Cliff Dwellers - 1913
Artist: George Bellows (1882-1925)
This is the second post with an example of the square format used in a painting. The first example was a painting by Alfred Sisley titled The Rest by the Stream.
The square format of The Rest by the Stream, helps achieve a very calm, restful effect. In the painting shown above, by George Bellows, the square format helps achieve a stifling, compressed, claustrophobic, "no way out of this place" effect. (It makes me think of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.)
WHAT IS GOING ON IN THIS SCENE
Obviously these are poor people who cannot stand the heat inside these brick buildings they live in (and I assume their apartments are small and crowded, adding even more pressure). Of course there was no air conditioning back then. They have to go outside in order to get any relief at all, though they can't go far - either onto their tiny balconies or onto the crowded street and sidewalks directly below. One gets the feeling that the people in this scene are trapped, unable to get any real relief before they'll have to go back inside. Although outside of their rooms, they are still virtually imprisoned between the high apartment walls.
Although I did not read about what was actually going on in this picture before I first saw it, I knew immediately that this was a crowded tenement scene in New York. Where else could it be? I knew of the Ashcan artists of New York and what their usual subjects were, and that George Bellows was associated with them (though I had only seen his boxing scenes). I was especially familiar with the tenement drawings of John Sloan, which I have spent a lot of time looking at and am still fascinated by. (See Sloan's drawing called Night Windows (1910), on the Phillips Collection website; also, there is an article on John Sloan on Wikipedia.)
However, I am assuming that even if I hadn't known anything about these artists or their typical subjects or about the living conditions of recent immigrants in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century, I would have had a strong inkling of what was happening here because of what the composition and the square format are "saying," and I'm pretty sure you would have come to the same conclusions.
But what if a stranger who had just arrived from another planet and had never before seen these types of buildings or human beings, nor knew what we know about the times, the place, and the local artists were to observe this picture. Might they be able to quickly figure out what this picture was about? The basic idea, I mean. It depends. If their home planet was large and dense and gravity was as important there as it is here (which would probably be the case), it seems likely to me that the stranger would at least be able to figure out the basics: these creatures have been forced outside, they can't go far, they are trapped. Also, the alien -- being some kind of intelligent creature (here alone, observing, and curious) -- might realize that the "people" were at least some kind of animal life, probably intelligent (they are not all doing the same thing, so one might guess they're self-guided), and so on -- but what I'm most interested in here are the basic forces and the forms and directions and such that reveal them.
THE SQUARE FORMAT AND GRAVITY
Although the square format has been much used since the early 20th century for abstract and semi-abstract pictures for the very purpose of eliminating the appearance of the effects of gravity (which are so much a part of "realistic" painting), Bellows obviously did not wish to disregard gravity and in fact the effects of gravity are very much taken into account by the artist, and used to help us understand what is going on. Just one example: The people, sapped of energy by the heat, seem to have spilled from their no doubt sizzling apartments downward toward the relief of a lower, comparatively cooler and airier, stratum, but now that they are there they appear to be weighted down and barely able to move (note that everyone at the bottom of the picture is sitting at or almost at ground level, or has both hands and knees on the ground, and they do not look like they're about to get up). Our intuitive understanding of how gravity works to pull and hold people down when they're weak or tired or injured or sick helps to suggest or reinforce the idea of these people's lack of energy and lack of ability to do anything about the situation.
THE SQUARE FORMAT'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE OPPRESSIVE LOOK OF THE SCENE
In this square format, all four sides seem to be pushing toward the center or at least holding it very firmly in their coordinated grip, giving a feeling of compression throughout the entire picture. Of course there is help in creating this squeezing effect from the vertical edges of the buildings which repeat the verticals of the inward-pushing sides of the square, plus there are the converging perspective lines which make it look as if we're peering into a brick box, at the far end of which is a lighter-colored building which appears to be marching forward right up the street toward the crowd of people ... who, as we know, cannot escape. (All I can say is, this picture must have been a lot of fun to think out).
WHAT IS IN THE CENTER OF THE PICTURE
In Sisley's square painting, The Rest by the Stream, there is nothing but a blur of leafy branches in the middle of the picture, but this central area of indistinct "leafiness" seems to be surrounded by a "circle," which transforms it into something like a pinwheel that seems to move around and around hypnotically, helping to give the effect of movement and breeziness that spreads to the edges of the picture. This is a very refreshing effect.
The center of Bellows' inner city scene is also virtually empty - There is nothing to focus on there. But just as is the case with The Rest by the Stream, the empty space is surrounded by a "circle." In this picture it is a virtually inert circle of people (in the foreground as well as at the windows and fire escapes) along with the clotheslines at the top (a weak link that makes the bottom of the circle seem heavier). A circle has somewhat of a mesmerizing effect; it holds your attention. The people are around the edges of it but they seem to be held to it, too. It seems that nothing is allowed to escape this confining circle, only to drop to the bottom of it.
Besides employing the tondo-like circle (Arnheim calls these "internal tondos" - see in The Power of the Center, p. 130, by Rudolf Arnheim) within the already confining square format, in order to, among other things, make us see the pattern of distribution of the people including those just outside their rooms, the artist has seen to it that no one is making a move toward the edges, not even at the bottom where most of the people are concentrated; the people seem held in place -- they have escaped the worst, but this is as far as they can go. They are "held to the center" by the artist's composition (including his choice of the shape of the canvas).
The verticals of the buildings, especially the one in dark shade, very effectively keep the "circle" from spinning (as the center does ever so slowly in The Rest by the Stream by Sisley), thus oppressively helping to keep the people weighted down at the bottom. Those verticals are reinforced by the nearby presence of the verticals of the edges of the picture. Also, the convergence of the buildings as they go into the background, where they meet even more buildings so that there is obviously no escape via that route, adds strongly to the effect of claustrophic confinement.
A Day in June - 1913
Artist: George Bellows (1882-1925)
In the above picture, painted by Bellows in the same summer that he painted the Cliff Dwellers, the effect is quite different. These are not the people who live in the tenements. These people can go to a park with cooling grass and shade trees and have a pleasant picnic when it's too warm in their homes. You will have noticed right away that the picture is not square - it is a horizontal rectangle. The horizontal rectangle allows the people the possibility of moving beyond where they are and accommodates well a feeling of peace and ease and conviviality. This rectangle is made even more peaceful and unstressful looking by its division into two shallower rectangles, the upper one a dark green mass that looks very deep and inviting. Also, there are views beyond of the blue sky with clouds (including at both upper edges, so that the dark mass of trees doesn't seem to continue on forever as do the buildings in the inner-city picture), and people appear to be moving beyond the confines of the frame as well as into the dark, cool interior. In other words, there is a feeling of "escape from stress" present everywhere. It makes Cliff Dwellers look like a pizza oven in comparison.
ALSO READ: The Square Format - Part 1 (The Rest by the Stream by Alfred Sisley)