Blackpaint 56

Germaine Greer

In yesterday’s Guardian (sorry about the parochialism – next week will comment on art coverage in Sun and Daily Mirror), Germaine Greer came out with some surprising stuff; the headline encapsulates it: “Titian takes you to a realm beyond carnality.  Stanley Spencer doesn’t”.

It’s a review of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge of Singer Sargent, Sickert and Spencer.  The first is dismissed as a money-obsessed society portraitist, trying his hand at landscapes which don’t come off; the other two are unfavourably compared with Titian, who, in his “Venus and Cupid with a Lute- Player”, admits you “to a realm beyond carnality.  The luminous figure is alive but poised and contained, not simply dumped amid dirty linen”.

Sickert’s nude is “saponified, her breasts and belly engorged as if with the gases of decomposition.  we look down on her from a cool distance”, like undertakers.

Spencer’s wife, Patricia Preece “could be a companion piece” to Sickert’s; “Preece’s flesh has undergone slippage, and her face is set in a staring death mask”.

So  what is this “realm beyond carnality”?  Sounds like idealism, romanticism to me.  Women’s bodies, like men’s, do undergo “slippage” as they age and flesh tone changes according to light (or so it does at my life drawing classes).  A bit of slippage, a few bulges, some muscle – it all adds a bit of interest.  Preece’s face is only a death  mask if that’s what you want to see – I think she looks bored stiff and half asleep.  Spencer looks “alive” – but he also looks scrawny and greenish, with a suntan line across his neck.  As Bacon (appropriately) said, people are meat; they may be other things too, but they are flesh.  It seems to me that Spencer’s beautiful portrait of Preece – look at the right knee, the flatness and substance and curve of the left breast – is the embodiment of carnality and all the better for it.  Bodies, both women’s and men’s, are great to paint and draw, but they don’t always have to be “luminous”.

As for Sickert, yes, his stuff is cold, sinister and nasty – carnal.  Does this mean that Sickert “is simply not good enough for the Fitzwilliam”?  Only if “good” means a “realm beyond carnality”.  I’m happy to live and work in the carnal realm and beyond it – but I don’t see the one as better than the other.

Greer’s other remarks about the sidelining of Sickert’s and Spencer’s faithful women allies (Helen Lessore, Sylvia Gosse and Hilda Carline) may, of course, be fair enough; although I’ve heard of them all, I don’t know their work – if they are as good as any of the men discussed, then Greer’s final sentence is justified; the exhibition, she says, “offers a pretty good object lesson in how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history”.  But are they as good? You shouldn’t be entitled to an exhibition on the strength of raising two daughters and undergoing “the misery and turmoil of being married to Spencer, a mental breakdown and failed treatment for breast cancer”, as she says of Carline; it should be because you can produce something as good, or as interesting, as the Spencer painting which illustrates the article.

Listening to Neighbour, Neighbour by The Graham Bond Organisation.

“You got nose trouble, mouth trouble too,

Something bad gonna happen to you

Neighbour, neighbour, stay away from my door.”

Not my sentiments, of course.



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