15 January, 2004
ART: Pictures with a purpose
Outside of his native Hungary, anyway, the work of Philip de Laszlo (1869-1937) is more familiar to the consumers of inter-war biographies, attentive visitors to country houses and devotees of the late Queen Mother than it is to students of the history of art. Christies’ current de Laszlo exhibition, A Brush With Grandeur makes perfectly clear why this is the case. For although references to the Nazarenes and Symbolism briefly ruffle the somewhat uncertain surfaces of de Laszlo’s earliest work, by the time of his translation to Britain in 1907 his work laid claim insistently to a share in the blue-chip Old Master heritage — the legacy of Titian, Velasquez and Van Dyck — while sometimes letting slip as it did so that this legacy — the colour, the swagger and the carefully-cultivated distain for finish — was in some part a second-hand loan from a rather different class of imitator, notably the brilliant and successful John Singer Sargent himself. So it wasn’t, to use that well-worn legitimising phrase, as if de Laszlo were somehow ‘engaged in a dialogue with the art of the past’. Even less did he seem to care which way the juggernaut of mainstream Art History was, or so we are told, headed. Manet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Malevich — de Laszlo? For while it is easy enough to believe that Alfred Munnings, for instance, commented incessantly on Modernism by painting against it, one struggles to imagine that de Laszlo ever even engaged in the same field of enterprise as these near-contemporaries.
Does this matter? It appears for many hundreds of people, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. During my visit, early on a Tuesday afternoon, the first floor at Christies’ King Street headquarters was crowded to bursting with the usual eccentric selection of humanity, behaving as people do at Christies — chatting, examining, criticizing, comparing notes and generally engaging with the works on show — all this, needless to say, with the convivial good humour and raised voices so typical of salerooms yet so rare in art galleries. Strange to relate, these people were engaging with the works rather as one imagines de Laszlo’s own sitters might have done. There was some lukewarm admiration, here and there, for de Laszlo’s crude but highly effective habit of contrasting hot versus cold colour against a blandly tonal background; his slightly formulaic and extremely derivative gestural brushwork also attracted some ill-deserved praise; here and there a smaller picture created a minor sensation simply by looking a bit different from all those portraits, as in a lightening sketch of an orange seller somewhere in the sunny Mediterranean south. ‘What fun!’ exclaimed the smiling stranger next to me, brightly, completely out of the blue, before sailing away to towards some further interjection.
Yet for many viewers, formal concerns were entirely beside the point. Instead, the first issue was to identify the subject of each painting, the second was to stand back and to absorb the general impression made by the painting, and the third was generally to pass judgment — not on the painting itself, but on the subject. Thus there were plenty of comments along the lines of ‘oh, I wouldn’t want to cross her!’ (about a blue-stocking spinster she-Guinness who went on to preside over Cheltenham Ladies’ College), or ‘he looks like a banker, doesn’t he?’ (about a slightly sinister financier encased in evening dress), or even ‘isn’t she tall?’ (the almost ludicrously elongated Sargentesque portrait of Mrs Sandys, where her infinitely willowy, frankly unlikely elegance is only underscored by a pair of miniscule papillions cavorting pleasantly at her feet). Being Christies, this sort of thing is usually followed by complex discussions relating to houses, family friends and intricate genealogical mapping, and everyone goes away thoroughly entertained.
In other words, if this sort of painting aims at anything, it is a strange blend of self-effacement and frantic semiotic signaling. Self-expression seems to have meant nothing to de Laszlo, whereas style meant a lot. Fortunately, given his chosen career, de Laszlo was very good at style, which he could throw on as easily as one of the fancy-dress ruffs or doublets he kept in his studio to enliven dull subjects. When de Laszlo painted the lovely Lady Londonderry, for instance, he knew that the portrait would hang alongside works by Titian and Van Dyck, and thus calibrated everything from the size of the brush-strokes to the tonalities so as to make an object that could subsume itself, chameleon-like, within the considerable grandeur of its environment. Yet the portrait of Lady Apsley (later head of the ATS) in plain blue hunting dress sends a different sort of message, all about purposeful clarity, with a sunset flash of flamingo-and-orange reflected light tracing the line of one sleeve and thus underscoring the austerity of the rest of the image, while the aforementioned Mrs Sandys is simply the nicest sort of gay, stylised Edwardian froth imaginable. By the same token, his statesmen look statesmanlike, his soldiers martial yet thoughtful, his scientists intelligent and serious, his high-strung actresses palpably highly-strung. All this is, in some sense, very satisfying for a certain sort of viewer — and, I suppose, for a certain sort of paying sitter, too.
