Friday, 24 June 2011

Back on the Couch Again

In this fascinating DVD, British art critic Waldemar Januszczak compares the lives and work of Walter Sickert, the gruff, aggressive "man-of-the-people", and John Singer Sargent, the urbane and charming dandy. There are also interesting cameo commentaries from artists like Jenny Saville, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon.

The film focuses on some of the two artists' most arresting (and sometimes alarming!) paintings: pictures of aristocrats and prostitutes, coronations and killings, opera houses and music halls, which evoke the atmosphere of Edwardian London.

Walter Sickert was a pupil and assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler and later went to Paris where he was influenced by Edgar Degas. He developed his own version of Impressionism, using sombre colours rather than the bright hues favoured by the Impressionists.

Sickert lived in the East End of London and painted the seamy side of Edwardian life: music halls; sleazy images of naked women and clothed men in dingy London rooms; a series of nudes on dishevelled beds. The one reproduced here, "Mornington Crescent Nude", hangs in the Adelaide Art Museum.

Januszczak dwells on the "scandalous" aspect of each artist's career: the "Camden Murder" in Sickert's case and the "Madame X" fiasco in Sargent's.

In 1908 Sickert painted a series of four pictures, "The Camden Town Murder", prompted by the murder of a prostitute. He was fascinated with murder and in particular with Jack the Ripper. He even painted a dark and sinister picture, "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom".

Among the many theorists about the identity of The Ripper, there are a few, notably Patricia Cornwell, who are convinced that Sickert himself was the psychopathic killer. One of their "clues" was that some of the Camden Murder paintings replicated details of the Ripper murders that at the time were known only to the police … and of course to the murderer.

John Singer Sargent was the antithesis of Walter Sickert: cultured and debonair, he specialised in portraits of elegant society women. He was born in Florence to American parents and traveled extensively throughout Europe. He spent a lot of time in Paris, where he was much in demand as a society portraitist, until the notorious "Madame X" scandal marred his career.

It is difficult for us, 130 years later, to understand what was so scandalous about the whole business that Sargent was shunned by Society, forced to leave Paris and had to re-establish himself in London, just as the scandals of fifty or sixty years ago are baffling to young people today.

My daughter recently asked me why Ingrid Bergman, a great actress, was blacklisted by the Hollywood studios for so many years.

"She had a child with Roberto Rosselini", I said.

"So what was wrong with Rosselini, was he a criminal?"

"No", I said, "he was a brilliant director, but she wasn't married to him at the time."

She looked at me blankly. To a person born in the last 30 years,it is inconceivable that anyone could be ostracised for living together or having a child while unmarried, or being gay, or belonging to a racial minority: things that we who were around in the Fifties can understand only too well.

Virginie Gatreau was an American, married to a Parisian banker. She was a social high flyer, the object of much admiration, gossip and envy, as much for her rumoured affaires as for her beauty. Sargent's portrait of her was not a commission, but rather a request by the artist that she sit for him.

The portrait, originally titled "Portrait de Madame *** " , later shortened to "Madame X" is two and a half metres high, demanding the viewer's attention. Madame Gatreau stands in profile, leaning on a table. In the original version the jewelled strap of her dress is falling off her right shoulder. Sargent later overpainted it, putting the strap back on her shoulder, in a vain attempt to clean the "pornographic" image up a bit.

Public and critics alike lashed out at the artist for what they deemed a scandalous, immoral image. Madame Gatreau's indignant family even threatened to destroy the portrait.

The shock/horror factor seems to have been caused by Mme X's decolletage, the strap falling off her shoulder, and her extreme pallor. Madame Gatreau was in the habit of powdering her neck, arms and shoulders with powder to which a violet tinge had been added, suggesting a louche touch of unhealthy langour. Vampires! Drugs! Sex!

I found the film interesting although I don't care too much for Mr Januszczak's style: he goes off on tangents instead of sticking to the subject at hand. I kept thinking: get back to the story, you only have an hour!

No comments: