mercoledì 15 dicembre 2010

Edwardians on display

From The Times Literary Supplement

Matthew Reynolds “Sargent is in black mourning crêpe”, wrote Claude Monet from London soon after the death of Queen Victoria; and so was everyone else. On the day of the funeral the two artists joined the watching masses. Monet enjoyed the procession; but “best of all” (“le comble”) was the sight of “this immense crowd”. Costumed and expressive, the crowd were not only watchers of the spectacle but a part of it. The same had happened at Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and would again at Edward VII’s Coronation in 1902. The public’s performance on these occasions was reviewed in the papers: their actions were summarized and their “great good humour” praised.

Of course there is potential in many places, and at many times, for observers to become the observed. But in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century the oscillation seems to have been especially cultivated and thought about. The essays in The Edwardian Sense have many points of focus, from Elgar’s processes of composition to the way people held their top hats. The ambiguity of the title (Sense in what sense, exactly?) is uncoiled and entangled by the successive contributors, and the result is an exemplary investigation of the complexity of a culture, each particular element resisting generalization while gaining salience from being seen in its moment.

Through all this variety, the interplay of spectating and performing recurs. As one cluster of essays makes clear, its main cause was the spread of visual media: illustrated magazines proliferated and life – including the royal processions – could now be filmed. The behaviour of a watching crowd mattered because it might itself be watched by other crowds across the country and the empire. Thanks to the new magic of film, audiences on the other side of the world could not only witness an occasion but feel that they, too, were taking part. An advert for a movie show in Australia announced “her Majesty the Queen actually bowing and acknowledging the plaudits of the people of Perth”.

The separation of audience from performers was again bridged by a vogue for heritage pageants. Citizens from Dudley to Dover dressed up to enact glorious scenes from local history; then stepped back to watch their neighbours do the same. These events were avowedly apolitical: the history of Chelsea started with the Romans but was allowed to go no further than the Royal Fête of 1749 to avoid any risk of controversy. Nevertheless, it seems that the mere act of participation brought with it a frisson of new possibility. Deborah Sugg Ryan points out that the great suffragette demonstrations from 1908 to 1911 drew on the look of the heritage pageants, jumping their tranquillized representation of history into the present and giving it point.

Mass entertainments such as the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 relied on crowds to form part of the spectacle. The “swan-shaped gondolas” and “‘Rialto-like’ bridges” were more fun to look at when loaded with people. And at the London Olympics the same year – David Gilbert argues – what mattered was not only whether the public could see but how they were displayed. Huge crowds had been assembling at football matches since the last decades of the nineteenth century: Glasgow’s Ibrox Park had a capacity of 80,000 when it collapsed in 1902. Some spectators of these spectators were not impressed by their performance. In Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell slated football fans for “learning to be hysterical as they groan and cheer in panic in unison with their neighbours”. Evidently he did not see any hysteria in his own reaction. For the Olympics at White City, a stadium was built to be not only stronger than Ibrox Park, but better ordered. Different degrees of seating and standing room were demarcated by price. Arrayed in “splendid rising lines”, the crowd was lauded in architectural journals for presenting “a magnificent spectacle of humanity”.

Even private interiors were felt to have something of the stage about them, as essays by Christopher Reed and Christopher Breward explain. A million houses were built in the first decade of the century. Then (as now) guidance on decoration could be had from illustrated magazines and the Ideal Home Exhibition (first held in 1908); and furniture could be picked out in department stores. In choosing from such plenitude you could feel you were expressing your personality; but would that commodified performance of self meet the standards of the design gurus – and, if it did, would it really be you? The trend towards this particular unease had been growing through the previous decades. West End productions in the 1890s had doubled as shop windows for tailors and decorators, and as far back as the 1870s Oscar Wilde had complained of the difficulty of living up to his blue China. By the Edwardian period, the drama of the interior had become a familiar and perhaps rather wearisome theme.

Certainly, this is the feeling suggested by William Nicholson’s “The Conder Room” (1910), a painting which three essays in The Edwardian Sense explore. The elderly designer and connoisseur Pickford Waller sits in white tie, foreground left, looking out of the picture to the right. A pace or two back from him stands his daughter Sybil, also formally dressed, with her face averted. The space feels cramped, for a wall is pushed right up against her, crowding her with a dresser and ornate bench, while thrusting forward is the large watercolour on silk by Charles Conder that gives the room its name. Much of the Conder is whited out by light from a window which must be somewhere off to the left: in this nebulous space of the imagination a shadowy third figure can be discerned.

Perhaps this startling composition registers tensions in the Waller family. But the work is also (as Imogen Hart puts it) “about the experience of being in the Conder room” – an experience which evidently includes some awkwardness. Conder had been an archetypal 1890s figure, painting scenes of flowery idleness, in Paris, with a bottle of absinthe, by night. The shadowy reflected figure perhaps holds out the possibility of stepping back (like Alice through the looking-glass) into that now somewhat faded dream-world. But the Waller father and daughter, so physically present in their awkward poses, seem determinedly to be ignoring its allure. Posed in a room that is designed to be entrancing, they are embedded in their ordinary lives.

