Saturday 24 February 2024

TATE BRITAIN EXHIBITION SARGENT AND FASHION: This is a terrible and unfair review by Jonathan Jones, followed below by a send Letter by Cally Blackman, who takes issue with the ‘dismissive’ review by Jones.





Fashion, identity, painting: explore the unique work of John Singer Sargent


Celebrated for his striking portrait paintings, this exhibition sheds new light on John Singer Sargent’s acclaimed works. It explores how he worked like a stylist to craft the image of the sitters he painted, who he often had close relationships with.


Sargent used fashion as a powerful tool to express identity and personality. He regularly chose the outfits of his collaborators or manipulated their clothing. This innovative use of costume was central to his artwork – for example, tugging a heavy coat tighter around a man to emphasise his figure or letting a dress strap sensuously slip from a woman’s shoulder. It was these daring sartorial choices that allowed him to express his vision as an artist.


Almost 60 of Sargent’s paintings will be on display, including major portraits that rarely travel. Several period garments will also be showcased alongside the portraits they were worn in. The show examines how this remarkable painter used fashion to create portraits of the time, which still captivate today.


Lead support with a generous donation from the Blavatnik Family Foundation. Additional support from the Sargent and Fashion Exhibition Supporters Circle and Tate Americas Foundation.


Organised by Tate Britain and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Both MFA Boston and Tate Britain received generous support for international scholarly convenings and for the exhibition from the Terra Foundation for American Art

This is a terrible and unfair review by Jonathan Jones, followed below by a send Letter

by Cally Blackman, who takes issue with the ‘dismissive’ review by Jones.




Sargent and Fashion review – tragicomic travesty is a frock horror

Tate Britain, London

Sargent’s gloriously rich and subtle paintings can’t be reduced to dreary facts about hats, dresses and opera gowns. Sadly, that’s just what’s happened


Jonathan Jones

Tue 20 Feb 2024 10.00 CET


This is a horrible exhibition. The American painter John Singer Sargent is a great artist of identity, fascinated with the nature of social being. He paints people not in isolation but as players in a social world in a way that is startling, modern and so truthful it hurts. Trained in 19th-century Paris, he brought brushwork tinted by Manet and Monet to portraying late Victorian and Edwardian British society, and was especially drawn to those who didn’t fit the old order – such as the young Jewish women joyously proclaiming their individuality in Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer. But was he, above all, a painter of fashion, as this show claims? No way – what on earth are they talking about?


This daring artist of modern life is turned into a stuffed shirt by a show that puts the dress before the face, the hat before the head and the crinoline before the soul in an obsessive, myopic argument. A painter with much to say to us becomes, here, a relic with no relevance.


The first thing you see on walking in is an old opera cloak, magnificently preserved and beautiful in its day. But this black lacy artefact is leaden next to the first painting, Sargent’s portrait of Aline de Rothschild, Lady Sassoon, whose keen face is full of life and wit. That’s the difference between a work of art and an ancient frock: the painting is as old as the dress but in it, a person lives.


Throughout this show, Sargent’s scintillating works are wretchedly displayed. There are clothes in glass cases everywhere obstructing sightlines, distracting from the art instead of illuminating it. One hilarious example is his portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, a positively Sadean image of an aristocrat in top hat, black coat and boots holding a riding crop he might be about to use on a horse or housemaid. Instead of letting this fascinating portrait speak for itself, it is displayed next to a case containing a top hat, made in the late 19th century by Cooksey and Co of London, as the pedantic label explains.


The curators have gone to the trouble of borrowing this topper from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but I have no idea what its presence adds to our appreciation of Sargent. Reconstructing the clothing his sitters wore seems as perverse as digging up their skulls and displaying them complete with forensic reconstructions of their faces to see how accurately he painted them. The crinkled silks look as macabre as that to me. They belong in an attic with a rocking horse that moves of its own accord.


The canvases are not only crowded by old clothes but shouted down by intrusive labelling and hideously set against ever-changing wall colours and lighting


The meticulous sartorial scholarship is misplaced. A painting is a fiction, not a jumble of facts, and no artist knew that better than Sargent. Born to American parents living in Europe, he was cosmopolitan, ironic and sophisticated – like a character in a Henry James novel. James, in fact, became a friend, and there are subtle connections between their artistry. Both might be mistaken, by an idiot, for conservatives. But James probes the tremulous complexity of the human psyche and the nature of morality with a shimmering, yet heartbreaking power. Sargent, too, is a portraitist of subtlety and mystery, bringing out the “character” of his people – with inverted commas as James might put it – in wisps and dashes of impressionistic brushwork. Sargent and James would make a much better exhibition.


Instead,“Fashion was central to John Singer Sargent’s achievements as a portraitist”, declares the opening wall text. No it wasn’t. Painting is. It’s the way he paints that makes his art breathe. Yet here it’s hard to see that. The canvases are not only crowded by old clothes but shouted down by intrusive labelling and hideously set against ever-changing wall colours and lighting. Worst of all there, is no narrative logic. The display sacrifices any sense of Sargent’s life as an artist to its essayistic theme.


