Walter Sickert is a bit of an enigma. Brilliant certainly, rather weird, probably. Author, Patricia Cornwell, wrote a book about him, claiming that he was the Jack the Ripper. She is not the first writer to associate Sickert with the infamous murderer. Other writers postulate that Sickert was the Ripper’s assistant. What is undeniable, is that Sickert was drawn to the Ripper’s poverty-stricken world of sex workers, and that following The Camden Town Murder (a real event, in which Emily Dimmock was murdered in Camden Town), Sickert created a series of nudes inspired by the killing.
What drew him to that shady Jack the Ripper territory? Was Sickert searching for some sort of artistic truth – and titillation? Who was Walter Sickert?
Tate Britain’s retrospective of Sickert attempts to probe the artist’s true identity in Room 1 where his self-portraits hang.
A neat pen and ink drawing of a young man, dated 16 December 1882. shows us Sickert at the age of twenty-two. His head is tilted forward, his eyes stare out at the viewer almost defiantly. It’s a “take me as I am” pose. The bravado of youth? We are told that Sickert had started his career as an actor. Fast forward to 1896, we are shown a self-portrait in paint, where the dominating palette is brown. The thirty-six year-old Sickert half-faces us displaying one blue eye. It pierces through a layer of white brush strokes for the face. The other part of his face is in darkness. Very Jeckyll and Hyde and, to me, Sickert is troubled. In Painter in his Studio 1907, he’s forty-seven and the anguish has disappeared. Instead he’s hiding in the gloom, lurking behind a white plaster cast of a female torso. In Lazurus Breaks his Fast 1927 he’s an old man with ragged beard and dishevelled hair. Leaning over his food and famished after an illness, he attacks his plate. His face is an array of impressionistic rough patches of pukey-green-white paint, pink-white for the beard and hair, a dash of red for the nose. In The Front at Hove 1930 he’s a white-faced septuagenarian on a park bench (1930) seen from some distance. In the background is a decrepit building, a symbol of Sickert’s mortality. In Reading in the Cabin 1940 he’s become a head in profile, reclining on a sofa, talking to his wife. In every portrait of himself, Sickert is playing with the angles in intriguing ways and seems keen to keep the viewer at a distance.
Sickert’s experimentation with perspective had come with his interest in photography. Taking photographs must have drawn him to explore the effect of different light sources – natural and electric. Lighting, and his experimental use of perspective, were put into fine use in his music hall paintings.
Sickert visited the music hall every night and you can see in the room dedicated to the medium, his love affair with this world of entertainment. Everything is there, the musicians in the pit, the music-hall stars on stage, the audiences – in the stalls and way up high in the gods. Gallery of the Old Bedford 1894-5 is a masterpiece. Boys, young men in hats and caps, stare down towards the stage where one of the female stars, Dot Hetherington, is singing ‘The Boy I love is up in the gallery.’ In a few impressionistic brush strokes, Sickert produces a an expression of glee, of concentration, of nostalgic sadness, in the eyes of the men. A large, gilded mirror captures a few in its reflection. In their dark garb, the transfixed group, contrast sharply with their ornate surroundings. The gallery loges glitter with gold paint given off by the lights on stage. There’s a crimson column too. It’s all sumptuous!
In The Urban Environment: Venice and Dieppe room we see again, Sickert’s natural lighting effects when he paints St Mark’s Basilica. It glints with sunlight whereas the cafe chandelier shimmers with artificial brightness in Nuit d’Amour 1920 in Dieppe.
The Nude, two rooms later, brings the visitor back into familiar territory as far as Sickert is concerned. Sickert is celebrated and admired for his nude and reviewing his nudes, we can see their power and imagine how shocking at the time they were painted.
It was not so much the nudity that offended Victorian society, as the way Sickert depicted the model. Sickert chose to present them in dingy bedrooms, atop iron beds, with a chamber pot or water jug in view. In Reclining Nude his prostitute adopts an ‘unacademic’ pose, flaunts her ginger pubis. In Le Lit de Fer (The Iron bed) the prostitute’s swollen flesh is not lovely and pink in the manner of a Bonnard – it’s green – almost gangrenous, reflecting the colour of the shabby wall. You can see where Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon got their appetite for gruesome colours or distorted form.
Circumnavigating these canvases is an odd experience for a woman. The nudes sharing rooms with fully clothed men are particularly unsettling. You can appreciate the quality of the painting, but the nagging feeling that the women is being presented as object, a piece of merchandise, and therefore vulnerable, is sometimes too much to bear. Even more troubling is the thought that these girls were being primed to provoke or titillate the viewer.
Walter Sickert seems to take a dim view of marriage Modern Conversation Pieces a room dedicated to his narrative painting.. Ennui 1914 is perhaps the most memorable. An old husband sits and smokes a pipe at table. His younger wife faces away from him (and us), slumped on her elbow on a chest of drawers where a glass bell with stuffed birds is a symbol of entrapment or death. The young woman fails to look at the dead birds and day-dreams not out of a window, but staring at a blank wall. Depressing stuff!
This is a fascinating exhibition and with one hundred and fifty works on offer, drawn from prestigious public and private collections, it’s generous, and shows the full extent of this complex artist’s powers. Highly recommended.
Walter Sickert at Tate Britain is on until 18th September 2022