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June 06, 2007

Christie Davies is struck by how repeated exposure to Venice emancipated John Singer Sargent and allowed a real artist to emerge. But why did he keep going there? John Singer Sargent in Venice at the Museo Correr in Venice

Posted by Christie Davies

John Singer Sargent in Venice
Museo Correr
Piazza San Marco, Venice
23rd March - 22nd July 2007
Daily 10am - 7pm

It is easy to dismiss John Singer Sargent as the man who gave elegance a bad name. All those dreadful showy portraits of people with so much breeding it had damaged their genes or so much money that it had destroyed their taste; the froth that delighted fin de siècle Britain, America and France. No wonder real painters sneered at him while he was alive and even harder after he died. Just as bad were those heavy murals in Boston public library where the church vanquishes the synagogue. How happy it must have made New England Puritan and Papist alike to borrow their turgid novels beneath a monstrous put-down of the group that was to provide most of Boston's intellectual future.

The Correr Museum is to be thanked for reminding us of another and better Sargent, one we know about but are inclined to forget. Here is the man who loved Venice and painted in a manner closer to the Impressionists than to the glitter-realism of Sargent the portrait painter. Gone is the man who tried and failed to be a Velázquez. Instead, here is the Sargent who knew and was influenced by Monet, and painted en plein air.

Sargent made many, curiously many, visits to Venice, sometimes lengthy and at all times of year.

His depictions of the city, often painted while seated in a gondola, combine an eye for architectural detail with an Impressionist's love of light on water as in his two versions of Palazzo Grimani, 1904. Close in and low down, literally seated on the water, Sargent show us just the base of the Palazzo, the landing steps, the horizontal Greek key design, the base of the columns, the underside of a window. Moving back he painted a different, round the corner, version of flat water and vertical columns and mooring posts. The top is chopped away; we are on the water and close in. Sometimes Sargent even employs the trick of including the prow of his own gondola in the picture.

It is difficult to believe that the man who so understood the effects of light in Corner of the Church of Saint Stae, 1913, the bright church and its sharp shadows, the subdued red building next to it, could have wasted most of his career portraying the fashionable for money, to the point where it got him into the Royal Academy. Still at least he had the decency to refuse a knighthood from King Edward VII.

Yet even when he was in Venice Sargent could turn out a hack family portrait, as we can see from his An Interior in Venice, 1898, a portrayal of his cousin David Curtis and wife Ariana, son and dutiful daughter-in-law. Here again is Sargent's insightful understanding of light but devoted to a trivial end. Light flashes from the window into a dark Venetian interior, catching the daughter-in-law's white dress as she pours the tea; the son shows how relaxed they all are by parking his arse on the table. In the foreground are "father", Sargent's cousin, a red faced old buffer reading the paper and his wife a nice old biddy in a grey gown who looks straight at us as if it were a domestic comedy on the stage and she has a line to deliver. It is a picture bad enough to tell a story.

Story-telling was Sargent's weakness and he was as likely to give way to it in casual portrayals of the local Venetians. The Sulphur Match, 1882, is a "story" about a couple. He is dark and puffing at a cigarette. She, black haired and red scarved, leans her chair back against the wall to show her ankles and the pretty blue bows on her shoes; the light is bright on her knees poked up through a long cream dress. A discarded wine bottle lies on the floor beside them. Earnest discussions went on among the visitors to the Correr as to what was happening and what the story line was. It was as depressing as seeing an intelligent friend reading Trollope, that nineteenth century Jeffrey Archer. There can be few things more damning you can say about an author or an artist than to call him a "good story teller".

When Sargent did not succumb to the call for a heavy plod, plod, plod of a story he knew full well how to arrange human figures in space; Venetian Women in the Palazzo Rezzonico, 1880-81, is masterly. The room is lit by bright windows but there is nothing there but floor and walls in greys and whites whose tones are decided by the light from the windows. Sargent has then arranged the scattered and disconnected figures of the women into a pattern, some sprawled on the floor in a group, one upright, one seated in a corner, one in a chair, another standing upright, another as a mere foot from an unknown person. He has made the people fit the needs of the picture rather than subordinating his talents with the use of light and space and positioning to some extraneous tale.

