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JOHN SINGER SARGENT at the MFA

By Martin Mugar

June 27 - September 26, 1999, Gund Gallery

 
 

To the painting enthusiast, professional or amateur ,who admires the techniques of realism, the matching of flesh tone, the verisimilitude of satin, the glisten of a moist eye, J.SS provides a sumptuous visual feast. Painting in the stylistic tradition of Velasquez with its direct evocation of human presence, he shares in the bravura brush work that ,the love of chiaroscuro ,surface and texture that typifies Velasquez's painting. Most importantly he shares an affinity for similar subject matter: Both painted the rich and famous of their day. Ultimately it is the sociology of Sargent's work that intrigues this viewer. In the comprehensive exhibit of Sargent's work at the Boston MFA I imagined that I was viewing stills from PBS's Masterpiece theater or Merchant Ivory Production, that year in and year out satisfies some insatiable appetite in the American viewers to peer into the lives of upper class Europeans of the Belle Époque. It's all there: the arrogant gaze of the powerful, the smug gestures of people who seem to pursue a life of perpetual leisure, the languorous gazes of desiring and desirable young women. Self- sufficiency radiates from their gaze and signs of wealth from the elegance of their clothing and surroundings. In a world prior to mass media, the medium by which you displayed status was how you carried yourself and what you wore. It was immediate, to the point and incontrovertible. Sargent's cast of characters act out powerfully these moments of self- display.

The rich and famous that JSS painted were on the top of the social heap as was the court of King Philip that Velasquez painted. Whereas
the courtiers of King Philip were in no doubt about their standing in the universe, the people of Sargent's world are actors, playing at being a king or assuming the airs of a corrupt and decadent European cardinal(in the case of the gynecologist dressed in scarlet) and know they have to act their part well if the public is to be convinced.A kind of aestheticism pervades their poses. They, therefore, can at times appear to be pretentious. Something you would never say of Philip the 1st. He doesn't have to pretend. The huge fortunes of the Gilded Age have raised these select few to the top but in the boom and bust economy of that era their position in the world is no divine right.

Sargent's paintings are a kind of documentary of the Transatlantic Bourgeoisie of the late 19th century(he stopped doing portraits in 1907),but the work has something of the puff piece: he has no desire to deflate their self -image as Goya was able to do for the Spanish Royalty. He gives them what they wanted; This acceptance of the values of the subject seems to have a regressive affect on his stylistic development. Sargent does not grow as an artist, either technically or spiritually. The "Boit Sisters" is a painting he never surpassed in any way. Technically there is everything that you'd find in his later work and something that the later work doesn't have,a certain success at making the viewer conscious that the image is an illusion. This effect is in part due to a majority of the image being in obscurity, its references to las Meninas which is itself a profound meditation on seeing and reality, and a simplicity to the mark making .Of course to be told by the portraitist that you are nothing but a figment of the artists imagination is not what you paid the artist to do.

I keep thinking of Alice Neel's models whose clothes hang on their bodies. They slouch, and drape themselves across the sparse furniture .Some sitters are fatigued, others angst ridden.... but all very mortal. Sargent is taking his social models from the past, as did so many artists of that period, but this posing is just a mask ,a cover up that allows them hide their mortality. It was the Preraphaelites archaism that ruled the day in England and in a sense Sargent's sitters though on the one hand they are very real because of Sargent's technical abilities are taking their roles out of Shakespeare's lords and ladies.

The final mural of soldiers blinded by mustard gas in World War is a unlikely statement from an artist for whom the indulgence of observing pleasurable scenery was the core of his visual language. However, he did confront the horror of it all and the result is an image that is an emblem of the end of an era Painted in dark tones, the soldiers are rendered undifferentiated by their bandages which mask their faces and uniforms. The landscape is war torn and desolate. Gone is the world of wit and play, of garden parties or sun lit Italian vacations. The subtleties of moods or the assumption of theatrical poses is effaced by the horror of mass annihilation. The 20th century is there with all its uniformity and effacement of individual particularities

I suppose one could pursue the tack that Sargent and his sitter are out of touch with reality. The mass movement of WW1 and the revolution of the working classes would wipe the smugness from the faces of the rich and stylistically, the art of the 20th century would show the traces of effort and labor and science. However, the agonic posing and strutting , the exquisiteness of the sentiment of exquisite moments of that Bourgeoisie cannot be duplicated today , and as that world recedes further back in time and difference, an art that describes it so perfectly cannot be dismissed. No matter how much one might find his work suffering from a kind of false consciousness,I cannot help but feel a pang of regret for this world, which, in the hands of Sargent is rendered so palpable and seemingly present, is forever gone...

 
   

 

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