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PRINT September 1998

International News

John Singer Sargent

WHAT ARE OUR CHANCES OF DISCOVERING yet another John Singer Sargent when, beginning this October, he’ll be seen in full regalia on an Anglo-American museum tour to London, Washington, and Boston? Our century has created many different Sargents, befitting our own shifting tempers as well as the chameleon character of this slippery artist who is as predictable as he is surprising. Born in Florence in 1856 of well-to-do American expatriates, he lived and painted the Life Styles of the Rich and Famous, preparing his career in Paris as a student of the high-society portraitist Carolus-Duran, while skimming the most seductive surfaces off Monet’s Impressionism. For our modernists, he was always beyond the pale, and his cosmopolitan fame made the British champion of Post-Impressionism, Roger Fry, hate him all the more for his easy virtuosity and his appalling deficiency in such newly discovered essentials as “significant form” and “plastic values.” Painting as if Cézanne had never existed, Sargent was usually considered light—years away from serious art. What could be more damning than to be accepting commissions from John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson in 1917 when in fact the whole world, art included, was blowing up?

Sargent’s transatlantic success was mainly based on his genius at revitalizing the endangered species of court portraiture (a feat later performed by Warhol, with the flashbulb glamour of his who’s who anthology of everyone from Leo Castelli to Queen Elizabeth). But if we squirm a bit on realizing that many of Sargent’s ruthlessly nouveau-riche sitters were hardly worthy of his old-master molds of fencing-master brushwork and haughty demeanor, then we might realize that not all of Van Dyck’s or Gainsborough’s sitters deserved the fancy portraits they got either. And with the late twentieth-century’s welling interest in both art history and portraiture, Sargent’s fashion-plate canvases often become intellectual delights as museumworthy charades, a domino series of quotations in the tradition of Reynolds. (So it is that Sargent’s group portrait of the Marlborough family updates Reynold’s possibly grander version of their ancestors, which in turn looks back to the archetypal statement of British aristocracy’s self-image, Van Dyck’s Pembroke Family.)

Moreover, renewed interest in Sargent grows as he’s seen more and more as part of a community of international society painters whose reputations, once buried, have been rising—the Italian Giovanni Boldini, for one, as well as others like the Swede Anders Zorn and the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla, both of whom, like Sargent, got commissions from American presidents. Of course, any painter whose fireworks of light—shot likenesses can be so instantly appealing is hound to raise eyebrows. Already in 1883, Oscar Wilde called Sargent’s Pailleron Children “vicious and meretricious.” Still, we would have to be blind not to respond with awe when confronting the four girls, ages four to fourteen, whom Sargent magically pinpointed in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a flat-out masterpiece that grips the eye with its abrupt jumps from starched white pinafores to the shadowy voids of a Paris apartment. As for the psychological mystery of this child’s-world view of adult privilege, Sargent’s friend Henry James (whose portrait he painted) distilled it as “the sense it gives us of assimilated secrets.”

Recent writing about Sargent has tried to uncover other kinds of “assimilated secrets,” even though he claimed he could paint only what he saw, the veil rather than what lay beneath. Lately, however, we have been peering below the surfaces from many odd angles. Political correctness, for one, has reached almost parodistic extremes in badmouthing the dashing subject of Sir Frank Swettenham, 1904, governor of the Malay States and a type that would later inspire Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun.” For the authors of the Barbican Gallery’s Edwardian Era catalogue, this swaggering crackle of white linens, gleaming steel, and gold—shot fabric is “an imperial image of white military rule and economic exploitation, created not only by the arrogant stance of the man in the white colonial uniform (kept white by the labour of others), but his ownership of the beautiful Malayan brocade (now in the Kuala Lumpur Museum).” Of course, the would-be shock of this kind of outing could be generated by almost every sitter seen in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Considerably subtler revelations, however, have been deduced by one of the best of Sargent’s revivalists, Trevor Fairbrother, who has posed intriguing questions about the voyeurism and sexuality lurking beneath Sargent’s clothed and unclothed figures. After reading Fairbrother (including his hilarious interview with Warhol in the galleries of the Whitney Museum’s 1986 Sargent retrospective), one may come to believe in the chronological magic of cultural history. Both Freud and Sargent were born in 1856.

By the 1990s, however, one hardly needs the Viennese analyst to look below the surface of one of Sargent’s preposterously idyllic views of World War I as witnessed firsthand near Arras, where he was sent in 1918 as an official British war artist. In Tommies Bathing, a watercolor dashed off near the front, Sargent offers a military version of Daphnis and Chloe, with two naked British soldiers abandoning their pale bodies to French Impressionist sunshine on a leafy river bank in postures of either suppressed longing or postcoital bliss. But Sargent was there as a war artist, and his documentary eye was also responsible for one of our century’s most astonishing paintings, the 20-foot-wide, mural-sized Gassed, which will leave London’s Imperial War Museum to join this retrospective. As his contribution to a projected Hall of Remembrance, a repository of war art, Sargent chose what he called the “harrowing sight” of the victims of mustard gas. The result is a sickening new version of the blind leading the blind—a frieze of stumbling, vomiting, blindfolded men, led by an orderly to what will be useless medical attention. This nightmare of modern science and warfare is seen against a sprawling, endless cemetery of young men dying in a way no one had ever died before and lit by an overcast sunset that bathes the scene in a pollution of bilious yellow like the agent of death itself. Today, the shock and originality of Sargent’s vision of the war—half photograph, half mirage—make the Vorticist visions that were also the product of British war commissions look like arty, minor experiments. Can this official preview of Guernica be by Sargent? This full retrospective may send us back to the drawing board to start measuring the depths of his shallows.

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.