Did de Laszlo think he was producing profound psychological insights into the minds and souls of his sitters? Almost certainly so, but we’d be fools to believe him. Instead, he produced useful objects that gave — and indeed still give — a limited yet nuanced account of their subjects. It is idiotic to say, as some exponents of this show have done, that the social banter with which de Laszlo enlivened his sittings somehow allowed him to discover and ‘capture’ the ‘personality’ of each subject. In truth, we have no idea what most of his subjects were ‘really’ like. And in any event, in cases where there is a great deal of evidence, even the most successful portrait is, ultimately, nothing more than an anecdote like any other, subject to the same conscious and unconscious filtering, the same intentional or unintentional bias, to an accretion of errors and misunderstandings that will only become more serious as the years go by. We are more likely to have our vision of Lady Londonderry shaped by that crimson dress, that frankly frontal pose, the straining alertness of that bright-eyed dog than we are to learn from it anything that was actually true about her. That simply isn’t what painting is there to do. The fact that the picture is persuasive — that its various strands of rhetoric lodge firmly in the mind long after actual facts have fled — is where de Laszlo’s skill, such as it was, lay. The skill involved, though, is that of successful assertion, not of revelation.
In creating the 90-odd paintings that make up the Christies exhibition — which, incidentally, has done a wonderful job in securing loans from, inter alia, the Royal Collection, The National Trust, Lambeth Palace, Chequers, the Hungarian National Gallery and a variety of private collections — originality wasn’t the point, any more than was painting for its own sake. Portraiture was a job like any other. Having studied his way up from poverty and obscurity, patiently acquiring the requisite technical skills, and armed with enough essential pushiness to seize for himself the role of chief Anglosphere portraitist once Sargent had abdicated it, de Laszlo threw himself into his work. He loved painting portraits. By this I mean not just painting per se, but the whole procession of crowned heads passing in and out of his studio — a few of whom, incidentally, he managed to have captured on film which is part of the Christies exhibition. So while it is clear that he took the whole business of art seriously, it is even more clear that he was not remotely fussy. Even by the standards of society painters, he was an accomplished all-rounder. He could paint adorable children; he could paint serious scientists; he could paint Hungarian heads of state and US presidents; he could paint grave old women; he could paint both Pope Leo XVIII and Archbishop Lang with the appropriate modulations of pose, palette and piety. Indeed, although he seems to have avoided painting horses, there were otherwise few limits to what he was willing to undertake. He produced nearly 3,000 paintings in the course of his life. Unsurprisingly, not every one of these received an equal amount of attention, skill or brio. At its best, his exuberant colour, rather sludgy brushwork and predilection for dark, limpid, communicative eyes probably directed fashion in the field of upmarket portraiture rather than simply trailing in its wake. At its worst, his work could look formulaic and unreflective, but never less than professional. He was also an intensely charming, courteous, gregarious man whom his clients adored — and recommended to their friends.
