John Singer Sargent: Fashion & Swagger review – exploring the artist’s work in style

Estimated read time 3 min read

With impeccable timing, as the show it explores is still running at London’s Tate Britain, here is an appreciation/profile of the American painter most famous for his brilliantly rendered portraits of the late Victorian and Edwardian upper crust and nouveau riche. The art world being what it is, the film takes its cue as much from the similarly themed Sargent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (with whom the Tate has co-produced the show); an institution that has its own significant claim to Sargent via the spectacular murals commissioned for the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts itself.

Such is Sargent’s commitment to reproducing the shimmering wonder of the fabrics in which his subjects are often draped, it’s fair to say that “fashion” might be a valid, if clickbaity, way in. It has not proved universally popular, however, with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones describing the Tate exhibition as “horrible … [with an] obsessive, myopic argument”.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the physical show – and it’s certainly the case that the exhibition’s curatorial presence is in danger of becoming overbearing – the attempt to contextualise Sargent’s work comes across a little better on film, with ample space for academics, artists and museum people to explain their thinking. There is, for example, a section on the history of 19th-century couture and Paris’s House of Worth which is pretty illuminating, and some good detail on the various costumes and accessories on display. (Things get a bit wafflier and uncertain when it comes to the “queer coding” of the subjects’ physical postures, with the word “swagger” repeated a few too many times.)

Be that as it may, many of Sargent’s paintings get a detailed going-over here, which is all to the good, and the Boston-related elements widen the scope from the somewhat narrowly British perspective we may be used to. (The Boston murals are pretty amazing to see in closeup.) Sargent’s celebrated Portrait of Madame X may not have been displayed to best advantage by the Tate – Jones even suggested its home gallery, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, lodge a “serious complaint” about it – but it gets a sizeable chunk of time here, with elaborations on the backstory and ideas filtering through the painting.

Whatever the swirl of disagreement over the show, the film as a whole, delivered with Exhibition on Screen’s customary level of polish, does a good job of sprucing up the experience.


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