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“John Singer Sargent”

At the National Gallery of Art

to May 31

“‘Sketch Everything and Keep Your Curiosity Fresh’: Sargent Drawings From the Corcoran Gallery of Art”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to May 9

I’m not much for the stands-the-test-of-time standard of art quality. It’s a cop-out to rely on the wisdom of the past, on people whose conception of the world can’t possibly square with one’s own. What matters is what matters to us now. Some of the ideas we hail as revolutionary will seem utterly tame to future generations, as today’s radical notions become tomorrow’s truisms. Likewise, figures scorned by past times may shine afresh in the light we cast on them. Our present view of John Singer Sargent may reflect both of these motions.

The most heralded late-Victorian/ Edwardian portraitist, Sargent was a talent-dripping superstar who died in 1925 and immediately received separate posthumous showcases in London, Boston, and New York. Soon, though, he was being run down as a glib, vacuous capitalist tool. His star fell, and with it his prices. One study called Sargent the “worst investment” for the period 1635 to 1987. Now, at the end of the century and with his fortunes on the rise, London’s Tate Gallery, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and D.C.’s National Gallery are feting the painter with what is being billed as “the first major retrospective of the artist’s career since the memorial exhibitions that followed his death.”

Wait a minute. Where, you ask, is New York? Why didn’t the Met sign up for this go-round? The answer seems to be that the current organizers want to forget about the 1980s. The first year of that decade already saw a change in the air, with the publication of an Arts Magazine essay titled “John Singer Sargent: Reputation Redivivus.” Two years later, Carter Ratcliff brought out his mammoth (and oft-reprinted) monograph. In 1986, Sargent fever hit with a vengeance. Yuppies packed the galleries when the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago gathered roughly 90 oils and some 70 works on paper. Stanley Olson issued a well-reviewed biography the same year. Robert Hughes drew parallels between the painter’s day and the go-go ’80s, concluding that a revitalization of Sargent’s rep was bound to happen: “In Reagan’s America, you cannot keep a good courtier down.”

The current sentiment apparently is that, yes, people took to Sargent, but for all the wrong reasons. What the Tate et al. want is to claim Sargent not as a brilliant sycophant, rightly bowing at the altar to wealth and prestige, but as a more subtle, complicated, elusive fellow. They just haven’t got the balls to go all the way.

Instead, they’re going retro on us. They’ve trotted out the artist’s great-nephew, the knowledgeable but conservative Richard Ormond, director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England, to offer overviews of Sargent’s life and art. And they’re relying on Henry James to set the tone in the galleries. On the subject of the indisputably fine and drapery-rich Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children, the painter’s pal blows hard and free: “Mr. Sargent has made a picture of a knockdown insolence of talent and truth of characterization, a wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types, of textures, of everything….He expresses himself as no one else scarce begins to do in the language of the art he practices….”

The new party line is that Sargent did a lot of different things, portraits but also landscapes, murals, and subject pictures, and did them well—never mind that this fact was already established by the Whitney/Chicago show and catalog. As for who he was, well, he was sort of an odd bird, the private type, confirmed bachelor, kept to himself, you know.

What James’ description and similar observations about Sargent’s society portraits (from the wall text: “Able to flatter his sitters while still producing a faithful likeness, Sargent revitalized the conventions of grand manner portraiture by the originality and variety of the poses he invented, the vibrancy of his paint handling, and his ability to communicate psychological nuances through gesture and expression as well as costume, setting, and accessories”) circle around but never state is that there is something truly bizarre about Sargent’s approach to the psychology of his sitters. It’s almost always a matter of externals. We never feel as if the artist has seen clear to a subject’s core and rendered his or her psyche palpable. The psychological complexity of 1882’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is often remarked upon, but it’s exclusively a product of mise en scène. The four girls are spread through the dramatically shadowed parlor of a Paris apartment, linked by the uniform of their white pinafores, isolated in their physical separation and emotional distance from one another. Three of them stare out to the front; one stands in profile, gazing past her sister. You’ll be forgiven for thinking of an Anton Corbijn U2 photo shoot.

Where Sargent runs afoul of the present day is in our recognition of his devices in art forms of marginal status—rock and fashion photography, for example. We’ve come to distrust one-frame dramas that veil their subjects in atmosphere and finery. We suspect that the subjects aren’t just mysterious, they’re ciphers, that the narrative they’ve been plucked from is itself nonexistent. Meaning is portended, sure, but that’s just part of the effect. And mere effect would be an end in itself—if it weren’t the means to commerce. The related interpretation of Sargent, of course, meant the same thing from the ’30s to the ’80s. His pictures were always advertisements for wealth and ease; in the ’80s, folks just liked it more.

