing ring?”
With language like that, one doesn’t need instant replay or well-coiffed commentators to describe the action.
If one picture is worth a thousand words, one great picture, a boxing masterpiece no less, just about says it all.