Monday, October 24, 2011

The Queen's Skirt Explodes... again!

I have written here (July 13 entry and earlier) about my theory, that many portrait painters seem far more interested in tapestry, furs, gloves, emeralds, silks than they do the wealthy, even the royal, sitter's ... face.  And almost no-one gives us better satins than John Singer Sargent.  Sargent does have his fabulous moments, when he attains a Velazquez-ian dizziness, as here in the 1882 "El Jaleo":

Yes, we see her skirt lit by lamps ... but it is not the only focus. We see the gesture, the arms, the guitars that seems to be waiting for Picasso to make them Cubist ... we see life.  The painting asks us to move about inside of the frame. Our eyes do not become fixed on fabric. But then we look at a society portrait, here "Mrs. George Swinton" (nee Elizabeth "Elsie" Ebsworth) from 1897 and we see ... the Queen's skirt dilemma ... a beautiful problem, but still a problem:

She was a real person ... a rather significant personage, actually, a professional singer when that was not allowed ... but what we see, actually, is the lovely little chair and that magnificent sleeve and train. But I won't try and say it all myself. In an interview in the Guardian newspaper (7 September 2006), Jonathan Jones recalls that David Hockney had something to say about this work: "I remember seeing a Sargent in the Chicago Art Institute and thinking, fucking good you know, great, and even the bravura slickness, I admire it. And then I went round the corner and there's a Van Gogh portrait, and you just think, well, this is another level. A higher level, actually. I love the Sargent, but it's not the level of Van Gogh."  And then we look at the Van Gogh that Hockney saw:

Yes, we see the Seurat-style brushwork. But we don't care about that. What we see is the painter's gaze. Van Gogh's eyes.  We see the person. And the killer thing is that this portrait was painted ten years earlier than the portrait of Mrs. George Swinton.  And yet, it could have been painted a hundred years later, it is of such a different world. Hockney has also said that "Van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling... a rundown bathroom or a frayed carpet" (quoted in an article by Margaret Drabble, also in the Guardian, 17 October 2011).

Well might the Queen's skirt explode, in exasperation. (I mean that the fabrics, lovely as they are, are no substitute for a human face, and the Queen leaves in a huff).  Who can compete?

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