Or so the story goes. The ’80s in fact set the stage for new queries into the life and mind of the artist. In 1981, Trevor J. Fairbrother published a piece in Arts Magazine about a portfolio of sketches of male nudes that remained with Sargent until his death before passing into the holdings of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum via the painter’s sister. “The album embodies a response to masculine physicality that is homoerotic,” Fairbrother wrote. He pursued this line further in a 1994 monograph, proposing “that the visual edge and emotional volatility of [Sargent’s] work may have been shaped by his attraction to male beauty: it particularizes the work of Sargent as it does that of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth.”

Fairbrother’s views have rarely been subjected to serious discussion. When John Russell covered the 1986 show for the New York Times, he raised the matter directly, then adroitly adopted a more circumlocutory tone, resubmerging Sargent’s personality into the pea-green waters of his milieu. Fairbrother himself wasn’t standing on the ramparts waving his freak flag for all he was worth. He soft-pedaled his stance for the 1994 book, which, after all, needed to fit the requirements of Abrams’ Library of American Art series. Even in 1981, while he took pains to identify which of the sketches’ poses are academic and which homoerotic, making careful comparisons with turn-of-the-century continental photo erotica, he expended much more energy on formal analysis.

The art-history rear guard has acknowledged Fairbrother’s thesis but hardly embraced it, citing a lack of direct historical proof of homosexuality. Partially in response to Ormond’s contention that “decoding messages from [Sargent’s] work is no substitute for evidence,” Fairbrother made his case in a recent lecture he gave at the National Gallery. A responsible art historian, Fairbrother acts with the requisite circumspection in print, but in person he gave himself rein to deliver his argument more forcefully and persuasively, drawing parallels to such gay glamourati as Cecil Beaton, Horst, and Andy Warhol; observing, only partly facetiously, that Sargent’s approach depended on his mastery of fashion design, hairstyling, makeup, and interior decoration; and positing that Sargent’s personal inscrutability and emphasis on externals could have been the result of a closeted man’s understanding that social standing was negotiated in the arena of appearances.

After the talk, Fairbrother admitted to a well-wisher that the National Gallery had originally not wanted him to speak on the subject. Perhaps the powers that be relented when they realized viewers would be able to walk down the Mall and up 17th Street to the Corcoran and see the cat out of the bag and rolling about on the floor. Inside two small ground-floor galleries is the gayest show Washington has seen since the same museum brought us Lari Pittman two years ago. Sketch after sketch for the mural projects to which Sargent devoted his later years brims with acutely observed male musculature. A commission from the Boston Public Library for murals depicting the triumph of Christianity required study of the writhings of the damned but also seems to have provided an avenue for less anguished musings.

The National Gallery appears not to have noticed that its own show ends on a homoerotic high note, Gassed, a mural commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee of the Ministry of Information depicting lines of mustard-gassed and blindfolded soldiers groping their way, hands to the shoulders ahead, toward an unseen dressing station. (The Corcoran has again been more forthright in recognizing the sex appeal of what an American tongue might call one hot bunch of doughboys, placing a preparatory sketch, Six Head Studies for “Gassed,” on a Hanes Beefy-T and selling it for $15. If these aren’t showing up on some buff torsos at Results and Muscle Beach, something’s amiss. I checked the basket in the gift shop, and there was only one extra-large left.) It’s the antique, heroic effect of the strings of bodily linked men that registers first, then the idealization of the subjects. The indelicate suggestion that the elderly Sargent was mourning the wastage of particularly comely units of youthful man-flesh freezes into shock as we survey the faint scene, set in the background but entwined among the thighs and crotches of the slowly moving wounded, of a soccer match. The game is played in the striped uniforms of an organized league, in contrast to military drab, and seems to be transpiring on another plane altogether, as does the deadly banter of dragonflylike biplanes and tufts of anti-aircraft fire in the sun-glazed distance. It seems to us cruel to set the frieze of blinded marchers against carefree playing-field glories they cannot recapture, much less see, but that’s just our modern sensibility talking.

In his masterly study of the British literary reaction to World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell addressed not only the bold homoeroticism of the war poetry, and indeed of much of the cultural remembrance of the time, but also the shift in perspective as the first fully industrialized war dragged Victorian poetic sensibilities into the 20th century. The same shift in temperament characterized painting, as reverie yielded to irony and horror, and aestheticism to expressionism, but there was no chance Sargent, already a foe of Cézanne and Van Gogh, was coming along for the ride. To him, a fallen soldier would forever remain a golden boy, not the “red wet thing I must somehow forget” of Ivor Gurney’s To His Love.

If the National Gallery is to be taken to task for its faltering attitude toward demystifying (and admittedly speculative) revisionism, it is to be credited with recognizing that Sargent merits, in our time, a closer look. Though he lived 25 years into our century and perhaps could have benefited from some of its social freedoms, Sargent remained a man of the 19th century. We are beginning to glimpse how he navigated his time, and it’s a more complex and conflicted journey than most of us could previously have imagined.CP