Sickert at Tate Britain

Brighton Pierrots 1915

If Tate Britain’s exhibition achieves one thing it is to show just how avant-garde Walter Sickert really was.  Not in terms of innovative techniques like the pointillists or daringly bold colour like the Fauves – though his loose brushstrokes, technical experimentation and highlights of pure vermilion are striking – but for his whole-hearted embrace of contemporary life.  He painted from the point of view of an average person, peering over a sea of heads in a crowded music hall, watching the dawn creep into a dingy bedsit, recording the signage of Underground stations and high street shops.  Later he used photographs and newspaper clippings as the basis for his work, long before Francis Bacon or Gerhard Richter did the same.

Sickert’s brief career on the stage clearly stood him in good stead in terms of dramatic lighting and composition.  He went from performer to a sort of ‘impresario’, presenting effects to an audience on canvas – and often with himself in the main role, as the first room of self-portraits bears witness.

‘The End of the Act’ (c.1885-6, above) depicts Helen Lenoir, assistant to Richard D’Oyly Carte who produced Whistler’s ‘One O’Clock Lecture’ in 1885, slumped on a sofa post-rehearsal, a shaft of light illuminating her hands.  Sickert had been working in Whistler’s studio for three years at this point and was perfectly placed to organise this theatrical assault on the art world.  The painting of Helen not only records an intense period of devoted pupillage but at the same time marks the younger artist’s growing independence – it was larger than his previous ‘Whistlerian sketches’ and centres on a figure arranged with a sense of dramatic narrative. 

Sickert had made the acquaintance of Degas over the summer of 1885 while he was on his honeymoon in Dieppe, and discovered a mutual love of the popular stage. He eagerly took on board Degas’ advice regarding the importance of line over tone, his technique of working in smooth layers and his exhortations to use bolder colour – ‘the art of painting [is] to surround a patch of, say, Venetian red, that it appears to be a patch of vermilion.’ Sickert clearly took this literally, since this colour would become the vibrant highlight of many still-shadowy music hall scenes. A series of shop fronts shows us Sickert experimenting with the ‘alla prima’ (wet on wet) tonal approach of Whistler and with more carefully planned compositions in the style of Degas, with the paint layered in stages. ‘The Butcher’s Shop’ and ‘The Laundry’ (above right) were both painted in Dieppe in 1885 but illustrate this contrast between the loose handling and subdued palette of the former and the careful grid-like structure of the latter with its precise white highlights.

’Red Shop’ (above, c.1888) is far bolder with a vermilion shopfront that almost pulsates, like a vision; it was certainly a revelation of sorts to Sickert as he uses the colour repeatedly from this point. In most cases it is the only colour to leap out from among the shadows and reflections in paintings like ‘The PS Wings in the OP Mirror’ (below, c.1888-9), ‘Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford’ (1892) and ‘Gallery of the Old Bedford’ (c.1894-5).  These music hall paintings also allowed him to experiment with sweeping or precipitate perspectives and with the use of mirrors to trick the eye; in ‘The PS Wings…’ the audience and performer seem to be facing away from each other, until you notice the subtle gold frame of the mirror… 

‘Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall’ (below, c.1888-9) also uses tints of the favoured red to pick out the verticals of curtains and the edge of the boxes, but here the focus is the bright white dress of Little Dot caught in a beam of light – innocence personified in the dingy depths of the theatre.

When it came to portraits Sickert was a chameleon in terms of style – did he adjust his brushwork according to the character of the sitter? Or was he just trying out new techniques?  He veers from a Whistler-esque, muted, tonal approach in his portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (right,1894) and ‘Le Chale Venitien’ (1903-4), while Harold Gilman (c.1912) has almost pointillist stipples around the jawline, and in ‘Blackbird’ (c.1892) Sickert uses striated brushstrokes tending towards Van Gogh’s.

The portrait of Victor Lecourt (left, 1921-4), meanwhile, with its bright planes of colour and pattern, recalls the Nabis; as much attention is given to the interior and textiles as to the sitter – in Edouard Vuillard’s words, ‘I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their homes’. The interior plays an equally important role in paintings like ‘The Mantlepiece’ (c.1906) which conform what would become a recognisable Camden Town Group style, more akin to genre paintings than portraits with their sense of frozen narrative.

It was a joy to see so many iterations of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the Tate’s below) and the church of St. Jacques in Dieppe displayed. It is natural to recall Monet’s many views of Rouen Cathedral in different light and different seasons; however, Sickert’s approach differs in being less scientific, and more an investigation of how paint can convey varied sensation and psychological connection.

Some of Sickert’s larger townscapes are brighter and more colourful  – but it is notable that he frequently chose dusk or night-time scenes where the shadows dominate, throwing dramatic silhouettes (as in ‘La Grande Duquesne’) or where gaslight creates stark contrasts as in ‘Maple Street’ (1916). There is a melancholy in the lone figure of the latter, and even more so in ‘Nuit d’Amour’ (c.1920) where the artist/viewer looks in from the dark street at scenes of warmth and merriment within the cafe. In other paintings the pure colour is found in street signs so that the graphic lettering itself becomes the focus of the composition (‘Queen’s Road Bayswater’ for instance, or ‘Easter’ in which the shop sign ‘Dawson Bros’ stands out centrally above a sea of easter bonnets in the windows). 

Sickert is notorious for his series of dimly-lit interiors with a naked female figure sprawled on an old iron bedstead which have become known as ‘The Camden Town Nudes’ or the ‘Camden Town Murder Series’.  The real life murder of Emily Dimmock in Camden Town in 1907 created a sensation in the press, and Sickert, who was already producing interior genre pieces with ambiguous narratives, jumped upon this subject (‘Nuit d’Ete’ and ‘La Hollandaise’, above and below).

He played around with pose and introduced in some a mysterious male figure (husband, client or murderer?!) and deliberately provoked the associations by giving his work allusive titles.  His flair for drama was given free rein here and he would surely be gleeful to know of the discussions still raging among art historians.  Are the images violent or just sad, full of horror or simply despair? It was interesting to read in the catalogue about expert analysis on the letters sent to the police, supposedly from Jack the Ripper, which match the paper and artists materials used by Sickert.  However, even if he did send hoax letters, it seems far-fetched to accuse him of these crimes; he just had a vivid imagination and a flair for self-promotion.

As modern culture swept forward from music halls to cinemas, Sickert followed enthusiastically in its wake; black and white press cuttings were transformed into colour on the canvas, or enlarged to enormous proportions while retaining the simplified tones and flattened perspective of monochrome photography. In ‘La Louve’ (1932, left) the actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Isabella of France is depicted full-length and dramatically lit – yet Sickert was unashamed at the borrowing of source material, even painting in the photo credit in the lower right corner!  As with his earlier music hall images, Sickert often used a single highlight of bold, pure colour – the emerald in ‘La Louve’ or the well-known vermilion on a raincoat in ‘Miss Earhart’s Arrival’ (1932) – that still looks extraordinarily fresh and daring today.

Walter Sickert was of the generation which inherited the mantle of both Impressionism and Pre-Rephaelitism and yet he formed from these enormously radical movements something quite unique – and which itself inspired many equally radical artists of the 20th century.  By including numerous examples of the latter the exhibition makes clear just how much they owed to Sickert – from Pop Art’s use of consumer culture and text to the use of photography and appropriated imagery. Even the classic genre of the Nude is, through Sickert’s demythologising of the naked body to Francis Bacon’s and Lucian Freud’s searingly honest depictions of stark humanity, continually reinvented.

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