Visual Arts: The vapid virtuoso

John Singer Sargent is famous for his bravura paintwork, but his technique promises more than it delivers. Don't think Edgar Degas. Think Rolf Harris.
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The Independent Culture
Max Beerbohm, cartooning, got Sargent as well as anyone: in motion. Mr Sargent at Work shows a big, bearded figure in tails, with a fierce but vacant air, wielding a dripping brush in each fist, caught mid-stride. You can't tell if he's trundling forward to apply another bravura dash of paint to canvas, or lurching back to judge the effect at a distance. In the background, his subject - a duchess in full fig - poses on a dais. In the foreground, a busy string trio accompanies proceedings.

This kind of scene really took place. Sargent's energy and productivity were legendary. And if he comes over here as an early performance artist, a proto-action painter, that's half-true, too. The focus of Sargent's paintings is the dramatic to and fro of brush stroke and image. His speciality is a Rolf Harris effect, with the picture miraculously materialising out of the paintwork.

Well, I'm trying to be fair. But in fact I really dislike the work of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), and I find that almost any abuse will do. It's repulsive. It's bland. It's servile. It's contemptuous. Can his paintings really be all these bad things? They can, actually. Still, I suppose the Tate Gallery's retrospective is right to suggest that Sargent's talent, so precocious, so feted at the turn of the century, so disregarded since, deserves another reckoning.

So let's be fair. He was a virtuoso. Born in Florence of US parents, Sargent took his art training in Paris, mixed with Impressionists, and got very nifty at flicking on the lights of flesh and frocks. We must not dismiss such virtuosity out of hand. We must allow that high society portraiture is a potentially viable genre. We must appreciate that Sargent has suffered from not fitting the standard story of modern art. OK.

And then let's recognise that this sort of reappraisal is usually the plea of people who never saw what the problem was in the first place. I didn't notice much reappraising going on among my fellow visitors. If the show is already drawing a good audience, it's mainly because there are, and always have been, plenty of people in the South-east who like to gaze at the rich and high-born looking poised and expensive.

But since the defence will have it both ways, let's acknowledge too that Sargent was, in his time, a bit controversial. His early career in Paris was partly finished by the row about Madame X (1883), his portrait of a pert stunner in a plunging little black number with (originally) one strap naughtily off the shoulder. Sargent, though he stayed single and had no known lovers, male or female, could paint sex. Indeed, when he repainted the shoulder strap back on the shoulder, the change only stressed the extraordinary, writhing length of Madame X's right arm, pythonesque, polypoid, a limb out of Fuseli.

But Sargent's eroticism is normally a harmless, tickling consumable. Those gaggles of marriageable daughters, bathed in silks, that he turned out after his move to London - they bring vividly to mind the TV commentator's lip-smacking phrase as Di went up the aisle: "She is gift-wrapped" (and she's filled out nicely, Sir, hasn't she?).

Yet Sargent keeps it nice. His decolletages are eye-catching but phantasmal, delicately hinting at the "charms" on offer, without any indelicate explicitness.

That's Sargent's real brilliance, at every level. He's a brilliant hedger and fudger. His mature style is Old Master-casual, something rich and grand but light and loose. His flattery is essentially a matter of not being too definite, a contriving of moods and airs. He holds careful balances. He cossets selves. He won't be specific about the substance and construction of clothes and hairdos and accessories, making them free-brushed visions of opulence. The painting of faces and hands, meanwhile, is always a little more blended, tighter: portrayal must be lively, but the sitter's image mustn't be put at risk of disintegration; yet it must not too sharp, either. It all signals bad faith about property and identity. The Old Masters' sitters were normally proud of their possessions and their features. Here, no one knows what they really want.

It's important to distinguish a sense of transience from an evasive vagueness. I suppose the most intelligent defence of Sargent's portraiture - some of it - would be as a world of fleeting social appearances, a half-dazzling, half-spectral vision of splendour and glamour. I wouldn't mind believing that, and can almost believe it of Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901). There, the focus-shifts which Sargent is usually so careful to keep in order are allowed to put bodies in jeopardy. You can't focus on both women at once. It's the blurrier one who dominates pictorially and psychologically. The scene swims.

But this is a rarity in a repertoire of evasiveness. And Sargent's worst evasion is in his supposed bravura paintwork. It's a technique of pure bad faith. It both demands to be noticed and is not meant to be looked at. I mean, Sargent's big, show-off mastery is in his dash, the world magically conjured out of visible brush action. But if you then pay attention to the paint and how it's put down, it won't bear examining. There's no lively or interesting relation - equivalences, conflicts -between the paint marks and what they depict. They're just dumb and sloppy. Look at any Manet to see the difference (or, to be fair, look at Sargent's early- ish head-portrait of Vernon Lee which does, for a change, offer something to look at).

So the painting insists on a breezy uninquiring glance, just enough to be impressed by the impression of brilliance, and nothing further. It invites admiration and then says: "Don't bother." It's the wreck of Impressionism, and with it Sargent sired a flourishing line of "oils for beginners" salesmanship, the sort which touts a knack for briskly catching a look of things to the cack-handed. Henry James praised his "pure tact of vision", a fine phrase, spectacularly misapplied. James must have been mindful of what "tact" means; but it's exactly in the sense of pictorial touch that Sargent is so lamentably deficient.

The Tate show also wants to promote Sargent the non-portraitist, the painter of landscapes, of scenes, of murals - not a very promising cause. The well-loved Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886), the picture of two little smocked poppets lighting paper lanterns in a lily garden, is simpering twaddle. The Hermit (1908), a bearded ascetic in a dappled forest, does a lively sort of Lovis Corinth paint-blitz. The war picture, Gassed (1919), a frieze of gas-blinded soldiers being guided by orderlies, is very strong on observed gesture, though the paint quality is supremely lazy, and every Tommy is given the profile of Rupert Brooke. The studies for the murals in Boston (I haven't seen the finished things) teeter between the pompous and the bonkers. The Moloch and Astarte images look like Aleister Crowley Tarot Cards.

It's as a portraitist that Sargent makes his claim, but as a portraitist he is so obviously inferior to his immediate elders such as Manet, Degas and Eakins that calling him "the leading portrait painter of his generation" says nothing. Besides, if you want to know where the best English portraiture of Sargent's time is found, and an art with a real understanding of social existence, it's in the caricatures of Max Beerbohm. Perhaps one day the Tate will manage him a retrospective.

Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1; every day until 17 January; admission pounds 6, concessions pounds 4