|Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent|
SARGENT AS WAR ARTIST
By Richard Carreño
[WC News Service]
Like many laymen, I've always thought of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) as a Society portraitist. A trenchant -- even oftentimes, an unforgiving filter of the genre -- to be sure. The 'scandalous' full-figured Portrait Madame X attests to that. For the most part, though, Sargent's softer side, summed up in the fan-favourite Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, elicits the most raves.
This is the Sargent that most viewers have known and loved. And the one that gets reinforced in one Sargent show after another. Most notably, for me, it was the blockbuster Sargent retrospective I went to see in 1999 at the Tate (it was rebranded Tate Britain only later). Comprehensive? Really?
Well, I didn't see Sargent's pencil and charcoal drawings and sketches. His landscapes and seascapes? I got up close and personal with these only some years later at the former Corcoran in Washington.
As for his tour de force, Gassed (1919), currently doing a star turn at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, I had to go to the Imperial War Museum for that experience. Step forward, John Singer Sargent as war artist. Who knew?
The monumental painting, almost life-sized at 7 1/2 by 20 feet, is the piece de resistance of PAFA's brilliant new show of American art created during and about the First World War. ('World War I and American Art' runs until 19 April).
Also in the late 90s, when I was living in London, I happened upon the painting while just undertaking my usual top-down, floor-by-floor museum tour.
What I witnessed was nothing short of shocking: An awesome, jaw-dropping anti-war cri de coeur. Particularly unnerving, aside from the sheer horror of the depicted scene (soldiers blinded by mustard gas walking haltingly forward in Indian file) is how their grief (our shame!) was normalized. (Yes, those are soldiers, in the upper left of the painting, just going about their typical daily activities, playing soccer.)
Thanks to a bold, prescient commission by the British War Memorials Committee, Sargent, the erstwhile Society maven, rose in a fell swipe to become a prominent chronicler of the human ravages of war. As was Goya before. And Picasso, after.
Despite its epic stature, Gassed, is curiously one of Sargent's least known works. Nor does it get any top billing at its permanent home at the Imperial War Museum in south London, an institution, given its mandate and inconvenient locale, that is well off the well-trod tourist beat. (Unlike Picasso's Guernica, which deservedly gets its own gallery at the Queen Isabella in Madrid).
Ironically, even in accomplishing his masterwork in Gassed, Sargent remained a 'Society' painter.
In Gassed, of course, he captured Society at its worst.
The following was provided by PAFA, and I offer many thanks to JoAnn Loviglio, the academy's director of marketing & communications, for her assistance making this article possible:
Coinciding with the centenary of America’s involvement with the war, World War I and American Art will be the first major exhibition devoted to exploring the ways in which American artists responded to the First World War.
The first major museum exhibition to revisit this unprecedented global event through the eyes of American artists, World War I and American Art will transform the current understanding of art made during the war and in its wake. The war's impact on art and culture was enormous, as nearly all of the era's major American artists interpreted their experiences, opinions and perceptions of the conflict through their work.
World War I and American Art is organized around eight themes: Prelude: The Threat of War; Hartley and Hassam: Tenuous Neutrality; Debating the War; Mobilization; Modernists and the War; Battlefields; The Wounded and the Healers; and Celebration and Mourning. Arranged to follow the narrative of the war itself, the exhibition will show how artists chronicled their experiences of the unfolding war as it crept closer to home and then involved them directly as soldiers, relief workers, political dissenters, and official war artists.
The exhibition includes numerous high-profile loans, among them John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting Gassed from the Imperial War Museum in London. This painting, which has not been seen in the United States since 1999, was part of a commission to demonstrate British-American cooperation during the war.
Gassed is based on a haunting scene the artist witnessed at an evacuation checkpoint—rows of British soldiers, their heads wrapped in gauze to protect eyes temporarily blinded by mustard gas, being led by orderlies to a dressing station. The painting, widely regarded as Sargent’s late masterpiece, conveys the waste and tragedy of conflict and is one of the most disturbing humanistic commentaries on war. Gassed brings together many of the themes that are essential to the story of the war and this exhibition: differing perspectives on the war and its larger meanings; the camaraderie of soldiers at camp and in the field; the harrowing pain of combat, the dignity of those who sacrifice for their country, and the heartbreaking realities of war, regardless of its justification.
Sargent and his fellow artists had a leading role in chronicling the impact of World War I, crafting images that affected public opinion, supporting the U.S. government’s mobilization efforts, and helping to shape the way soldiers were remembered in its wake. Some artists showed the efforts of the Red Cross and other relief workers, or the effect that the war had on women and families on the home front. Others witnessed the devastation brought by the war on cities and on bodies, producing work haunted by the experience. Once the war finally ended, artists produced major paintings that commemorated Armistice celebrations or memorialized its human toll.
World War I also unfolded when modernist art was being digested, adapted, and transformed by the American art world. Images made during the war reveal American artists in transition, using more experimental forms to capture the apocalyptic tenor of the conflict but also drawing on a straightforward realist manner to make the human experience accessible to their audience.
The exhibition features 160 works by eighty artists encompassing a broad variety of stylistic approaches, viewpoints, and experiences through paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, photographs, posters, and ephemera.
A diverse array of both well-known and under-recognized artists is represented including Ivan Albright, George Bellows, Charles Burchfield, John Steuart Curry, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, Henry Glintenkamp, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Carl Hoeckner, Mary Reid Kelley, George Luks, John Marin, Violet Oakley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joseph Pennell, Jane Peterson, Horace Pippin, Man Ray, Boardman Robinson, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, Edward Steichen, and Claggett Wilson. A small selection of work by contemporary artists who have confronted World War I's legacy in their work will also appear, as well as an exhibition of work by living military veterans in the Warrior Writers program in Philadelphia.
PAFA is free every Sunday during World War I and American Art courtesy of the Presenting Sponsors, Exelon Foundation and PECO.