It’s hard to know what to make of Walter Sickert (1860-1942), some of whose Venetian paintings and drawings make up Sickert in Venice, on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 7 June 2009.
Britain typically imagines its art historical tradition to be primarily pastoral, decorative or based in formal portraiture. Sickert scarcely registers on any of these indices. As an artist whose working career spanned seven decades, it’s hard to know where to place him amongst his contemporaries. His cultural identity is also confusing. The son of a Schleswig-Holstein-born artist father and a half-Irish, half-English mother, most of his childhood was spent in Munich; he was entirely at home in Dieppe and Paris, close not only to a mistress and illegitimate son but also to his teacher and mentor Degas; as the present exhibition attests, he lived in Venice, at the time an economical choice, for the better part of several years; his application of paint derived as much from Velasquez and Goya as from the examples of his actual teachers and contemporaries; the semi-American Whistler was variously his studio assistant, colleague and irritating competitor. Yet this most cosmopolitan, ‘European’ of artists nevertheless achieved his most notable success in depicting London — not an imperial, ceremonial or even picturesque vision of London, either, but the grubby unlovely Camden Town, quartier of music halls, bedsits and whores — with the sort of devoted obsessiveness unmatched by anyone else before or afterwards, Hogarth and Auerbach perhaps excepted.
And while the title ‘godfather of modern British art’ now adheres to Sickert as if through the agency of some sub-Homeric trope, the exact nature of Sickert’s legacy, and the art-historical lineage over which he presided, remains debatable. True, the achievements of the Camden Town School — displayed to great effect in an exhibition at Tate Britain in 2008 — literally could not have happened without him. Yet the closer we draw to the present, the tougher these calculations become. For while it’s easy enough to assert that Bacon inherited Sickert’s grand guignol theatricality and occasional smeary bleakness, Freud his thick paint although none of his psychological subtlety, Auerbach his localism and a measure of his eroticism, with stray bequests enriching everyone from Ken Howard to any second-rate British artist who’s ever tried to square up a photograph and reproduce it in wilfully painterly mode — well, who now alive has anything approaching Sickert’s rigour, his facility, the apparently wholly casual accuracy with which he achieved his desired effects?
Sickert in Venice gives these questions a certain urgency. Masterminded by Robert Upstone, curator of modern British art at Tate Britain and author of the illuminating catalogue, this is a small but wholly engaging exhibition. Arranged thematically, it draws together Sickert’s responses to Venice, created 1895-1903 during the course of several protracted visits. The items on show comprise everything from highly finished paintings — Sickert’s decision to work in Venice had a lot to do with the thriving international market in depictions of La Serenissima — to portraits of friends, diligent architectural studies and the roughest of sketches in oils. There are also conversation pieces — notably, pictures of two young female models, posed ambigously in a domestic interior — which are interesting both in their own right, but perhaps even more so for what they tell us about the origins of Sickert’s Camden Town nudes, carved out of thickly impastoed paint 1905-1913, most recently on view in a truly astonishing exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, 2007-08.
In the catalogue and, more briefly, the explanatory text of the exhibition itself, Upstone persuasively argues that Sickert’s Venice sojourn marked a fundamental turning-point in his career. The year 1895 found Sickert brooding over lacklustre reviews and the strong suspicion that his work had reached, if not a dead end exactly, then at least passage along a relatively well-trodden and hence unchallenging byway, enlivened chiefly by the multiple infidelities that continued to test his relationship with his rich and long-suffering, although ultimately not that long-suffering first wife; his erstwhile subordinate Whistler alternately annoyed and threatened to out-compete him; in contrast to all this, Venice was cheap, stimulating and, as hundreds of artists had previously demonstrated to general satisfaction, a promising subject for the sort of paintings that most easily found buyers.
