Sargent: The Watercolours
Dulwich Picture Gallery, 5th September 2017
There have been some top drawer exhibitions already this year. The comprehensive survey of American painting in the 1930s at the Orangerie and Royal Academy, the joyous Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, the astonishing survey of Michael Andrews’s spray painted landscapes at the Gagosian, the journey through modern and contemporary US artists prints at the British Museum and the insight into Giacometti at Tate Modern. There have been others as well which would be equally worthy of a mention.
And there is more to look forward too at the end of the year, notably for me the survey of Monochrome works coming up at the National Gallery, the Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and the Jasper Johns survey at the Royal Academy.
Yet if I take total time spent in an exhibition and total joy derived (tricky to measure I accept) then this bunch of watercolours from the American sophisticate John Singer Sargent, might just beat them all. Though I am a sucker for watercolours – I had a fine time at the recent British Museum splurge of British watercolours – British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review **** – and I would commend you to take in the Turner watercolours at the end of the Clore Gallery in the Tate – if I am honest they are my favourite of all the great man’s works.
Now this apparently is the first time in 100 years or so that we have been able to see a large scale assortment of Mr Sargent’s watercolours. There are a fair few dotted around the place in the UK but to see these eighty or so works together is reason enough to pop along to the Dulwich Picture Gallery if you haven’t already done so. (There is a month of so left of this exhibiton). And best of all the ratio of land- and city- scapes to portraits is skewed firmly in the favour of the former.
JSS made his name as a portrait painter, like his idol Velazquez, with the great and good nouveau riche at the turn of the C19, from the US and Europe, queueing up to offer their patronage. Whilst there is no doubt that having one of his large scale, full length, expressively bold, oil portraits towering over you is a sobering experience, it can get a bit overwhelming. The a la mode frocks and coats of the toffs are all terribly la-di-dah and he could never resist the urge to show off his skill in painting white fabrics. Everyone he painted looked so stylish, thin, pale, with hints of androgyny in the formality. And they pull you up in a gallery. Witness that Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in Tate Britain (trust me you have seen an image). Drop dead gorgeous.
But for me it is the watercolours, after he packed in the oil portraits, that is his best stuff. There are many reasons to like JSS, not least his fulsome tache and beard combo and his love of his grub, but the watercolours he painted in Venice top the lot. Now Venice is a popular choice for the artistically inclined, it being the most beautiful place on earth by some margin. And JSS chose to look at the small rather than the big picture here with his watercolours of views seen from the vantage point of a gondola; light, water, colour and architectural feature and texture perfectly captured. Detail not panorama. These are not classic compositions and in some cases the angles take a bit of adjusting to but this, I think, is the way everyone really captures this city in their eye and minds. He had me at the first fragments of Venice in the first room. There is something in the water – literally. I can’t ever recall the play of light on water captured so exactly.
Other cities and other landscapes are fully represented across the exhibition, as are figures and portraits in the final room (with some of his trademark elegant young ladies lolling about in white dresses).
I have no idea how to paint in watercolours but to me these looked technically faultless. Big washes of colour, clear confident marks, never overworked, with the paper still present underneath to lend a stunning luminescence and real dynamism. The way he crops the compositions is fascinating. None of that wishy-washy, impression of a landscape, wide-skied, nonsense here. Our man just picked up the brush and “drew” with it. Just like that.
These paintings generally weren’t commissioned or intended to be exhibited. They were largely painted for his own pleasure, as he jaunted round Europe, and it shows. Some might say they are too pretty, unthreatening, too clean, too urbane. I say poppycock. Take a closer look. Sometimes art doesn’t have to punch you in the face to work. It is OK to feel good.
The cutting edge of artistic endeavour has always been suspicious of JSS. He in turn wasn’t bowled over by the work of his contemporary Modernists. A peripatetic lifestyle, an emigre, siblings who didn’t make it to adulthood and a complex sexual identity. All this, in the minds of the criterati, should lead to dark, emotional stuff which doesn’t seem, on first viewing, seem to be there in his work. So what I say. There is substance here to marry with the style.
I hasten you to get along to this exhibition. Take your teenage kids, your granny, your aunty or even a mate who professes to have no interest in painting. I promise you they will love this. That or your money back. If you can find me. Mind you I will probably go again so you just might.