Things I saw at the Tate Britain
John Singer Sargent, Wertheimer Family Portraits
The first thing you see when you take the Tate’s route through the history of British art – a chastening experience, which basically just reconfirms for you the primacy of letters over images as this island’s favoured means of artistic expression – is a room full of portraits by John Singer Sargent, all of the same Edwardian family.
They’re definitely alluring, though the stiff expressions and flash-frozen postures of the sitters are often at odds with the poses Sargent has chosen for them. A few passages stand out for their daring: in one Ena Wertheimer’s forced gaiety feels like a still from a family charades game, though I love her feathery hat, which foams like cataract In another portrait she stands next to her sister Betty in a strappy, low cut, red velvet dress, and you have the sense that family friends privately called Ena ‘the pretty one’. Betty’s smile looks forced and weary. The Tate notes say the picture makes a point of Ena’s ‘vivacity’, which feels like an obituary euphemism.
Edward Wertheimer is pictured against a tersely brushed light and dark brown background and bathed in a respectful blur. He is paid the ultimate compliment of looking like his father, who gets the most interior, psychological treatment of them all. Edward’s brother Alfred stands looking not quite well, almost peaky. What they lack in beauty they make up for with strained glamour: the rustle of pearlescent fabric, the quickening of a pulse in large silent rooms. Fancy dress games and difficult fathers. Wealth registers in these paintings as something ambient that is nonetheless imbued with physical force and vector, like wind. The sitters are swept across by it. They are brushed through with it. This does nothing to hurt these paintings’ appeal. Perhaps it is their whole appeal. Still, look at those flushed cheeks on the children – like the first signs of scarlet fever.
Mark Rothko, The Seagram Murals
To reproduce these immense, dark Rothko canvases, which are hung in low light at the Tate Britain near all the Turners, would be completely pointless. Instead I’ll just say that I once attended a talk by an astrophysicist who showed us a slide of a distant solar system, where the planets, he said, make music. That is, they go round spaced at the exact proportions of a cycle of fifths. Afterwards I went up to him to ask about this and he told me that it wasn’t a metaphor. They really are making that sound, 50,000 octaves down. A sufficiently sensitive ear could hear it. The thing about this solar system, though, is that it’s so far away it’s not really possible to hold the thought in your mind: it doesn’t make you feel insignificant so much as simply not there – like a non-thing or quantum hypothetical that has fooled itself into thinking it exists, when what really exists is nothing, stretching out as far as light can fail to comprehend it.
Looking at the Seagram Murals is like that. It’s like thinking about the universe. Your sense of darkness deepens. If the canvas has a square of red or purple, sometimes there is an initial illusion of background and foreground, and, as the foreground encloses you, the background begins to expands at cosmic speeds, and for a while you’re being intimately enveloped by this ever-receding distance. But that sense of motion always gives way to a sense of darkness. Black patches begin to grow and vibrate. They envelop the borders of the paintings. They fill the edges of your vision. The darkness isn’t so much at the picture plane or in your now-unfocused eyes but somehow through both of them in a way that obviates the distinction altogether: there is no plane, there is no field of vision, there’s just this darkness. It’s not even darkness really, just no-light-ness, absence, nothingness, getting bigger and bigger and bigger, flooding your sense of what exists. And then you hear this music.