It is worth going to Venice just to see Sargent's Campo San Agnese, 1882 or his Boats, Venice, 1904-9. The Campo San Agnese is just an empty square with four red dingy walls, dull grey pavement, a well-head and four black buckets. It is amazing what skill it takes to place buckets exactly where they need to be. Or was he just lucky? Boats is a tangle of masts and rigging, where the boats leap towards you like eager white dolphins across a tangle of coloured squiggles where the masts are reflected in the water. Sargent knew that it doesn't matter whether the reflections match; he could paint in many ways and when he was being unfashionable he was a man of genius.

While in Venice I was re-reading Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, about Gustav von Aschenbach's peculiar obsession with a pretty Polish boy. Perhaps in consequence I suddenly realised that the best explanation for Sargent's frequent visits to and obsession with Venice is that he was gay and that he like his fraternity went to Venice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to escape the disapproval of stern Britain, America and Germany. Many non-Venetian and heterosexual artists from Turner to Whistler, Monet, Renoir and Sickert have been drawn to the light, the water, the architecture of Venice but Sargent clung to the city as obsessively as Baron Corvo.

The gay lobby have already claimed Sargent as one of their own but then they would wouldn't they? They even make a pitch for Shakespeare on the basis of zero evidence and when that doesn't work they say that Bacon, who definitely was a sodomite, wrote his plays and sonnets for him. In Sargent's case there is again no direct evidence, for his family, rather suspiciously, burnt all his papers when he died. You wouldn't expect much evidence, anyway, given that Sargent, though an intimate companion of Baron Charlus, centrepiece of Proust's "Sodom and Gomorrah" was a very discrete man. He must have become even more so after the downfall of his friend Oscar Wilde, at whose wedding he had been one of the few guests.

The case that has been made about Sargent's predilections lies rather in the contrast between his numerous and pornographic male nudes, wrestling or flashing their members at the viewer, (he never put them in a public exhibition), which reek of Mapplethorpe and his (very rare), rather coy, female nudes.

Sargent could only paint women with their clothes on and he was far more interested in their clothes than in their bodies. The scandal over his painting of the daringly dressed but hardly erotic Madame X, 1884, is misleading. It is odd that Sargent would paint Madame X in such a revealing dress; it is even odder how little she reveals. Where has the cleavage gone? What was the real reason for Sargent's leaving Paris after it had been exhibited?

More to the point is the French painter Jacques-Emile Blanche's description of him as a "frenzied bugger" whose sex life in Paris was notorious and "in Venice positively scandalous". It figures. Sargent's male nudes are very much like the dirty photographs of Italian boys that Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII) used to send to the boy-bather painting Henry Scott Tuke RA and his gay patrons to tempt them to come to Venice. Rough trade with John Addington Symond's muscular gondoliers, who dressed like straw-hatted matelots, was probably what attracted Sargent repeatedly to visit Venice. Hello, gondolier! It led Sargent to a familiarity with the entire city in all manner of lights and to produce these wonderful living paintings. The wages of sin is art.

Christie Davies' lecture on masks, bastards and gays given in Venice at Carnival time is published in Efrat Tsëelon (ed.) Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, London, Taylor and Francis 2001.

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What is the learned professor up to, continually coming up with articles linking homosexuality and pornography? Up to now, I’ve just been finding him a bit of a dyn diflas, but now I feel it is time to throw in my own verdigris-stained tuppence.

Not, however, with the intention of projecting it into an Italianate fountain. I dislike Channel Fournography in all its forms, but the Eyeties have a lot to answer for, having been passing it off as “art” for centuries. All right, let them do this in paintings based on the Greco-Roman tradition, although I can’t see the point of all those poncey little putti masquerading as “cupids”. But the confusion with “cherubs” is an abomination, and they should be kept out of all paintings of a “sacred” nature. Overt sexuality has no place in sacred art, as it is written:

And do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it. (Exodus 20:26)

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 10, 2007 03:15 PM
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