The Daily Telegraph
A long overdue salute to the sensational Mr Sickert
Sickert: A Life in Art
Against a background of murky brown, a man stares moodily over his left shoulder, locking one red-rimmed eye with the viewer. The picture’s sombre palette, its sitter’s downturned mouth, the fact that his other eye is gobbled up by shadow, suggest he’s not in a happy place. And what’s wrong with his skin? It appears to be disintegrating.
Who is this ghoul? Answer: Prussianborn British artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942), the subject of a new retrospective of around 100 paintings and 200 drawings – the largest since the Royal Academy’s in 1992 – at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. This selfportrait, painted circa 1896, shortly after he’d separated from his first wife, appears at the start. Poor, hollowed-out fellow: he must have been suffering.
Unless he was acting. Those disturbing fleshy patches: aren’t they globs of greasepaint smeared across his forehead and cheeks? Sickert started out as an actor, a bit-part player with the stage name Mr Nemo (Latin for “nobody”). And, the show reveals, he never lost his taste for the theatrical. There’s a jauntier self-portrait in which he sports glasses he didn’t need, and a photograph of him wearing, incongruously, a chef ’s hat.
He had a penchant for melodrama. Consider his infamously sordid series of female nudes “inspired” by the grisly murder in Camden Town in 1907 of a sex worker whose throat was cut from ear to ear. I can’t shake the memory of encountering these provocative paintings at the Courtauld Gallery in 2007, alongside related nudes featuring “real”, working-class women in shabby, cramped interiors with iron beds and foxed mirrors; at the Walker, there’s a room of them. Over the years, they inspired rumours that Sickert and Jack the Ripper were one and the same: why else would he paint a view of his lodgings and call it “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom”?
Yet he wasn’t a serial killer (for most of 1888, when the Whitechapel murders took place, he was in France), merely a sensationalist, conscious of the career-accelerating power of notoriety. His earliest paintings of music halls had shocked bourgeois Victorian taste.
This is a tremendous show, long overdue. Moving straightforwardly through his life, it reminds us that Sickert, a protégé of Whistler, was instrumental in fostering modern art in Britain. Friends with Degas, he spent a decent chunk of his adulthood, from 1898 to 1905, living between Dieppe and Venice, painting views in both places. When he returned to England, he was steeped in the European avant-garde. (Another Sickert show at Tate Britain next April promises to explore this continental context in greater depth.)
Although, Sickert was capable of bright colours, he remains known for the dinginess of his palette – a gloomy gloop of mustard yellows, muddy umbers, and drab browns. Depressing? Or, perversely, thrilling? His “dirty” realism challenged the academic, sentimental art of the 19th century: instead of creating something polite and polished enough to decorate a drawing room, Sickert headed downstairs, to document the rougher, frumpier denizens of the scullery.
His exhausted, ageing women are naked, not nude, with wonky, sagging figures. Struggling to pay the rent, they aren’t goddesses, nymphs, or titillating fantasies: they’re real. Sickert influenced an entire school of 20th-century British painting: without him, there’d be no Bacon, no Freud, no Auerbach. His compositions, too, are typically dynamic. He approaches his subject matter stealthily, from unexpected angles, cropping like an auteur. In his last decade and a half, he was innovating again, painting around a hundred “English Echoes” inspired by yesteryear Victorian illustrations that anticipate Pop art.
I can’t wait for the Tate’s show, which is likely to be a bigger deal. But the Walker’s strength is its unrivalled collection of Sickert’s on-the-spot drawings. They reveal an artist forever sketching on whatever was at hand – headed letter paper, small cards, even envelopes – as he slummed it in music halls, casinos, and rough-and-ready Venetian trattorias, while striving to capture his obsession: modern life.