Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery

Picture: Des Moines Art Center
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends National Portrait Gallery London to 25 May

Marie-Louise Pailleron stares straight out at us in this arresting portrait, sitting rigidly with her legs pointed straight out at us. Or does she? If you can get to see the original, currently in the Sargent show in London, try standing to the side. Wherever you stand, she seems to be pointed towards you and staring at you, as if every vantage point is the 'right' vantage point. It's an astonishing feat of illusionism, and it's surely deliberate. Sargent took over eighty sittings to paint Marie-Louise, and we know he ardently studied old masters who captured similar effects.

Once you notice the effect, you start to see ambiguity in the way the dress is draped over her knees, adding to the uncanny overall effect. It adds a note of dynamism to a picture that at first glance seems rigidly static. The expressions are also ambiguous: sullen, bored, menacing? Or just resigned to their fate of dozens and dozens of sittings with Mr Sargent? The picture reproduces badly, losing not only dynamism but also colour. The reds in the background are much richer in the original, and the rug more legible.

We're more accustomed to seeing pictures reproduced in a book or on a screen than in real life, and it influences the way we look at paintings. In museums, people tend to stand directly in front of each picture; few move around to see it from different angles. Some pictures were meant to be seen from below: grand still lifes of hunting trophies meant to be hung above other pictures, and pictures intended for particular positions in churches or civic buildings. Tour guides direct everyone to the anamorphic skull in Holbein's Ambassadors, but it's a notable exception. I'm convinced that some artists thought carefully about how pictures would appear from the side, Rembrandt in particular, but we're no longer attuned to look for it because we look at pictures as if they're illustrations in a book rather than objects hung on walls. It's clear to me that Sargent is drawing on this tradition, and succeeding brilliantly. 

It's especially hard to appreciate in this exhibition, because they've hung it in a corner, so you have to strain to see it from the left. I find it hard to understand why they'd make such a weird choice, concealing one of the most striking and impressive features of this picture. Here are some speculative explanations:
  • Like the 'white/gold dress', I'm seeing something others can't. I think it's unlikely, because when I've pointed this feature to others they've been able to see what I'm describing. Unless they're just humouring me; that happens a lot.
  • The curators haven't noticed, in which case they've misunderstood this picture.
  • The curators have noticed, but don't think it's important enough to mention in the catalogue or allow people to see. The exhibition emphasises his modernity, so maybe they want to downplay art historical continuity.
  • Perhaps they anticipate that the exhibition will be too crowded for people to move around the picture, so they are encouraging people to take a snapshot view and move on rather than try to negotiate the crowds to see the different aspects of this picture.
Unless the first explanation holds, the hanging reflects badly on the curators.

I'd been warned that this exhibition is overcrowded even by the claustrophobic standards of London blockbusters, but I wanted to go specifically to see this portrait, the only major Sargent in the show that I haven' seen before, and one I'm unlikely to see outside an exhibition as it's owned by the Des Moines Art Center in Idaho. You can only see it if you go at opening time, but it's worth it. I was also impressed by the small, informal portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. But overall I came away appreciating Sargent less. He created some consummate masterpieces, especially early in his career. His later work is consistently good, but rarely great; it doesn't excite me like the Pailleron children, or the splendid Dr Pozzi at Home, hung in the same room. Many Sargent portraits don't stand out from those of his good contemporaries who are less known and less shown.

Sargent is a crowd-pleaser, so he gets exhibited again and again. The pretext for this show is that his portraits of artists and friends give a different perspective on his art. I didn't see that, and the catalogue entries sometimes strain to justify the connection. Some are rich commissioners who happen to have a personal connection to Sargent, others are not really 'artists' (Wertheimer was a wealthy dealer, for example, though he commissioned Sargent prolifically). I couldn't see a common theme in the pictures selected for this exhibition that you wouldn't see in a broader retrospective of Sargent. Some of his portraits of artists and friends are dashing and original, but so are some of his portraits of strangers outside the art world. And not everything in this show is original or great.

The catalogue claims that the exhibition "challenges the conventional view of John Singer Sargent as a bravura painter of the old school, of limited imagination and originality". But it's utter nonsense to claim that as the 'conventional view', and in seeking to distance itself from that straw man they're in danger of overlooking points of continuity - as with the Pailleron child portrait I discuss above. They're so keen to emphasise a story that they lose balance and nuance. Sargent was both a bravura painter of the old school who appreciated and learned from the old masters, and he was an imaginative and original painter in the milieu of modernists. You don't have to choose between tradition and imagination.

It's sad that museums keep re-doing the same stable of predictable popular artists, each time pretending they've found a new angle. There are so many excellent portraitists of the period who are relatively neglected. How about a Boldini show instead, for example? It's the people who organise exhibitions in major museums who really show limited imagination and originality.

1 comment:

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