Feature: ArtScene

ArtScene: Sargent and the Looting of London

By , Columnist

London. So thugs looted my country this past week. They set fire to it. They kicked in its windows. They helped themselves to whatever was there because it was there.

A prime minister, a man called Cameron, seemed to think it was a problem, which was something of a surprise, because I’d never heard him say anything about the subject until this week.

He then said he’s getting Bill Bratton, the zero-tolerance police chief from NYPD to come and fix the problem. In other words, our highly paid Sir This and Sir That cops and commissioners in the UK can’t handle it. Maybe he should call in President Assad of Syria - he’s good at zero tolerance.

Anyway, at the end of what should have been a glorious round of exhibition visits at Tate Modern, The Wallace, Chichester, The National Portrait Gallery and three or four private galleries, I was looking on in despair at the terrible tableau of Britain’s disaffected youth as the social workers excuse thuggery.

So what did I do? I went to the Imperial War Museum just across the Thames from the hapless Cameronian clique and their speeches to cameras as part of the riot-tourism route.

I stood in front of the most powerful antidote, also from a zero tolerance American, John Singer Sargent. It is called Gassed

Two lines of blindfolded soldiers, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front are being led to the medical tent. This is World War I.  They have been mustard gassed. They walk carefully, blinded, with dignity. Heroes.

Or was Sargent telling us something else? Something more powerful? He was asking us to wonder what society we had created.  These men were told they were heroes. They did not ask to be heroes. Mostly they wanted ordinary quiet lives.

I stood there, unashamedly tear stained. I wanted to take each one of the thugs - not by the scruff of the neck, but by the hand - and show them Sargent’s powerful imagery. Maybe I could guess the indifference in their shrugs. Not bothered.

But if there was hope of just a glimmer of understanding that would be enough. If one of them understood that Sargent’s message was to get us to say out loud what society we want and more telling, what society we have now, then this blood cold canvas could offer something that Cameron and his cronies and I suppose, all of us have so far missed.


pieter-bruegel-the-younger parable of the blind.jpg

Sargent’s huge canvas -- it’s seven feet by twenty feet - had in mind Bruegel’s The Parable of the Blind painted five hundred years ago. Sargent saw his parable as the blind leading the blind. That’s what happened in London, Manchester and elsewhere.  It was also what was happening in Parliament this week.

Go and look. Take someone with you. Imperial War Museum, Lambeth. Gassed  John Singer Sargent - American painter  Oil on canvas 


ArtScene quote of the week

What we doing? We going on the rob. Lisa, aged 12

It was the best day ever. Cheli, aged 18.

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Fiona Graham-Mackay, is London's newest royal portrait painter. She is also recently back from painting in the Pakistan-Afghan border. She studied at London's Royal College of Art, had a studio in Paris before returning to the UK to paint and teach in London, Spain and Italy. Her next assignments areā€¦

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