If you’re looking for a perfect, drifting, summer experience, then the Dulwich Picture Gallery has an exhibition which you’ll love. It’s John Singer Sargent’s watercolours, on until 8th October.
You’re probably aware of John Singer Sargent’s rather amazing society portraits of wealthy women with challenging gazes. I love these, but I loved his watercolours in a whole different way. They aren’t quieter, he doesn’t seem to have been a quiet artist at all. But they are surprising. He uses lots of oblique angles and surprising perspectives, which make you look at familiar objects in a different way. In very obviously beautiful places, like Venice, he’ll focus on the rotting plinth of a magnificent building, instead of moving his view upwards to the famous architecture.
He spent a lot of time in Venice, and used to paint while gliding through the canals in a gondola,which goes some way to explaining the unique viewpoint. But even when on dry land, he focuses on the unexpected – the underside of a fountain, the messy splay of a sleepy woman – to make you come upon things like a stranger in your own land.
There is a lot of water and a lot of heat in the exhibition, which makes it lovely holiday viewing, though the colours he uses tend to be quite autumnal. It’s mostly landscapes, with just a final room including one or two studies of women, which are a bit closer to his normal fodder. The poster below, similar to his usual oil output, is a bit misleading in my view, though it’s such a beautiful image I’m using it anyway. Lovely stuff.