Do you go to exhibitions before or after reading the reviews? Last weekend, I went to see Sargent: Portraits of Family and Friends at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It was a superb exhibition showcasing a long career of an undeniably talented painter. It is clear from the young John Singer Sargent’s assured brushstrokes just how gifted he was – with just a few flicks of the brush, he captures a bright silver bracelet, the shadows on a dressing gown or a sardonic smile.
It is a shame, however, that his portraits towards the end of his life did not offer anything artistically new. In fact, it can almost be said that Sargent’s portraits became safer and conventional the older he became.
Now, the interesting is: would I have thought that about Sargent’s later works had I not read the reviews before I went to see the exhibition?
Until a couple of months ago, I barely knew who Sargent was. I could recognise his more famous paintings, like Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Madame X, but I would not have known it was by him. After the NPG exhibition opened to great applause, I decided to read some reviews to see what the praise was all about:
“Many curators and writers contributed to the making of an outstanding exhibition, one of the best I’ve ever seen at the National Portrait Gallery.” – The Telegraph
“The large and ambitious exhibition…makes for compelling viewing and leaves us in no doubt that Sargent’s reputation as the leading portraitist of his age was well deserved.”
“There is a lingering sense of disappointment about Sargent’s career. The exhibition dwindles away into an Edwardian travelogue in which his friends are seen sketching in pleasant spots abroad. The brilliance was still there, but with too much gloss and not enough truth. He was so good he should have been better.” – The Spectator
“Of all these flight paths to failure, the most frustrating of all, I reckon, is to be supertalented in your hands, but not in your head: to have so much down there and so little up here. That was definitely the case with John Singer Sargent.” – The Sunday Times
There is no denying that reviews have an influence on one’s perception and expectation, no matter how small or how fleeting. I’m starting to doubt how personal my response to Sargent actually is.