This painting by the American George Bellows hangs in the National Gallery; I saw it on a recent trip to DC. I knew this painting from previous visits, but I had forgotten how powerful it is. Both fighters are bunched muscle. One is a panther, all sinuous curves, back muscles flaring like a cobra. One, who has battled mightily, is bent back by the force of the other, his right leg refuses to recognize impending defeat, but his face registers his pain, both physical and mental. The paint is forced onto the canvas with a brutality that mirrors the struggle between the two men. It gives a specific meaning to the title of the work: Both Members of This Club. Yes, the two men were admitted to the club for one day, solely to put on this bout. But long before this day, they were both gladiators, members of a tribe of warriors.
The other people in the painting aren’t like these two. The fighters tower over the assembly, titans compared to those watching them at their work. Bellows only shows their faces, they have no bodies. To the right of the White fighter’s front leg is the face of a man who relishes blood and pain. Look at the doughy face of the man on the far left. These two jump out at you, and you see just what they are. There is one black face in the crowd, under the knee of the Black fighter. He seems to realize that the Black fighter’s win might be dangerous to him, and he is looking for a way out of there.
The frankly racial nature of this painting might have been mildly shocking to the people who saw it in 1909, but the fact that it is set in the underworld makes it palatable. One easy interpretation is that the struggle of African Americans was brutal, but their victory is coming. I think the painting is darker than that. The Black fighter is battling a White fighter, a working guy just like he is. The people watching are the masters. They are too weak to fight, but they love to look at pain, nasty little voyeurs, so they hire a working class White man to fight for them. They don’t care which fighter wins. The exploiting class wins as long as the battle is between workers.
This is one theme of Diane McWhorter’s book, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. She says that the rich people of Birmingham figured out that if they could get Catholic and Protestant workers fighting one another, they would never get together in a union, let alone cross racial lines. David Shipler reviewed this book for the New York Times:
Anti-union vigilantism committed by Klansmen on the payroll of U.S. Steel and other corporations set a pattern that lasted for decades. When the barons of business, known as the Big Mules, were no longer willing to dirty their own hands, they used ”the racism they had fomented whenever the have-nots threatened to organize across racial lines,” McWhorter writes. ”Rather than give specific orders to the vigilantes, they would delegate political intermediaries to oversee strategic racial violence.”
Some things don’t change.
This painting is from the Ashcan School. Tattoo and Haircut, which is at the Art Institute in Chicago, is a much later example of that school.