Sargent’s Portraits

RodinThere have been many positive reviews of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’, and it’s easy to see why. The exhibition tells us a great deal about the man and his work, his approach to his work and his versatility, and about the fin-de-siecle art scene. Many of the portraits on display are of influential people in Sargent’s world: other painters, patrons, writers, society figures and so on. Sargent was deeply interested in literature and music as well as art, so these are also represented here.

In the paintings, it’s often (though not always) the case that the figure could be present before you, so strong is the impression given – for example, in the wonderful portrait of Rodin, who I wanted to outstare in order to penetrate his thoughts. Yet this is no photographic realism, but something much more subtle; it somehow manifests the sitter’s – and artist’s – spirit, giving the viewer a sense of personality by the power of the portrait. ‘Sumptuous’ is the rather clichéd word I would use for many of these paintings: in the backgrounds, the fabRehearsalrics, the glimpses of flesh, the clothes, the women’s hair and the men’s impressive beards. Yet there is a sense that the artist is (mostly) not idealising his sitters and their settings, but representing them through his own idiosyncratic painter’s eyes. This is evident in the unsmiling children of ‘Portraits de M. E.P. et de Mlle. L.P.’ – it seems to me that this is less idealising the children than painting them as they were – refusing to smile when asked, perhaps, as children do – and it makes for an arresting image.

The exhibition demonstrates how his work crosses artistic boundaries, then, in terms of his engagement with a broad spectrum of the arts, but also in terms of artistic style. Many of his paintings, particularly in the ‘Student Friends and Young Artists’ section show elements of Impressionism in his work, in the brush strokes and loose repreMonetsentational style. ‘Roman Subercaseaux in a Gondola’ shows us a very different Sargent to that of his most famous portraits such as ‘Madame X’ (which isn’t here). The life and movement (and implied sound) of ‘Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque D’Hiver’ also recalls the lively social scenes of Impressionism. Two portraits of Monet are included here, and they are strikingly different and suggest his boldness: in one, his features are portrayed starkly in relief as he looks away from the viewer, in as unImpressionist a painting as one could imagine, while in the other, of Monet painting, the style reflects – or even parodies? – Monet’s own work.

The showstoppers are the large, famous paintings such as ‘Dr PozzEllen_Terry_as_Lady_Macbethi at home’, an ecclesiastical style painting of the gynaecologist looking regal (and not at all domestic), and ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, described as his ‘masterpiece’ – though I can see it is a painting in which Sargent’s international mix of styles reaches a sophisticated climax, I must confess that as a painting I find it a little cloying and not to my taste. To my mind the paintings to which I want to return are the spectacular, Pre-Raphaelite-influenced ‘Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth’, even more spectacular and frightening in the flesh (paint), and the marvellous portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing a Mr Hyde side to his character in his compelling, RLSsomewhat scary eyes. In one portrait he is sitting staring enigmatically at the viewer, and in the other, in a display of barely repressed energy which prickles on the canvas, he is walking away from his wife (who is unaccountably sparkly). The painting gives the impression that he is excitedly discussing an idea, and cannot contain his enthusiasm; the portrait looks like a photograph in its construction if not in its style.

The exhibition demonstrates how Sargent’s life and work crosses boundaries,Dr_Pozzi_at_Home then: across continents, across artistic forms, across styles and movement in painting. Old and new appear: Sargent’s work seems in many ways poised between the Victorian and the modern, looking both forward and back, and his portraits, of the up-and-coming (such as W. Graham Robertson) and the grand sages of the passing era (Edmund Gosse, Coventry Patmore) reflect this not just in their subjects but in their styles. Women dominate, however: looking around the gallery, they are the large, bright, flamboyant figures, not just beautiful but also fierce, strong, dramatic. There are many exceptions, of course, including ‘Dr Pozzi’, and I don’t want to draw simplistic conclusions, but many of the men are sombre, suited, stuffy, even: his interest in female beauty and strength is as apparent as his enthusiasm for the drama of power. Perhaps the line Sargent doesn’t cross, though, is that of class: the paintings are mostly of the successful, the famous and the well-to-do. This exhibition tells us a great deal about Sargent, though perhaps not the full story (there are few landscapes, obviously, in an exhibition of portraits) but these paintings give us a marvellous sampling of the range of his talents.


