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Exhibition Life presented as it really is

Walter Sickert’s depictions of the lives and behaviours of ordinary people was ground breaking and free from hypocrisy, contends JAN WOOLF

Walter Sickert
Tate Britain

EIGHT rooms of Walter Sickert is a treat, and a trick — of the light certainly — and of our sensibilities around sexual politics.  

Sickert said that “the plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts.” And it was the materiality of human flesh, (much of it female), the lives and behaviours of ordinary people, and the handling of paint, that was so ground breaking in his time.

The French painter and Communard Gustav Courbet (who Sickert admired) said: “Most art owed more to other art than it ever did to nature.” And so it goes. Apprenticed to Whistler, Sickert was also influenced by Degas and Bonnard, the painterly conversation later extending to Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon.

The first room of self-portraits sets the show up nicely, with Sickert’s various identities as actor, artist and sometimes the biblical characters of his later work. Here we learn that “the line was abandoned for loosely painted patches of colour,” and that acting was abandoned for painting. It was if he would rather see than be seen.

Yet the stage, its artificial lighting, and the real and often brutal emotions of the audience were central to his work. He understood the resonance between performer and audience; a collection of voyeurs?  Mostly men gazing at women, each with private — maybe beastly, thoughts, projected onto the performer.  

Bonnet et Claque is a powerful painting of a claque (a group of people hired to be in the audience to applaud). Men gape like apes, dabs or slicks of paint are voided eyes, mouths like knife wounds. The woman on stage, Ada Lundberg, is vulnerable, but in total command.  

A leading critic of the day declared “music halls as working-class entertainment ... an inappropriate subject for fine art.” This of course, made people rush to see them.

Room six The Nude makes clear Sickert’s distinction between the formalised nude and the naked body; that the traditional nude was idealised and stylised, bearing little resemblance to real naked flesh.  

La Hollandaise shows a woman reclining on a bed — mostly in shadow — her meaty thigh and breast illuminated like choice joints on a butcher’s slab, but in electric light. It’s said that Impressionism is painting with light — yet Sickert’s artificial light illuminated a great deal of dark.   

Paintings of poor working-class, often middle-aged women in seedy bedrooms – some with a dressed man in bleak attendance, echoes Manet’s famous Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe where two fully clothed men sit on a lawn with a naked woman, a painting controversial at the time for puritanical rather than woke sensibilities (is there a similarity?).

The visitors’ pamphlet guide states: “In recent years, critics and viewers have asked if Sickert’s paintings objectify women, questioning the power dynamics between model and artist, and within the scenes depicted.”   

This is deftly done, for to ignore it would be a provocative oversight. His Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud maintained that civilisation was a thin veil over the sexual desires and obsessions that drive humanity. Sickert’s painting rents that veil — not as a “look at what I’m doing” shock tactic but to present life as it really is and to free art from hypocrisy.

Victorian attitudes towards sex, meant ownership and commodification of women, and so, Sickert seems to ask — what do men do with desire? You either marry someone or pay someone — often both, and in many paintings he shows misalliances between men and women. But the question remains, was he feeding a sick mind? Or revealing the truth.   

The Camden Town Murder or What Shall we Do for the Rent was “inspired” by the murder of sex worker Emily Dimmock. But here we are unsure if the woman is asleep or dead, the man sitting on the end of the bed in despair — all passion spent, whether sexual or murderous.
 
His portraits capture external, performative personality, much as a butterfly is caught in a net. Cecily Hey, a close up of a woman with sunken eyes and an upturned nose, illuminated by a light reflecting from outside the painting is unflattering but mesmerising. But does it address her internal state?  

There are also many (quite muddy I thought) paintings of facades of buildings. His horses of St Marks resemble part of the interior of a music hall. And the charm of Venice is turned into a sinister theme park — which it is.  

Is there a parallel between the nude in artificial light and the facade of a building? Mysterious doorways and portals into other worlds beckon a journey into his psyche.

Interesting that the favourite, and least problematic image for the gift shop’s bags and T-shirts is Brighton Pierrots. The fusion of the glow of a setting sun and artificial stage light induces strangeness and melancholy, as the performers work a sparse audience.

But this is war-time, and over the channel it’s all happening. He only produced a few war paintings.Too old to be commissioned as a war artist, he knocked out a few military subjects to aid the “war effort.” One of them is particularly telling and I quote a Daily Telegraph review from 1915: “With his usual dexterity Mr Walter Sickert presents in a sordid interior a half nude, weary eyed girl seated on a bed, and with her bald headed elderly German of more or less Bismarckian type, sitting at ease as he smokes a cigarette. To this ravishing love idyll he gives the title The Prussians in Belgium.” Hmmm ...

The Miner, based on a 1935 press photo of a miner’s embrace with his wife after just coming up from a stay down pit strike is tremendous: the passion as he kisses his wife, that hunch and heft of the shoulders. Sickert was reported to have said: “That picture gives you the right feeling doesn’t it? You would kiss your wife like that if you’d just come up from the pit.” Yet the woman’s arms remain by her side. Is she kissing him back? This is unclear, but then paintings with all the answers aren’t good paintings.  

He was painting into the 1950s using photographs. His whole body portrait of the briefly king, Edward VIII, is famously real, but you could see why he needed the photograph. If you wanted a flatter piece you wouldn’t commission Sickert.

The exhibition also avoids the rumour of Sickert being Jack the Ripper. Curators avoid, in the rooms, (but not in the accompanying book) this unproven claim, thus drawing our attention to the paintings. Sickert’s style lies between impressionism and expressionism; so let’s call it transgressionism. Whatever.

The painting is sublime, and long may he not be cancelled. He changed the course of British art, much in the same way that Cezanne changed the French, but less pretty.

Walter Sickert is at Tate Britain until September 18 2022. Box office: 020 7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk

 

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