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Sep 2010 Journal

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Art notes (review)

For a portraitist, John Singer Sargent was a remarkable seascape artist. The Royal Academy’s exhibition Sargent and the Sea, until 26 September, contains none of the pre-Raphaelite paintings which made him the Van Dyck of his day.

Born in Florence to an American ship-owning dynasty, Sargent loved beaches, children bathing and – famously - oyster women laden with baskets, bonnets and children, whom he depicts walking in beach puddles, lit by sun on water and, later, returning exhausted in the dark. There’s little evidence of the artist who became notorious for his full-length portrait of socialite Madame Gautreaux in an off-shoulder black dress which so shocked the Parisian elite. The sea is less controversial and this work, painted in Normandy, Brittany, Nice and Capri, betrays his sense of the climate, the light, the surf and the wind moving the sand on the beach.

On transatlantic journeys Sargent became fascinated by the wildness of the ocean and Atlantic gales. While the Norman coastline - duller, cloudier, crepuscular - captured his imagination, one painting of Capri releases the full majestic colours of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Few artists have so successfully captured his sense of wind and weather and the fragility of scenes conveyed in the aqueous light.

Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, at Tate Modern, speaks of failed expectation, broken promises, false hope. His videos have a touch of Dadaism but a political statement looms too. From his studio in Mexico City, Belgian-born Alÿs examines the absurdity of effort in city life. In one video, he pushes an ice block around town until it melts; its symbolism suggests frustration at the lack of social improvement. In another video, he leads a circle of sheep endlessly around the flagpole in the ceremonial square. It alludes to civil servants once being paraded in the city to show government support who bleated like sheep to imply their powerlessness. In another, a red VW Beetle is driven up a steep hill accompanied by a brass band rehearsal. With each pause the driver takes his foot off the accelerator and the car rolls downhill. For Alÿs this suggests Latin American delayed modernity. In 2004 Alÿs walked along Jerusalem’s green line dribbling a can of green paint behind him at a time when the separation fence was being constructed to the east of the green line.

In Tate Britain’s Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, until 5 September, the grotesque, rude or subversive are a matter of their time. The show, dating back to the social satire of Hogarth’s day, includes witty contributions from cartoonists and comedy writers like Steve Bell, Harry Hill and Gerald Scarfe. Most loveable are Donald McGill’s once-banned, now innocuous sexy postcards and Beryl Cook’s hilarious fat ladies. There’s a grinning Tony Blair filming himself on his mobile phone against a bomb blast, and Churchill’s black dog – a metaphor for his depressive state. Death to the Fascist Fruit Boys is a menacing installation by Shaun Doyle and Mally Malinson which includes a ‘dead’ hot dog in an open bun with its boots on, bleeding tomato ketchup.
 

Gloria Tessler

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