It is this feeling of alienation from the interior, and from the 1890s, that marks “The Conder Room” as belonging to an Edwardian moment. For there was nothing new about representing the experience of being in a room. John Singer Sargent had been doing so for decades, inspired by Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”; and Nicholson relies on his example. In Sargent’s “Mrs Carl Meyer and Her Children” (1896) the ten- and eleven-year-old kids are stuck behind an ornate sofa, not wholly at ease in the drawing room: their elaborately dressed mother reaches out both to reassure them and to keep them in their place. In “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885), the writer paces an empty corner of a room, with an open door and staircase behind, while his wife slumps in the only chair, half out of frame, shrouded in a gleamingly metallic shawl (“it looks dam queer as a whole”, Stevenson wrote, admiringly). But it is “The Daughters of Edward D. Boit” (1882) that most underpins “The Conder Room”. Sargent shows four girls posed at odd distances from each other in a high, chill room, one of them leaning in profile, her face shadowed, against an enormous, ideal and estranging oriental vase; and all of them receding into darkness where only the reflection of a window gleams.

Volume Five of the ongoing Yale Complete Paintings of Sargent includes none of these pictures since its remit is Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899. But the interest of this other work of Sargent’s, less lucrative for him than his portrait practice, and still less well known, is asserted by the good reproductions and by Richard Ormond’s and Elaine Kilmurray’s expert commentary. Half the book is taken up by sketches made in the 1890s as preparation for murals on “Jewish and Christian religious history” that had been commissioned by Boston Public Library. Sargent travelled through Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Morocco, recording architectural details, mosaics and notable faces. These visual mnemonics are lively and sharp-eyed, but what is most striking about them is the blunt orientalist fact that Sargent felt obliged to go out and make them: so many thousand miles of overseas experience to justify filling a few square metres of an American wall.

The paintings in the first half of the book range less widely but are more truly exploratory: they possess a tension that recalls the portrait interiors. Most of them were done in the English countryside – Sargent had left Paris in 1885 after a scandalously perceptive portrait, “Madame Gautreau”, had damaged his prospects there. But France came with him via the overbearing influence of Monet. Sargent copied his friend’s methods, working en plein air and sometimes in a bateau atelier; he imitated his tonalities and adopted some of his subjects and points of view. But there are also gestures of resistance. “A Morning Walk” (1888) is almost a negative of Monet’s studies of a “Femme à l’ombrelle” from two years before. Monet’s model stands atop a grassy bank against the sky, her face in the shadow of her parasol, her white-dressed body evanescing into light. Sargent’s model similarly wears white and carries a parasol but she is seen from slightly above. Most of her body is against a sky-reflecting stream, while her face, brightly lit, has a heavy grass bank for background. The composition stresses the massiness of her body and the earth, setting them in opposition to the surrounding play of light. The same emphasis recurs in several studies of women awkwardly recumbent in punts. Light and colour shimmer beautifully, but something refuses to join in their harmony.

The tustle with Monet continues in the most brilliant – and also best-known – painting represented in this volume, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”. The work aimed to capture the quality of light on flowers at a particular moment in the late summer evening. But it is also an English genre painting, for it is dominated by two children, aged about ten, lighting Chinese lanterns. Ormond and Kilmurray recount the practical difficulties caused by this combination of Victorian subject and Impressionist mode. The light was only right for twenty minutes at a time, so on many successive evenings the children had to be stopped from playing, posed and bribed with sweets. Sargent had started too late in the summer: soon jerseys were having to be worn under the smocks and artificial flowers pinned to the bare rosebushes. Then the whole thing was abandoned until the following year.

Yet the picture’s conflictedness is also the source of its power. The children are charged with the resources of Pre-Raphaelite symbolism. Two figures in a garden, they recall Adam and Eve. One with arm raised, the other with eyes lowered, they suggest an annunciation (the more so because of the lilies). Holding lanterns, they recall Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World”. They are playing with fire, yet they are also innocently at one with the garden around them, their white smocks and pink cheeks linking to the flowers in decorative play. The question asked by the painting is how much the ominous narrative voltage that has built up in them can be dissipated by that tonal harmony, how much comfort the beautiful colours can bring. The painting buzzes with fiercely contradictory implications, and yet also offers itself as a light work of great charm. This surface prettiness is, finally, the eeriest thing about it, smiling brightly as the darkness presses in.

Morna O’Neill and Michael Hart, editors
Art design and performance in Britain, 1901–1910
328pp. Yale University Press. £45 (US $65).
978 0 300 16335 3

Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray
Volume Five: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899 392pp.
Yale University Press. £50 (US $75).
978 0 300 16111 3

Matthew Reynolds’s books include Designs for a Happy Home: A novel in ten interiors, which appeared last year. His The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue, is due to be published next year

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento