Monday, June 3, 2013

The Brooklyn Museum's John Singer Sargent Watercolor Exhibition.

I recently went to the Brooklyn Museum's John Singer Sargent watercolor exhibition.  My reaction?  Wow!  It is truly awe inspiring, both in terms of its scope and quality.  A real must for anyone who is serious about watercolor painting.  As I am!  The paintings are from the museum's vast holdings of Sargent and from the Boston Museum of Fine Art's, too.  Sargent sold the respective collections to them himself;  apparently, believing the paintings should stay together and be viewed that way.  He reportedly considered his painting processes of particular significance; and the emphasis of this show is on just that.  There are videos throughout demonstrating how Sargent's paintings were composed and executed; plus, an analysis of his palette based on infrared imaging.  The wall text throughout the show describes not only the materials used, but the differing methods employed to create various effects including highlights:  From painting wet on wet to using dry brush; from scraping and lifting paint to adding white gouache.  As a watercolor painter myself, I found the exposition to be genuinely educaional.  In particular, I was surprised that Sargent was able to get such a broad spectrum of colors using a palette of only seven colors!  Also, I was surprised by his frequent use of white gouache and that it didn't compromise the luminous, transparent quality that is so special to watercolor.  (Really, if you want to, you can learn a lot about watercolor technique from this show!)
In a Medici Villa, 1906.

While the paintings here encompass a broad range of places and topics, Sargent's techniques and virtuoso brushwork are a constant; as is his interest in the optical effects of bright sunshine----as the show's accompanying wall text notes.  The refracted light on water; the glare of sunshine on stone or stucco, light filtered through leaves or sailcloth----that is the real subject of his paintings, not the harbors, streams or architectural elements that make up his compositions.  "In a Medici Villa" is a good example:  The focus is on the optical effect of intense sunlight on the fountain's basins while the statuary has been left undefined and the statues atop have been omitted from the composition altogether.  The show's accompanying text also notes Sargent's tendency to present only a partial view of his ostensible subjects; noting that his watercolors present a view of things as one might visually experience them in real life, rather than trying to replicate entire buildings, fountains, gardens, etc. in detail:  Like the Impressionists', his compositions show the influence photography had on artists.

Santa Maria della Salute, 1904.
In terms of perspective, I think Sargent's most inventive and fun compositions are of the canals and waterside architecture of Venice.  He reportedly painted many of those scenes while being ferried around in a gondola.  Its prow is visible in the foreground of some of the compositions, such as "Santa Maria della Salute;" here, as elsewhere,  the prow establishes the painter's viewpoint and leads the viewer's eye into the picture:  The seemingly random angle of the gondola and its loose brushwork give an otherwise formal architectural rendering a playfully spontaneous twist.  One of the most striking aspects of Sargent's watercolors is the distinct sense one gets of where the artist was in relation to his subject matter:  When you look at "Santa Maria della Salute" you know Sargent was sitting in that gondola.  In paintings where the perspective doesn't quite align, such as in some renderings of fountains, you get the sense that he simultaneously looked up and down while standing in place, creating sort of a double-take on the scene.  (If You scrutinize "In a Medici Villa," for example, you'll realize that it would be impossible to see the fountain's two upper basins and its lower one without shifting one's gaze----up and down.)

White Ships, circa 1908.
The Impressionists were already creating compositions with more naturalistic perspective, and Sargent did see and was influenced by their paintings.  Indeed, he was supposedly friends with Monet.  Like the Impressionists, Sargent wasn't interested in literal or descriptive renderings, but rather in capturing a sensation of phenomena as it might be experienced by someone casually coming upon it.  Along with Impressionism, Sargent's watercolors show the influence photography had on artists of the day.  Like the Impressionists, Sargent jettisoned the traditions of landscape composition in favor of seemingly spontaneous "snapshots" of outdoor scenes with sometimes unexpected perspectives.  That aspect of Sargent's compositions make him as distinctly modern an artist as any of the Impressionists, even if he was never truly in the avant-garde.  (Personally, I prefer Sargent's brushwork to theirs.  I like the greater variation, from flat washes to single brushstrokes and thin transparencies to thick impasto dabs and splatters.  I don't think the paintings would seem so alive or spontaneous without the variation.)

It has been pointed out by various Sargent critics that many of his paintings strike a distinctly Romantic note with the frequent depiction of Renaissance architectural elements, including buildings, courtyards gardens, fountains and statuary.  It has been suggested that Sargent viewed the Renaissance as representing an artistic and cultural ideal.  That his Renaissance motifs express a nostalgia for some bygone (idyllic) era.  Unfortunately, from a contemporary sensibility much of the statuary depicted in Sargent's paintings seem more campy and kitsch than ideal (as do the originals).  I suspect Sargent may have viewed them----based as they are on mythological subject matter----as inspirational and uplifting.  Instead, they seem schmaltzy.  The sentimental Romanticism of those paintings make Sargent seem somewhat anachronistic, at variance with the dominant artistic movements of his time.  Not only the Cubism and whatever of the early twentieth century, but even out of step with the earlier Impressionist movement as well.

Additionally, the Romanticism seems incongruous with Sargent's own watercolor painting style.  The informality of the compositions; the perfunctory treatment of figures:  Sargent's background/mid-ground figures are barely more than a brushstroke or two, if that; his foreground figures are painted in the same cursory brushwork as their surroundings.  Stylistically he was as much a Realist as the Impressionists.  And it can be argued----and this exhibition goes along way toward making the case----Sargent's only real subject matter is sunlight:  With all the brilliant optical effects that can occur when natural light is refracted on everything from fabric, stone, water and leaves.  And I don't think any painter has ever captured the dazzling effect of sunlight quite like Sargent, whether it is dancing across water and reflected on a ship prow or fountain basin, or illuminating the surface of buildings, courtyards, colonnades or, yes, statuary.

The show continues until July 28, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. 

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