Sargent and Fashion review – tragicomic travesty is a frock horror

<span>‘A show that puts the dress before the face’ … a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon (1904).</span><span>Photograph: Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama</span>
‘A show that puts the dress before the face’ … a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon (1904).Photograph: Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama

This is a horrible exhibition. The American painter John Singer Sargent is a great artist of identity, fascinated with the nature of social being. He paints people not in isolation but as players in a social world in a way that is startling, modern and so truthful it hurts. Trained in 19th-century Paris, he brought brushwork tinted by Manet and Monet to portraying late Victorian and Edwardian British society, and was especially drawn to those who didn’t fit the old order – such as the young Jewish women joyously proclaiming their individuality in Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer. But was he, above all, a painter of fashion, as this show claims? No way – what on earth are they talking about?

This daring artist of modern life is turned into a stuffed shirt by a show that puts the dress before the face, the hat before the head and the crinoline before the soul in an obsessive, myopic argument. A painter with much to say to us becomes, here, a relic with no relevance.

The first thing you see on walking in is an old opera cloak, magnificently preserved and beautiful in its day. But this black lacy artefact is leaden next to the first painting, Sargent’s portrait of Aline de Rothschild, Lady Sassoon, whose keen face is full of life and wit. That’s the difference between a work of art and an ancient frock: the painting is as old as the dress but in it, a person lives.

Throughout this show, Sargent’s scintillating works are wretchedly displayed. There are clothes in glass cases everywhere obstructing sightlines, distracting from the art instead of illuminating it. One hilarious example is his portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, a positively Sadean image of an aristocrat in top hat, black coat and boots holding a riding crop he might be about to use on a horse or housemaid. Instead of letting this fascinating portrait speak for itself, it is displayed next to a case containing a top hat, made in the late 19th century by Cooksey and Co of London, as the pedantic label explains.

The curators have gone to the trouble of borrowing this topper from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but I have no idea what its presence adds to our appreciation of Sargent. Reconstructing the clothing his sitters wore seems as perverse as digging up their skulls and displaying them complete with forensic reconstructions of their faces to see how accurately he painted them. The crinkled silks look as macabre as that to me. They belong in an attic with a rocking horse that moves of its own accord.

The canvases are not only crowded by old clothes but shouted down by intrusive labelling and hideously set against ever-changing wall colours and lighting

The meticulous sartorial scholarship is misplaced. A painting is a fiction, not a jumble of facts, and no artist knew that better than Sargent. Born to American parents living in Europe, he was cosmopolitan, ironic and sophisticated – like a character in a Henry James novel. James, in fact, became a friend, and there are subtle connections between their artistry. Both might be mistaken, by an idiot, for conservatives. But James probes the tremulous complexity of the human psyche and the nature of morality with a shimmering, yet heartbreaking power. Sargent, too, is a portraitist of subtlety and mystery, bringing out the “character” of his people – with inverted commas as James might put it – in wisps and dashes of impressionistic brushwork. Sargent and James would make a much better exhibition.

Instead,“Fashion was central to John Singer Sargent’s achievements as a portraitist”, declares the opening wall text. No it wasn’t. Painting is. It’s the way he paints that makes his art breathe. Yet here it’s hard to see that. The canvases are not only crowded by old clothes but shouted down by intrusive labelling and hideously set against ever-changing wall colours and lighting. Worst of all there, is no narrative logic. The display sacrifices any sense of Sargent’s life as an artist to its essayistic theme.

This is all the more tragicomic because so many of Sargent’s finest works have been lent. If I was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I’d have a serious complaint about the way its treasure, Madame X, is displayed. This portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in a shoulder-baring dress was daring for the 1880s, even in Paris, where its contrast of dark material and pale, slightly blueish flesh horrified the 1884 Salon exhibition. But far from being given the grandstand it deserves, it is shown under a forgettable quotation painted in huge letters.

Worse, it’s just dropped in without any buildup or history (other than fashion history). We learn nothing about the Paris in which Sargent started his career: the capital of the avant garde where Manet and the impressionists were locked in artistic civil war with the conservative Salon. Sargent knew the modernist rebels, had met Monet as early as 1876 and his later portrait of the impressionist at his easel shows how attracted he was to such ideas. Madame X brings that knowledge into the establishment Salon and plays on the border of respectability and outrage.

Related: How John Singer Sargent made a scene

Sargent slightly miscalculated, and people were more upset than he hoped. Is it the black dress that shocked the Salon? No, it was sex. Gautreau, not the frock, is the star, as she exudes sophisticated glamour, knowingly self-possessed as she turns her sharp profile away. It is a novel compressed into a portrait. Sargent provokes us to wonder who this magnificent character is, where she’s been and might go next. Gautreau collaborates with him in creating the fiction, inciting the fantasies.

This portrait of a lady shows how Sargent is as elusive and complex a fabulist as his alter ego, James. Each painting in this exhibition is just as rich, but the curators keep hammering home their narrow clothes-based interpretation. It’s extremely hard to see past that in the chaotic non-narrative display. An artist as good as Sargent needs space, decent light and not much more – certainly not quotations and props.

If you love historic millinery, this may be for you. If you love great art, stay at home and read The Portrait of a Lady.

• Sargent and Fashion is at Tate Britain, London, from 22 February to 7 July