Saturday, 23 May 2015

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and John Singer Sargent

A Trip to 'The Smoke' yesterday and a couple of exhibitions I wanted to catch:  Charles Rennie Mackintosh at RIBA and John Singer Sargent at the NPG.  Lunch was taken between the two at 'Barnyard' in Charlotte St - a street of restaurant's in London's Fitzrovia (a sort of continuation of Soho North of Oxford St.).  It was great.  Very enjoyable.  The staff were friendly and relaxed.  I ate Bubble & Squeak and black pudding with Apple chutney, followed by Eton mess.  The homemade lemonade was fragrant with both lemon-balm and lemon grass.

Both exhibitions were excellently staged and very popular; but first to the RIBA Headquarters in Portland Place.  This is a relatively small exhibition, and this has lead the exhibitors, I presume, to concentrate upon Mackintosh's domestic work.  His other architectural work is there, almost, primarily to put the houses into context. His interior design is hardly mentioned at all; it is firstly a credit to the curators, and secondly a reflection of the sheer quality of the graphic work on display, that this loss is not felt.
In the flesh Mackintosh's presentation drawings are a revelation.  I was forever taking my glasses off to get a better, close-up, view.  We see them evolve along with the architecture.  For me it reaches it summation in the drawings he produced for houses such as 'Hill House' in Helenburgh.  They are so much more vivid and emotionally charged than any reproduction could ever convey.  The influence of Beardsley is there, and perhaps other contemporary graphic artists such a Rickets and Shannon, and my favourite F L Griggs. One of the aims of the exhibition is to change the perception of Mackintosh as a lone genius, and I think they partially succeed in that.  I think it is possible to see Mackintosh's domestic work to be in a long British Picturesque tradition that can be traced as far back as Vanbrugh, and include crucially the work of Pugin and Morris.  With Morris we see the stirrings of a 'Cult of the House' that perhaps finds its first concrete form in the Queen Anne revival of another, earlier Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw.  And it was another Scottish architect, the neglected Robert Rowand Anderson who gave it a specifically Scottish flavour, such as in his own home 'Allermuir', Colinton, Edinburgh.  In Mackintosh's work we perhaps see the culmination of that cult.
Mackintosh's drawings have a wonderfully handmade quality to them.  He made mistakes: on the monumental drawing of the Glasgow Herald building there are two great spots of ink in the rain leadened sky.  It's a relief to see them.  There is however something dark and brooding about these ink drawings; something definitely particular and Northern about both the drawing and the buildings themselves.  (Modernists were wrong to see these designs as a-historical.  They definitely are Scottish.) The biting darkness could be interpreted as, in Ruskin's brilliant phrase, 'the storm cloud of the nineteenth century, and the house, gleaming pure and white in its harling, as an actual fortress against the chaos of industrialization.  That may be so, but there seems to be, to me, something else here. There is something uncanny about them...slightly disquieting as though something supernatural is about to take place.  They border upon the occult.  The landscape around the house is charged with meaning: the trees and the rose bushes before the house are alive with Heraclitean fire.  The house is a liminal place between us the viewer an a supernatural world beyond, ambiguously offering protection and medial space where we can encounter the spiritual realm.  In Mackintosh the house has become sacramental.  That these buildings are not mere fortress against the late nineteenth century is born out by the way in some of the drawings sky and slate roof merge, and in the drawings for Auchinibert, a house that is not harled and whose inclusion is itself significant, house, garden and sky almost merge together in a densely worked pattern, that is reminiscent of the early drawings of Beresford Pite.  These are palaces for magicians and sorceresses.  Enchanted realms.

There are enchanted realms of another sort on display at the NPG.  A world of gilded American expats, the sort of people and and sort of lives that were chronicled by Henry James, and also Edith Wharton.  And a portrait of James is on display with any number of plutocratic Americans.  Sargent was an observer of that world too and a member of that caste.  Just like James.  Both men inhabited a world of constant drift, and both settled eventually for life in these Isles  Both too were homosexual. As fitting for the National Portrait Gallery, it was his portraiture that was on display; portraits of those with whom he had some greater connection than mere artist and sitter.  So I wandered around the busy rooms - busy to the point of occasional overcrowding.  And I came across some old familiar faces - I've always been an admirer of Sergent's economy.  And it was all beautiful, quite ravishing, but I didn't feel moved like I had been by the Moroni exhibition way back in December. It was all, well, not quite all, glittering surface.  Some of them were just downright bad: 'Madam Ramon Subercaseaux' with those touches of sfumato, and 'Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife'. And what precisely is the point of either 'Edwin Booth' of 1890, or 'Ada Rehan' of 1894/5?  I can understand why certain twentieth century critics, such as Roger Fry, were disdainful of Sargent's work.  It is often superficial - and still technically brilliant.  And that mastery was complete.  I suspect that it was all too easy for him.  The excellent booklet of notes that comes with the exhibition has a quote from W B Yeats: "Sargent is good company, not so much like as an artist as like some wise, wealthy man of business who has lived with artists."  Leaving aside the cultural background of a statement like that - what, exactly, is an artist meant to be like? - it does offer an interesting insight.
And then there are the others: works, sometimes of such piercing intensity, to make you change your mind. I'm thinking here of the startling double portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron.  I am at a loss of how to describe it.  But it is quite, quite arresting. Sargent painted all the family: the father Edouard Paileron is excellent, the portrait of his wife is not.  There is too 'Madame Allouard-Jouan', and the great swagger portrait 'W Graham Robertson'.  I would also point you in the direction of his self-portraits (very intense) and 'Claude Monet' and 'An Out-of-doors Study (Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife)'.  The last I think betrays the influence of James Tissot.  And with Sergent the influences are manifold - the Impressionist particularly Monet; Goya and Velasquez; Reynolds and Gainsborough; the later PreRaphealites and the Aesthetic Movement as represented by such an artist as G F Watts. Sargent drifts from one to the other with ease.  An urbane artist one feels.
There is nothing of the spiritual in Sargent's work.  His work is more often than not purely materialistic. and often or not, one feels, they are not really about the sitter either.  Sargent's paintings have a lot in common with the work of another expat American painter James McNeil Whistler.  Here is Art for Art sake. All too often they are really only about the paint and I find that hard to take, brilliant and wonderful as it is.
As I walked around the Sargent exhibition, and after, I wondered what, if anything these two men, Mackintosh and Sargeant, had in common, apart from being contemporaries. I found it hard to find something.  This evening over the washing up I remembered Aestheticism.  It influenced both men.  And leading on from that I think it is this and it has to do with a shared a common background of Victorian and Edwardian taste for richness and intensity both in thought and aesthetics, of lives given over completely to beauty.  And that is something we don't share with them.

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