Magazine article The Spectator

What Great Painting Is All About

Magazine article The Spectator

What Great Painting Is All About

Article excerpt

Sensitive and sophisticated people, who love art and defend civilisation, now greet each other with the following exchange: 'Death to Picasso!'

'And long live John Singer Sargent!'

The emergence of Sargent as the last great painter in the Western tradition has been a slow process but is now gathering speed. As always happens, literature plays an important part. The role of propaganda, using the word in its original sense, has been vital in erecting Picasso into his dominant position as the daemonic transformer of modern art, who has replaced order with chaos. More books have been published about him (I say published, not written, since words, let alone analysis or argument, play virtually no part in the vast majority of them) than about any other artist, including Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, or all three put together. The cumulative effect of this drip drip drip on the never very granitic rock of the common intelligence has been devastating. Picasso has become one of the unassailable 'facts' of our contemporary culture, so that children now take it for granted that he is the greatest artist who ever lived, unless of course they are unusually perceptive and self-confident.

This sanctification of Picasso is comparatively recent. I recall with ironic satisfaction that when, at the age of 12, I discovered Picasso and championed him, I invariably found myself in a minority of one, shouted down by a sneering and often angry mob.

That was only 65 years ago. Nevertheless, the monster's position seems pretty solid for the time being and it will take an aesthetic revolution of thermo-nuclear intensity to destroy what has now become a vast monolith of visual ugliness (and moral evil) blocking the path of human improvement in the creation of beauty. Such revolutions have occurred before, however, and the time will certainly come, though I am beginning sadly to recognise that I may not live to see it.

In this process, the work of Sargent will play its part and, again, the literature will be vital. In view of his importance in art history, and the delight he gives, he has not been much written about. My art library contains a dozen volumes on Sargent, no more than on, say, William Nicholson, Sickert, Hopper or Wyeth. But the number is growing and the quality is high. In particular, there is a project known as The Complete Paintings of John Singer Sargent, run by Yale University Press, the world's best art publishers and supported financially by New York's Adelson Galleries, Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff, which is slowly and systematically making public the whole of Sargent's enormous and varied oeuvre. And the more we see, and are enabled to explore and understand, the more we admire.

The bulk of the work on this project has been undertaken by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, two scholars of the highest quality, integrity and patience. They have already brought out the core of the catalogue raisonne, three wonderful volumes dealing with Sargent's portraits. (This needs to be supplemented by the volume Great Expectations: Sargent Painting Children, which accompanied the Brooklyn Museum exhibition on the subject. ) I know of no set of books more plentiful in practical advice for anyone aspiring to paint portraits. Not so long ago that brilliant young artist, Katrina Bodill, asked me to sit for her and produced a work of stunning virtuosity, which I described at the time in one of my little essays here. …

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