Grayson Perry asks us who we are

IMG_1528-0I’ve enjoyed watching Grayson Perry on Channel 4’s Who are You? Perry is becoming a national treasure, a status ironically cemented partly by his desire to explore identity, both national and personal. In this programme he creates portraits of people he meets whose identity has undergone some kind of shift, talking to them and becoming involved in their lives in order for his portrait to be able to explore their lives. The programmes see Perry trying to explain something about portraiture, both historically and now, and he examines ways of capturing the ‘essence’ of a subject. His methods are not those of the past; although he does some sketches of his subjects, and spends some time exploring their lives, what he produces is usually appropriate to his subject in quite unexpected ways.IMG_1529
I went to see the portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, fourteen of them spread across the gallery, and easily spotted among the more traditional oil paintings, as they stand out for their colour, and often size and shape. Most are not paintings; Chris Huhne is represented by a pot, as are several others, and for me at least it’s really interesting to think about how something that isn’t a traditional portrait of a sitter can still be deeply and seriously representative of a person’s identity. A decorated hijab represents one sitter, whose faith is of primary importance to her, while Perry’s self-portrait is a map of a walled city, intricate and beautiful but also in some ways revealing about the man. Chris Huhne appears as a pot, broken and stuck back together again.
Perry explores, through these fourteen portraits, not only his conception of who those people are, but who we all think we are; the programmes use themes of identity including faith, sexuality, IMG_1530disability and social status, and ask us to explore who we are, and why. Often I find the ideas behind the artworks more appealing than the physical works, but the scattering of the portraits across the gallery is a good one because it offers them a context of portraiture in history, in Britain, which suggests a continuing sense of identity alongside a fragmented sense of self (I realise this is paradoxical). Perry points out that ‘our identity is an ongoing performance’, one which changes throughout our lives; the more I think about this the truer it seems. What the exhibition and programme both do, as Perry’s work tends to, is demonstrate how relevant art is to our lives, making it unstuffy and contemporary whilst acknowledging the artistic heritage which is so important.


Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia_Woolf_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1902)I find Virginia Woolf fascinating. It took me a few years to appreciate her novels, though I read and loved her non-fiction much younger, but I’ve been rereading her novels over the last year or so and am finding it a wonderful experience. Not only do her feminist views and approaches to women’s writing appeal to me, I find her novels give the best perspective of the way I (and presumably others) think that it’s the most immersive reading. I like how engaged she was with history, art and music, and I like that she was interested in clothes, too, as a way of representing ourselves (particularly apparent in Orlando) – and she appeared in Vogue, ‘merging high fashion with high culture’. Now, thanks to the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery, I discover she crocheted, too.

The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Frances Spalding (which I had to buy) explores the complex web that was Woolf’s life, through paintings of her and by those around her (in Bloomsbury), photographs, books, letters etc. The introductory panel points out the privacy Woolf wished to maintain in order to live a writer’s life, which contrasts with our desire to ‘know’ writers, and the fascination we feel for those whose books we love. But there seems little prurience here, and the focus is on the public, writerly side of Woolf, though it is also a pleasure to see pictures of her home (published in Vogue) and portraits of herself and her family and friends. vanessa-bell-conversation

‘Who was I then?’ she asked, and we are still asking exactly who she was, and trying to understand how her mind worked and produced such delicate, radical and absorbing novels and essays. From the ’eminent Victorians’ who dominated her young mind (including her father, Leslie Stephen, as well as Tennyson, Browning et al) to the influence of the Bloomsbury set, including her husband, Leonard Woolf, painters including her sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and the modernist critic Roger Fry. Well-connected throughout her life, this exhibition highlights how her circle grew from her family and those around her, and offer a tranquil picture of her life. But there is much more to it than that: the daily absorption in literature, art and music created Woolf’s own unique vision (perhaps contributing to the accusation that her work is ‘elitist’) is imagined here through the exhibits.

mother's dressIn fact, rather than elitist, the exhibition suggests that the Woolfs were intentionally practising ‘cultural inclusiveness’ through the Hogarth Press, with works which ‘promoted democracy, anti-imperialism and anti-war arguments, publishing books that cut across the divides created by class, education and nationality.’

One of my favourite twentieth century paintings is here: Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation, which balances the mood between gossipy and serious, and contains echoes of how we (think they) lived at Charleston. In fact the exhibition is also illuminating of the changing forms and styles of Bell’s and Grant’s work, as well as demonstrating their ability to capture characters. There are also many delightful books from the Hogarth Press which the Woolfs set up, with eye-catching covers very resonant of the period, and including not only Woolf’s own work but that of her contemporaries. She seemed to know everyone – from TS Eliot to James Joyce; there are also letters here to Katherine Mansfield, with whom she seems to have had a volatile virginia-woolf_1652005cfriendship. Another little bit of information: I was fascinated to find out that the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner proposed to Woolf’s mother, who was connected to Pre-Raphaelite circles through her family. Woolf was photographed for Vogue in Woolner’s house, and wore her mother’s gown for the occasion.