Not all the paintings shown at Christies are portraits. There are, for instance, a couple of early Hungarian efforts of a sentimental, narrative, when-did-you-last-see-your-father sort, as in Falling Leaves, a painting of an old veteran of 1848 sitting rather forlornly in a deserted park as autumnal leaves cascade meaningfully around him. From de Laszlo’s later life come a few still-lifes and rapid oil sketches, executed in liquorice allsorts colours — painterly snapshots that he used to dash off while on holiday. All of these are conventional and pleasant enough, although hardly the sort of thing generally placed before the public in our own time. There are, however, flashes of something approaching real charisma to be found in a few of the works that hover on the borders between formal portraits and private entertainments. De Laszlo was drawn to exoticism of any sort — not least in matters of costume — but also when it came to different complexions. Brown skin brought out the best in his palette, because it forced him out of his usual formulae into a closer sort of looking, a fresher type of application. This is true in his portraits of Indian princes, which are some of the finest in the show, but perhaps most obviously so in a small, late painting, finely finished — a study of a naked young Moroccan girl, sharply focused and executed in a flurry of brilliant blues and reds. Why did he paint it? Who can say? The result, though, is really beautiful. Ditto a tiny portrait of his son Patrick — painted on such a small board that the image hardly fits onto the surface — finished at a time when de Laszlo was ill, recovering from his wartime internment in Holloway Prison and thus restricted in his access to paying sitters. This little picture radiates a kind of luminous, sad seriousness a world removed from the formulaic, cumulatively bland professionalism that sometimes afflicts the commercial portraits. De Laszlo, by all accounts, adored his beautiful wife and five young sons and had been devastated by the experience of being separated both from them and from his painting. Nor is there any costume, any grandeur, any social referents there to impede our access to the sheer fact of this boy's face. Perhaps, then, there are some little bursts of self-expression here after all? Perhaps there were moments when de Laszlo painted from the heart, rather than from the head?
That, at any rate, is what most of us would probably prefer to think. It is, perhaps, pleasing to imagine that this painting of a grave-looking little boy comes authenticated by some sort of genuine emotional experience on the part of its creator which we, in turn, can accurately apprehend. Of course that pleasure is, ultimately, nothing more than an illusion. It is simply a reading we impose on a work about which we know, inevitably, very little. Given our ingrained cultural expectations regarding art, this could hardly be otherwise. Surely there must, after all, be some criteria with which to separate ‘art’ from all those other things that fill the world around us? And even if we don’t stop to think about them very often, it takes no more than a casual perusal of, say, Times 2 or Midweek or Newsnight Review to be reminded of what these criteria are. Art, obviously, must be born of passionate conviction and deep feeling. The artist can’t simply be doing his job in order to further ends which matter much more to him than the items he produces. By the same token, art must always be radical — moving forward, making progress, advancing the narrative of art history — otherwise, it might reveal itself as interested in something other than art, which would strip it of the self-conscious uselessness which has long been central to art’s definition. Most of all, though, art must always stand slightly apart from the society in which it was created, regarding that society with a coldly critical eye, rather than — for instance — gleefully and thoughtless collaborating with it. It goes without saying, too, that the viewer is expected to recognise the authenticity of the artist’s self-expression, to admire his radicalism and to share his outsider’s privileged vantage-point. The fact that two of these things are impossible and the other undesirable rarely troubles anyone very much.
All of which might seem to take us
some distance from hard-working, prolific, successful de Laszlo, and from
his brooding heroes in their gold braid, his suit-wearing worthies and
his evanescent socialites preserved forever in a moment of dewy perfection
— except insofar as it explains why this exhibition, so capably organized
by Christies, is unlikely to be replicated at, say, Tate Britain any time
soon. Sargent’s painterly aplomb, coupled with his well-publicised annoyance
at having to prostitute his art painting portraits, meant that he eventually
merited an exhibition, albeit a sorely belated one. Lavery and Boldini
can sometimes be sneaked into group shows, c.f. the recent exhibition of
Lord Webber’s collection at the RA. Even Munnings will, I suspect, within
our own lifetimes be granted some sort of retrospective somewhere, if only
because there are so few channels left these days into which the caustic
tide of post-modern ironic perversity can still be made to flow. Meanwhile
the de Laszlos, banned from the canon, will remain where they were always
meant to be: on the walls of country houses, presiding over the old plate
in varsity High Tables and dim club rooms, gracing the dust-jackets of
unpopular biographies or the public buildings of mildly insecure nation-states.
And here, quietly, they will continue to do, to excellent effect, all the
various sorts of things they were meant to do. It remains only to be said
that Christies should be congratulated for opening our eyes to them.
Philip de Laszlo: A Brush with Grandeur will be at Christies, King Street, London SW1 until 22 January. Admission is free. A catalogue of the exhibition is also available. For further information ring Christies at +44 (0) 20 7839 2978.
Bunny Smedley, January 15, 2004 08:59
By: Natasha Wallace
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