TATE Britain’s retrospective on artist Walter Sickert is a beacon of hope, a reminder of the power and importance of empathy amongst the polarised world we find ourselves in today.
Sickert was born in 1860 in Munich, however it feels as though this show has brought his work home, for he moved to England at the tender age of eight with his father Oswald, a painter and engraver whose linear technique would later inspire Sickert.
Before his fleeting studies at The Slade School of Art, Sickert’s first love was acting, a passion that greatly attributed to his artistic career. ‘Stage-struck’, every night Sickert would revel in the theatrical experience from every angle, whether that be from the musicians pit, the audience or from the performers perspective. We see across Sickert’s music hall paintings his relentless curiosity.
Audience members are transcended to the protagonist as he focuses our attention onto their sleepy faces, slumped in their seats, resting their head on their chin or leaning dejectedly on the balcony rail. His inquisitive angle was aided by the use of mirrors in the theatre, the reflections allowed Sickert to experiment with artificial light.
Behind the scenes we find The End of the Act c.1885-6 portraying an exhausted actress, resting in solitude on a sofa in between acts. Immediately you feel Sickert’s heightened sympathy for the actor, and the feeling rubs off on you.
An exhibition highlight includes the staggering portrait of Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892, glowing in her vivid poppy red dress and hat against the sludgy green backdrop.
Sickert’s interest in “low brow” contemporary culture was considered avant garde at the time and yet he elevates them to the grandeur of “high brow” heights.
We might be drawn in by Sickert’s performers but he also uses the stage itself to impart historical context. The sickly colour palette of Brighton Pierrots 1915 makes the viewer feel uneasy. The actors on stage are performing to flapping empty deck chairs, hinting to the lack of audience members as a result of World War 1.
Sickert also implanted himself as the performer in his self portraits where we see him play actor, artist and biblical characters in both Self Portrait, Lazarus breaks his Fast c.1927 and in The Servant of Abraham 1929.
We are faced with the real Sickert in See Portrait c.1986, where we find him glowering in a dark sombre palette, alluding to his financial struggles and marital breakdown at the time.
Sickert decided to withdraw from the Slade early in 1882 in order to help print etching plates and be a pupil of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whilst their relationship may have been fragile Sickert gleaned an enormous amount from Whistler, admiring his “extraordinary beauty and truth of the relative colours, and the exquisite precision of the spaces.”
Shortly afterwards in 1885 he was mentored by French Impressionist Edgar Degas, a fellow music hall appreciator. Under Degas, Sickert was encouraged to plan his compositions through sketching and to use more brave flashes of colour. So inspired by Degas’s Post Impressionism, Sickert became a leading artist in the Camden Town Group and part of the Fitzroy Street Group with Spencer Gore and Camille Pissarro.
Never one to stick to the ordinary, Sickert challenged the traditions of the Royal Academy and became a founding member of the New English Art Club, a French alternative to its stuffy British counterparts. Sickert’s travels in Venice and Sieppe solidified his mastering of natural day light we can see in L’Hôtel Royal c.1894 and St Mark’s Venice 1896-7.
The city streets are steeped in shadows, whispering tales of inhabitants lives scuttling the city streets.
What this retrospective highlights is Sickert’s greatest talent, his sharp depiction of the magic in the fragilities of everyday life. Whether that be the boisterous clustering of audience members in Gallery of the Old Mogul 1906, straining over one another to catch a glimpse of a film, or the comforting familiarity in The Laundry Shop 1885 or Shop Front 1885, painted from a snapshot angle, pulling the viewer in.
In Ennui c.1914 we find a couple stifled by the monotony of marital life. Sickert may have mixed in high society circles but he was more interested in reality, evident in The Miner c.1935-6 where you find a couple lost in a passionate kiss and embrace.
The image, taken from a newspaper clipping, comes alive with Sickert’s deft brushstrokes that add layers of urgency and energy. After finishing the painting Sickert is reported to have asked, “That picture gives you the right feeling doesn’t it? You’d kiss your wife like that if you’d just come up from the pit, wouldn’t you?”
Sickert’s use of photography for both inspiration and composition was revolutionary within artistic practice and later inspired Francis Bacon and the Pop Art movement.
Another resounding feature of this exhibition is Sickert’s profound relationship with women. Critics might question the power dynamic between the artist and his models, although the Tate confirms the paid relationship they shared. By spelling out the models names on the walls, the Tate have solidified their status. Sickert seemed to be most fascinated by female strength, found in Miss Earhart’s Arrival 1932, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo, or in Jeanne
The Cigarette 1906, depicting a rare scene of a woman smoking. Sickert’s curiousity for the female experience is palpable in his exploration of nudity and sex workers. In 1910 Sickert published an article in The New Age arguing how academic nude paintings were “artificial in setting and in form, that they bore little resemblance to the naked human figure.”
Instead in Sickert’s work we are faced with the tough and harsh realities of prostitution in Nuit d’été c.1906 or in La Hollandaise, showing weary women collapsed onto their beds. Sickert’s rough and harried application of paint in dull tones highlights their sheer exhaustion.
Ahead of his time, Sickert shifts genders roles and explores the effects of this in The Camden Town Murder Series that portrays the murder of Emily Dimmock in 1907. It’s undoubtedly difficult viewing but by experimenting with different narratives of this tragedy, Sickert examines the roles gender plays, whether that be threatening or nurturing.
In times defined by disparity, there seems no greater time to familiarise yourself with Sickert’s work, reminding us to familiarise ourselves with others too.
by Charlie Newman
Walter Sickert at Tate Britain is on until September 18, 2022
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