It is refreshing to read Peter Malone’s long and well-considered review of the just-closed exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s more informal portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.
However – and you knew there was going to be a however – Malone also falls victim to his own criticism of those who feel the need to apologise for Sargent not being more ‘modern’. For instance, he writes that the exhibition “gives visitors more than enough to ponder regarding why an unusually talented painter might have chosen caution at the threshold of a revolutionary era.”
As I wrote in my article about Sargent, “he was a critic of modern artistic movements such as Cubism, for which prominent critics such as Roger Fry were scathingly critical of Sargent, alleging lack of artistic merit.”
“Compared to other painters of the day, Sargent’s work may at first appear reactionary, stuck in the late nineteenth century. However careful study of his composition and mark-making shows that he departed significantly from other nineteenth century painters, and his mature style is best considered as post-impressionist, akin to those of Joachín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) and Anders Zorn (1860-1920).
“Instead of trying to recompose images into something visibly different and decreasingly recognisable, Sargent took the construction of richly realist images to the ultimate limit of making marks. This is in continuation of the developments in the late style of Rembrandt and many subsequent Masters, and not so different from that of Signac in his later watercolours. It also reflected the gestalt approach which was developing among some psychologists in the early part of the twentieth century.”
Sargent had neither shame nor caution about his style or methods, and during his lifetime his work was both successful and popular. However in the twentieth century, the opinions of critics like Roger Fry became more important than the artists themselves, and we still suffer from that legacy.
Fry’s hugely influential account in Cézanne, a Study of his Development (1927), is an extraordinary book. For example, he starts his consideration of Cézanne’s The Banquet (c 1870) with the statement: “It is no use to deny that Cézanne has made a very poor job of it.” (Op. cit. p 11.) Nevertheless over the ensuing two and a half pages, he somehow manages to turn that “very poor job” into a major “visionary conception” indicative of Cézanne’s genius.
It is probable that Fry was one of the major drivers of modernism away from appreciation of technical skill in painting, towards what Malone aptly describes as “a point in our postmodern tangles where an unprecedented lack of skill, particularly among painters, is severely limiting the possibilities of a medium that ought to be as alive and as fluid as contemporary music.”
There is also the extraordinary contradiction that Fry’s own paintings were probably more realist and reactionary than those of Sargent.
Perhaps it is not Sargent who is in need of rehabilitation – his work still stands as evidence for his skill and accomplishment – but critics like Roger Fry, maybe even Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg? And how, during the twentieth century, we became unable to appreciate art for ourselves, but had to let a small group of critics tell us what good art is?