On ViewPetit Palais
Walter Sickert: Painting and Transgressing
October 14, 2022–January 29, 2023
This winter Paris museums are exhibiting kilometers of heartfelt painterly figuration. There is the anxiously descriptive Alice Neel at the Pompidou, the lurid sentimentalist Oskar Kokoschka at the Moderne, and the plummy visionary Edvard Munch at the Musée d’Orsay, where his angsty protagonists seem trapped in an endless roadshow, desperate for release from under the glass.
Out of step with these vitalists is a survey of the career of Walter Sickert (1860–1942) at the Petit Palais. Drawing comparatively negligible attendance, Sickert is one of the most famous yet equally perverse British painters of the late-nineteenth through mid-twentieth century. Thank God he’s here.
This retrospective, originating in London at the Tate, is his first in France, though this naturalized Englishman from cosmopolitan upbringings spent a good portion of his life in dialogue with the country’s painters, gallerists, landscapes, and literary culture. André Gide collected him, as did Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, and Pierre Bonnard, who was a friend and gallery-mate at Bernheim-Jeune in Paris.
Sickert’s influence runs through the last century and into this one, from Luc Tuymans to Richard Hamilton, Francis Bacon, and R.B. Kitaj. He anticipates Warhol and Richter, and I would assume an enormous number of cinematographers.
He is largely unknown in the US where his best-known admirer was the late Duncan Hannah. In contemporary Britain, the painter Merlin James is clearly an aficionado of Sickert, who, incidentally, like James, was also an art critic.
It seems to be a requirement for famous British modern artists of the last century to be some sort of rascal: Sickert was megalomaniac and an inveterate philanderer. Among other qualities troublesome to the present, there has been some bogus speculation in print recently that he was Jack the Ripper. Sickert did, in fact, find this unknown character fascinating: he started as an actor and throughout his life was constantly changing his apparent persona through beards, shaving, and costuming and with them, his opinions, as he went about his business. In his late works he would appear as a Shakespearean character or biblical figures, including Christ.
But his pictures are the opposite of self-regarding. He looked not inward but out at the world, a celebrant with a cold eye.
He was first under the artistic instruction of James McNeill Whistler who taught him a savory tonalism that Sickert adjusted into dull tans, off pinks, all kinds of bluish browns and greens and soupy limes. Most important, he later came under the influence of the most technically proficient of the Impressionists, Edgar Degas. Sickert can be seen as the mentee who eventually all but outshined his mentors. What he took from Degas includes psychological subject matter, the use of photographic composition in radical framing, cropping, and skewing points of view, a penchant for the near-hallucinatory, an emphasis on drawing as structure and most importantly, a jaundiced view of human activity.
He expanded upon many of Degas’s themes by contracting his pictorial scale and increasing noticeable facture, but it is without rhetoric. Grainy pieces of paint collect on the toothy supports, substantial but without unnecessary flourishes.
Beautifully forlorn, often unpopulated fragments of the city appear throughout the exhibition. Maple Street (1916), a tonal, scoured view of an empty corner in London is a site of reverie, a secret spot of longing amid its insignificance. Another streetscape, Easter (c.1928) is of the closely framed first and second stories of a Dawson Bros. dry goods shop. It is seen from the middle of the road, its windows filled to bursting with a fluttering array of white bonnets. Though there are two vertical bodies glimpsed in front, it feels somehow abandoned, unseen.
One of Sickert’s chief strengths is his studied indifference toward his sometimes-provocative imagery, and his curious ability to make obscure what is clearly visible. This probably owes something to his method, which relied on drawing, mostly from photographs. He would lay down a monochrome color, such as a deep red, and impose a drawn grid structure and transfer the drawing, then he would apply color without ceremony, like hanging tinted rags on a clothesline. He often depicts London as a noirish hole, as all a piece with the city’s thick, bad air and bad faith.
A series set in the environs of Camden Town, a working-class area in London, where he maintained several studios, are small dark pictures of the small dark rooms where the poor cohabit in claustrophobic misery and sexual assignations drift into violence. There are the clinically postured nudes here that must take the blame for the career of Lucien Freud as well as the depiction of women as sexual carcasses, most likely derived from the poems of Baudelaire. Sickert was a fan. Again from Degas are phantasmagorias of the music hall stage and its squirming audiences. It is in these pictures that the French word for mob, la foule, seems closest in sound and sense to his depictions of the muffled, drunk but subdued crowds inhabiting the ornate interiors of The New Bedford theater, the Eldorado, and others.
I like the fact that Sickert, venally and impurely, changed subject matter without compunction, often trying to hit upon something that would sell. He switched from scenes inside the music halls to portraits and then later to architecture, rendering views of Venice and Dieppe. His paintings of St. Mark’s Basilica seem to pose an answer to the question, how does one update Canaletto and Guardi for the modern era? Sickert harshly frames sections of the elaborate, tessellated exteriors, with little foregrounding so their detailing looms out in solemnity.
Later, as his newspaper sources of images become apparent, he achieves a chalky dull glare that replicates the soul-killing sensation of week-old tabloid photos. Compressed within elongated rectangles, the dry paint rubbed onto thick linen, the scenes from the Daily Express, of King George V and his Racing Manager (c.1929–1930) or Miss Earhart’s Arrival (1932), which depicts the backs of a crowd in the sleeting rain, are appropriately heartless.