Review: Sargent, Sickert and Spencer

DAVID LOWRY encourages you to make up your own mind on the exhibition.

Art fitzwilliam Sickert Stanley Spencer

Fitzwilliam Museum. 8th December 2009 to 5th April 2010. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10.00 to 17.00. Free.


I have spent most of this week wondering about the point of reviews. Well, that and whether it is advisable to exist solely off wafer-thin chicken slices in a bid to reach ambitious New Year weight targets and land my own episode in Channel Five’s next Superfreaks series. What is the purpose of a review? If it is a simple yea or nay then why need they be so long? On the other hand, an exhaustive account would mean you would never have to leave the house to experience anything. The Tab itself has posed many fascinating questions on the nature of 'the review', chiefly how we can mention in the same section reviewable phenomena such as Dürer’s “Portrait of Magdalena Offenburg as the Goddess Aphrodite” and being vomited on by a Wyvern?

All very interesting, you’ll agree, and it brings me to my chief reaction to this exhibition: it left me pondering about art. Its nature, its role, its edibility, and so on. Not in a Turner Prize way, you understand (I doubt Walter Sickert would have found videotaping himself lighting his own farts whilst whistling Die Götterdämmerung that amusing), but rather in a more fundamental sense: why has this object been offered up for my consideration?

If the nature of art is to be prettily twee (as a million living rooms around the land will tell us), then Sickert’s smudged depictions of the old-world charm of Dieppe should surely excite an aesthete such as myself. They are nice, but they would be just as nice presented on a clichéd chocolate box, or used as an upmarket backdrop to an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Plus, as we all know, ‘nice’ is a kind word for ‘boring’.

If art evokes the artist, conveying his or her predicaments, predilections and predispositions, then “Mrs. Swinton” should establish in our mind that Sickert was a adulterous sexual predator, painting her dress red when it was black. It doesn’t though. The work itself is tame and seems more focused on the sea behind Mrs. Swinton (which, stupidly, Virginia Woolf thought “looked Venetian” – the sheer irrelevance of the gallery’s signs has to be experienced to be believed). If Sickert wanted to roll around in the waves with Mrs. Swinton, the painting completely fails to make me care about it.

Enough Sickert bashing, let’s get onto what’s good about this exhibition: Stanley Spencer (I can’t think of anything readable to say about Sargent). Some of his works show us what is great about art. Ignore “Love Among the Nations”, which looks like a Gap advert with a particularly 1930s opinion of what ‘the colonials’ do, and focus on the two portraits forming the centrepiece of the exhibition: “Self Portrait with Patricia Preece” and “Self Portrait 1939”.

In the former, Spencer’s head looms in front of Patricia’s stomach, splitting her into a crumpled and withdrawn face and an all-too-realistically-depicted vagina (pubic hair in art is usually seen as ‘shocking’). Too close to his subject (within the painting), Spencer has also overlit her, the harsh daylight casting offensive shadows on her body, whose dull brown merges into that of the wallpaper she lies in front of. “Self Portrait 1939” shows Spencer at the height of artistic haughtiness. The dominance of blue, extending into the shading of his face, gives an austere, removed feel, whilst the proffered palette, obstructing the viewer’s access to the scene and laying down a challenge counterbalances the raised brush as the orb and sceptre of the artist’s power.

Spencer said of himself, “an artist wishes to absorb himself: to commit a sort of spiritual rape”. That the artist’s knowledge is an act of violence, done against the will of his or her subject, is key to what Spencer’s self-portraits show us about art. Art misrepresents the world in order to explore the ways in which we see the world. The viewer’s relationship with Patricia Preece is far more complicated from Spencer’s depiction of her than if we saw her squeezing mangoes in Sainsbury’s.

Art does not teach us, but rather forces us to think about how we see. Perhaps reviews are a similar thing. I’m not trying to tell you what to think about this exhibition, but showing you the way to your own thoughts. In that respect, I’m like Buddha. Or, at the very least, Gok Wan.

That said, anyone who thinks that Mrs. Swinton looks like a saucy little minx really never will understand art.