Upstone is, incidentally, particularly fascinating when he writes about the appeal of Venice to fin de siecle audiences. For the more educated end of the British public, visions of this most beautiful of cities came filtered through some weird amalgam of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pigrimage, Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, Thomas Cook’s mass-market package tours, the efforts of half-forgotten genre painters like Henry Woods, commercial photography, The Gondoliers, schadenfreude-steeped cautionary tales regarding the decline and fall of once-great maritime nations, and miscellaneous stereotypes suggesting that the Venetians themselves were sensual, beautiful, unreliable, exotic, ‘unspoiled’ yet morally flexible, to put it mildly. Upstone goes on to draw connections between the conjunction of ethnography and titillation tied up in this vision of Venice, and the sort of voyeuristic class-tourism involved in Sickert’s later paintings of foul-mouthed, sexually promiscuous, violence-prone Camden Town coster girls — not a million miles removed, it seems, from the sort of thing that journalists like W T Stead were offering an alternately appalled and fascinated readership, or indeed, from the queasy stuff of today’s supermarket-shelf misery-memoirs.
All those fleshy nudes collapsed across their rumpled bedsheets lay, however, far off in the future when Sickert first arrived in Venice in 1895. Conventionally enough, he started out by painting Venice’s landmark buildings, as Turner, Sargent and countless lesser-known painters had done before him. Yet as the first two rooms of the present exhibition make clear, Sickert’s Venice was, from the first, very much his own. Venetian light, the dampness of the atmosphere and the general air of dreamy unreality tend, at the best of times, to free up artists’ colour. What happened to Sickert’s colour, though, somehow gives the impression of having less to do with light, perception and immediacy — those touchstones of Impressionist practice — than with a sort of highly personal Expressionism.
At some level, Sickert may have been going through the motions, mass-producing pretty topographical studies, much to the delight of his Paris dealer, bank manager and creditors. But at the same time, it’s hard not to read into these varied, highly emotive works everything from the sunny elation of successful escape — freedom from marriage, critics, financial worries — to moments of crepuscular doubt, or an insomniac’s aimless late-night strolls. The Salute, for instance, appears here variously as slate-grey, violet, ochre, or a sort of miraculous burnt tangerine, its vividness burning down through the water before it. Yet while other people’s travails, expressed through art, inevitably risk coming across as self-indulgent, dull and alienating, Sickert’s self-assured mark-making, the boldness of his tonal relationships and an overall sense of devil-may-care effortlessness ensures that the result transcends its origins. Ultimately, one leaves this rooms slightly breathless at what paint can do, how good it can look — more surprised, in a way, at the flexibility of the medium, than at Sickert’s recognisable emotional range.
For while there’s some signature trickiness about — that quasi-photographic cropping inherited from Degas, a painterly recourse to doing difficult things with yellow, an anti-Impressionistic enthusiasm for painting in black, absolute mastery of the single flicked-on brushstroke that shimmers between illusionistic perfection and nakedly show-off artifice — Sickert is, nevertheless, sometimes at his best when he’s at his most unexpected. One of the gems of the present exhibition a small oil study, so thinly painted on its panel that the wood-grain shows through, depicting the built-up warren of Venice’s old Ghetto. Sickert orients the facade of the buildings parallel to the picture-plane — something he does quite frequently, actually — but here, the lack of ornament and superabundance of windows creates a strange, grid-like pattern, scraped out in the thinnest layers of golds and bronzes. It’s a magical little painting. If it didn’t so clearly recall this distinctive Venice neighbourhood, it could easily be mistaken for an abstract composition, and a strong one at that. All of which goes some way towards explaining why the best of these paintings have the quality they do. Even at his moodiest or most workmanlike, Sickert rarely ignored the imperatives of formal persuasiveness. There are moments when one can almost feel the artist losing himself in the abstract challenges thrown up by colour and form, treated as ends in themselves.
So much for the plein-air stuff. Before long, Sickert was not only painting informal portraits — a thoughtful study of Sickert’s friend Israel Zangwill includes in the background a flickering vision of Venice’s ghetto presumably borrowed from the small study mentioned above — but also hiring local girls, picked up in the trattoria Giorgione di San Silvestro, to sit for him. Were Guiseppina and Carolina del’Acqua actually prostitutes? Nothing about Sickert’s habits, the mores of Venice c. 1900 or the critical reception of the pictures does anything to discourage the theory. In any event, Sickert moved the women off the streets — where conventional genre painting would have posed them in front of well-known landmarks — and into darkened interiors, spaces intimate yet somehow mysterious. The women pose on chairs, sofas or beds. Sometimes they look amused and amusing — Sickert admitted to having been entertained by his models’ ‘smutty talk’. At other times they look mildly expectant, or sometimes just bored. The titles, most of them in Venetian dialect, give little away.