This is all the more tragicomic because so many of Sargent’s finest works have been lent. If I was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I’d have a serious complaint about the way its treasure, Madame X, is displayed. This portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in a shoulder-baring dress was daring for the 1880s, even in Paris, where its contrast of dark material and pale, slightly blueish flesh horrified the 1884 Salon exhibition. But far from being given the grandstand it deserves, it is shown under a forgettable quotation painted in huge letters.


Worse, it’s just dropped in without any buildup or history (other than fashion history). We learn nothing about the Paris in which Sargent started his career: the capital of the avant garde where Manet and the impressionists were locked in artistic civil war with the conservative Salon. Sargent knew the modernist rebels, had met Monet as early as 1876 and his later portrait of the impressionist at his easel shows how attracted he was to such ideas. Madame X brings that knowledge into the establishment Salon and plays on the border of respectability and outrage.


Sargent slightly miscalculated, and people were more upset than he hoped. Is it the black dress that shocked the Salon? No, it was sex. Gautreau, not the frock, is the star, as she exudes sophisticated glamour, knowingly self-possessed as she turns her sharp profile away. It is a novel compressed into a portrait. Sargent provokes us to wonder who this magnificent character is, where she’s been and might go next. Gautreau collaborates with him in creating the fiction, inciting the fantasies.


This portrait of a lady shows how Sargent is as elusive and complex a fabulist as his alter ego, James. Each painting in this exhibition is just as rich, but the curators keep hammering home their narrow clothes-based interpretation. It’s extremely hard to see past that in the chaotic non-narrative display. An artist as good as Sargent needs space, decent light and not much more – certainly not quotations and props.


If you love historic millinery, this may be for you. If you love great art, stay at home and read The Portrait of a Lady.


 Sargent and Fashion is at Tate Britain, London, from 22 February to 7 July


( This is the reaction from Cally Blackman to the terrible review published above.)



Throw off the cloak of snobbery and treat fashion as a serious art form


Cally Blackman takes issue with a ‘dismissive’ review of the John Singer Sargent exhibition at Tate Britain


Fri 23 Feb 2024 19.24 CET


When I read or hear the word “frock”, my heart sinks and my hackles rise: when will fashion be taken seriously? As the most powerful form of non-verbal communication, clothes tell us a lot about people – from their occupation, to religion, to their Indigenous heritage. The now thriving academic discipline of fashion studies rose from schools of anthropology, ethnography, sociology, philosophy, curatorial scholarship and art history. The first postgraduate course in the history of dress was set up in 1965 at the Courtauld Institute – a bastion of the art establishment – to enable curators and art historians to date paintings and describe garments in them accurately. Sadly, many of them continue to get it wrong.


Jonathan Jones’s review of the Sargent exhibition at Tate Britain (Sargent and Fashion review – tragicomic travesty is a frock horror, 20 February) was typical of the snobbish and dismissive attitude often taken towards anything to do with fashion, including the multitrillion-dollar fashion industry that, for better or for worse, ranks as one of the biggest in the global economy, a fact that is seldom recognised. If it was called “garment manufacture” instead of “fashion”, a complicated word freighted with negative connotations, it might be.


Museums such as the V&A and the Tate well know the pulling power of fashion exhibitions and can hardly be blamed, in their currently straitened circumstances, for wanting to cash in on it: on Thursday this week, the Tate exhibition was packed, demonstrating the level of public interest. However, the exhibition is more than just an exercise in ticket sales. Sargent was a great painter who had an affinity with dress and fabric, like Dürer, Holbein, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Gainsborough and Lawrence before him, and traces of their influence resonate throughout his work.


Whatever the distress caused to Jones the by lighting, wall colours and glass cases in wrong places, it is a very rare thing indeed to see garments displayed next to the paintings in which they are depicted, and a special joy to see these same garments interpreted on the canvas with Sargent’s consummate skill and aesthetic judgment. Some of the gowns on display are by Charles Worth, the most prestigious couturier in Paris (not “designer” – the word had not been invented then). Compared with these, Ellen Terry’s beetle-wing-embellished Lady Macbeth stage costume (“costume” is the term for clothing worn for performance, not for garments worn in everyday life) looked dull and lifeless, yet scintillated in radiant, glowing colour from Sargent’s portrait, a testament to his quality as an artist.


Yes, some of the objects displayed to accompany a painting seemed arbitrarily helicoptered in, such as the top hat Jones mentions in his review, but this is not an exhibition about “historic millinery” as he puts it, but one that offers a new approach to a brilliant and prolific artist, just as the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends in 2015 did. This generous, sumptuous array of Sargent’s work tells us much about class, society and fashion at the end of the 19th century, an era of great privilege for some, before the impending rupture of war. As the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote in his book Sartor Resartus (1831), one of the first to address the significance of dress with any degree of seriousness: “Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant.”

Cally Blackman


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