Her last letters to Vanessa and Leonard are here, and the final item is a painting by Duncan Grant in 1960, Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf, Charleston. Now, the beautiful woman with the soulful eyes of the earlier paintings and photographs is replaced with a more severe representation; she is doubly memorialised here, the eyes blank but surrounded by books and the reminders of her life’s work.


Janey Morris: Pre-Raphaelite Muse

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2014 marks the centenary of Jane Morris’s death, and to mark this the National Portrait Gallery have a small exhibition devoted to images of Janey. This includes photographs and paintings of her friends and family, including a marvellous, though unsmiling, photographic portrait of the Morris and Burne-Jones families which gives a real sense of how closely the families were entwined (and explains why the children were described as ‘medieval brutes’). The images of May and Jenny, the Morris children, are appealing but they are in many ways only a shadow of their more dramatic mother: the star images here are the late photographs of Jane by Emery Walker.

These are a series taken in 1898 at Kelmscott. Georgiana Burne- Jones described Jane at this stage as ‘still a splendid looking creature’, and so she is – serious, dramatic, melancholy, she is pictured here in profile (still that strong line of her earlier image) and straight on, facing down the camera with a challenging stare. In one, she gazes slightly past the camera, as if she has lost interest and is thinking about something more important – what to have for dinner, perhaps…
I’m slightly dubious about the decision to use the affectionate diminutive Janey in the title of the exhibit – though Morris and others called her this, it seems a little patronising (and not something we do for all historical figures). Although small, though, this exhibition is worth a look: I can’t say it added to my knowledge of Jane Morris, but I left feeling as though I had encountered the woman herself and seen something mysterious in her eyes.

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You can read more about Jane Morris at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site.

The Changing Face of War

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One of the many commemorations of the start of the Great War is the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘The Great War in Portraits’. I am reluctant to comment too much as I found that to wander around the rooms and look at the paintings on display was a slightly surreal experience (and consequently I didn’t take as many notes as usual!) but the exhibition shows us what is literally the changing face of war. From individuals involved in the start of the war – military and political figures, as well as a press portrait of the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – to images intended as propaganda, displaying military might and dignity, the stages of the war are reflected in the work of the artists. Most moving, perhaps, are the faces of the soldiers affected by the conflict20140411-111858 pm.jpg, especially those damaged by shells, which were drawn for hospital records. There is also a wall of portraits which has surprising diversity, and not all of those featured there are known, but the growing anonymity of the soldier as part of a war machine is reflected in this.
The exhibition takes us, then, from political to military history, and from pomp to heroism to suffering. The complex ways in which artists on both sides of the conflict react to war is also explored, and if you haven’t yet experienced any of the commemorations going on, this would be a good place to start.


Images of T S Eliot

NPG 4467; T.S. Eliot by Patrick HeronIn the National Portrait Gallery at the moment is a wall of paintings of T S Eliot by Patrick Heron. I rather like portraits of writers, perhaps in the belief, however misguided, that a good portrait can tell us something we didn’t know about the writer, something which the artist can depict which throws new light onto their work. (I realise this is probably romantic nonsense but I can’t help but think it!) The series of paintings of Eliot provide a fascinating demonstration of how the final portrait (left, 1949) evolved, and indeed of how to paint a poet. After all, Eliot was a complex man, and his work, allusive and intertextual, often dense and sometimes precise, sometimes evasive, requires more than a straightforward portrait. I have to say that I much prefer Heron’s portrait to the Wyndham Lewis portrait (right).eliot

Heron’s portrait was produced ‘from memory very slowly, after a period of nearly three years’. Realism or lifelikeness is not the point here, then: Heron’s comment makes it sound as though the idea of Eliot gently brewed in his head for a while before he tried to produce anything, and the result is Modernist, abstract, and yet somehow highly representative of the man himself. Heron’s work is clearly influenced by painters such as Picasso and Braque, moving from pencil sketches and studies from memory to a Cubist version, which is dramatic and expressive as well as appropriate. And Eliot was a man with an interesting face anyway.

The final portrait, with its double profile, is much more abstract than earlier versions, though the penultimate Cubist version marks a striking stage in its evolution. His features are emphasised yet distorted, and it is an image one can look at for a long time.

You can read about the installation of the display here. For further Eliot immersion, try listening to the poet himself reading The Wasteland.