What was the point of these images? Contemporary critics, at any rate, did not warm to them. ‘Mr Walter Sickert’s sketches, for the naming of which he had to have recourse to a foreign tongue, are so slipshod, dirty, incomplete and meaningless that they are utterly unfit for exhibition,’ wrote Paul Codrington in The World. For present-day viewers, the existence of those later Camden Town nudes, mixed up as they are with all that lurid stuff about Jack the Ripper, complicates a picture already blurred by art-historical comparisons reaching from Rembrandt and Vermeer (whose compositions Sickert seems sometimes to echo) to the world of Japanese printmaking to which Sickert had been warmly introduced, via Whistler and Degas. And if this wasn’t difficult enough, Sickert suffers from the distinctive interpretive problems posed by any artist who is simultaneously an energetic critic, a stunning prose-stylist and a highly inconsistent guide to his own best work.
Let us turn then, instead, to what another painter’s response to the Camden Town nudes:
Helen Lessore [a painter, gallerist and incidentally the sister-in-law of Sickert’s third wife] wrote somewhere that [Sickert’s locales] are grubby, miserable bedrooms: well, those bedrooms with girls in them, where the sheets smell of human congress, they don’t look in the least depressing to me — they seem to be really very jolly places. I recognize my life in those streets and in those bedrooms! I felt at home in Sickert’s world. And a very enjoyable world it is, too! Those Mornington Cresecent bedrooms, with plump sweaty nudes in beds, seem to me extremely desirable places to be in.
My own intuition is that what Frank Auerbach said to Robert Hughes here probably reflects, insofar as the truth is recoverable, a measure of what Sickert felt about those late-afternoon shuttered Venetian rooms, their watery light and their inscrutable, mildly exotic, companionable and presumably sexually available occupants. For although he caught a bad dose of venereal disease in Venice during the winter of 1903-04, his references to it thereafter, particularly by the time he was nearing his dotage, are nothing if not euphoric. In 1920 he wrote to a friend that
I live more in recollection of Venice than may seem likely … I regret too late that I painted buildings too much & ‘from nature’ ever. If I had my life over again I would have accumulated endless drawings of Venetian life & movement which would have served me to paint from till today [sic].
The best of these conversation pieces not only capture Sickert’s own emotional investment in this world, but give those highly personal scenes a shape, colour and texture sufficiently powerful to entrance even those of us to whom they are something other than public emblems of very private happiness. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the sense that there’s something strongly-felt about them, something real — another sort of validity underpinning their formal strength, which in the case of works like Two Women on a Sofa – Le Tose (c. 1903-04) or Caroline del’Acqua (1903-04) is in any event rewarding in itself.
Not everyone, it must be said, liked this exhibition quite as much as I did. The marvellous Brian Sewell, for one, was full of entirely reasonable complaints about it, although his chief complaint seems to boil down to the point over which he and I persistently disagree — which is to say, whether there’s a place for exhibitions of the work of artists who are, in some way, limited, uneven, flawed or otherwise less than entirely great. Sewell’s verdict is that Venice exposed Sickert’s ‘unrewarding mediocrity’. Sewell dislikes Sickert’s ‘drab’ colour, the muddiness and lack of informative detail, the labours of the man he terms a ‘diligent plodder’. In contrast, while I wondered slightly at the choice of buccolic Dulwich as a frame for this most urban of sensibilities, I welcomed with open arms the chance to understand a little more about this complicated, hard-to-categorise, untidy and often errant giant of twentieth century British painting.
What should we make of Walter Sickert? Even now, I’m not entirely certain I have his measure, or that I know exactly where he fits in the broader story of our visual culture. Was Sickert the greatest painter who ever lived? Obviously not. Still, there’s clearly something in this exhibition that hints at how art and life can intersect fruitfully with one another, as well as a glimpse of how we use art to comprehend and domesticate things foreign and problematic, or perhaps just to amuse or console ourselves — that, plus a handful of images that simply don’t vanish when one turns away from the frame. And that, I suppose — the chance to tangle with a different consciousness, to take a peek into a room that’s not my own, or to see a well-loved city through the eyes of an intelligent, troubled stranger — seems to me, at least, well worth the journey out to Dulwich.