John Singer Sargent: Fashion and Swagger – Exhibition on Screen

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky

Director: David Bickerstaff

Exhibition on Screen’s John Singer Sargent: Fashion and Swagger explores the year’s most talked-about exhibition. Based at Tate Britain and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sargent and Fashion has led some art critics to mistake the John Singer Sargent portraits, and some of the clothing featured in them, as nothing more than a superficial glance at nineteenth-century society and culture. Too much chiffon and taffeta – where’s the gravitas in that?

The documentary’s well-balanced blend of observation and analysis is the perfect tool to unpick this question. We are taken on a journey, crossing back and forth over the Atlantic, as Sargent followed the trends – and the cash. The portraits are a gift to the film-maker. Beautiful women in gorgeous gowns, painted (quite literally) in their best light. But with a great selection of contributors, including photographer Tim Walker, Fashion and Swagger delves into the history of Sargent’s attitude-filled portraits.

Described as a “man of surfaces,” the film makes the point that Sargent was instead more concerned with interior drama and the unconventional. His use of paint to depict swathes of fabric is legendary: dabs of light to suggest shape, colour and silhouette. He doesn’t just understand the language of clothes: Sargent captures the fantasy, the aspiration. He borrows from painters such as Thomas Gainsborough, Diego Velazquez and William Larkin. Their portraits – sitters wearing their finest garb, striking a strong if artificial pose – are given the name “swagger.” There is no room for modesty – writer Lucy Clayton talks about an “audacity, ambition” that ties the exhibition together. Clothes signify status, but their links to identity and ideation – how we want the world to see us – is what interests Sargent the most.

With his society portraits, Sargent is no mindless flatterer. He knows that some subjects are not classic beauties, but Sargent captures an attitude that goes deeper than lilac taffeta or white silk. The paintings of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and Miss Elsie Palmer (A Lady in White) read energy and intensity. Lady Agnew’s eyes burn through the canvas, challenging us not to bore her. Elsie Palmer coolly considers us with amusement.

The film also discusses Sargent’s impact on reframing masculinity. His show-stopping portrait of Dr Pozzi at Home displays an ambiguity and tension in Pozzi’s body language that is years ahead of its time. Pozzi’s floor-length red coat exudes both strength and theatricality. Through subtle coding, Sargent applies queer motifs to W. Graham Robertson, a well-known associate of Oscar Wilde.

Fashion and Swagger delivers not only an overview of Sargent’s life and career, but an interpretation of how he saw fashion and identity. There is a fluidity within his work that goes beyond the initial impression of static portraits. Look closer, and the beads and sequins dance. The gathers of fabric suggest movement: a vivacity caught in a sitter’s demeanour. The reason why Sargent was so popular – and why his popularity endures – is that he doesn’t just fulfil our expectations, he gives us something more than we were expecting.

John Singer Sargent: Fashion and Swagger is in cinemas nationwide from 16 April.

The Reviews Hub Score:

A perfect blend

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The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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