Essays by James Hyman

Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert


James Hyman
Royal Academy Magazine
Winter 1992

Few British painters can match the power of Walter Sickert and none his achievements. James Hyman explores the artist's career and achievements.

The career of Walter Sickert is an example, rare in British painting this century, of an artist of real daring and genuine radicalism. However, he is a painter who has never failed to provoke strong reactions. To his passionate supporters he is one of the most profound British artists this century, but to his detractors his work conevery prejudice about the shortcomings of British art. Perceived as an Impressionist after the fact, he is an anachronism who made a furmistake by crossing the channel forgoing sunshine for grey skies. Compared to the spring freshness of Monet's Rouen, the autumnal grime of Sickert's Camden lends support to the view that the dampness of England turned him into the exemplary `rainy-day Impressionist'.

But to consider Sickert as an Impressionist or even as a Post-Impressionist, concerned priwith the eye, is misleading. Of course, responding to the changing patterns of light was vital and aspects of 19th-century French art did provide a lineage, and a quite remarkable one at that, but the lineage is primarily through lessons learnt first-hand from Degas who in turn drew from Ingres.

Two of Sickert's most celebrated contempoof the 20th-century, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, provide a more immediate context, though the differences are as telling as any affinities. In the work of the Frenchmen, the design is so strong, the decorative sense so acute and the colour so luxurious that for all the intimacy of their setting, whether bathtub or drawing room, the impression on the viewer is, one of indulgence. Seldom is there any real feelof intimacy in the experience of the work.

Superficially the case is the same in Sickert's painting and yet the artist often quietly subverts expectations. However careful the design, and Sickert was undoubtedly a sophisticated orches, there is often an awkwardness bordering on the clumsy, as a fleeting glimpse or an adhoc arrangement throws the picture and in turn the viewer off balance, and however sensuous the colour there is often a sense of its suppression. The brooding forms of his Camden Town nudes are most powerful when most allusive, whether contre jour or swathed in bedclothes. Close tones, with an emphasis on earth colours, are made tart by daring juxtapositions.

In fact, unlike most of Bonnard's work and much of Vuillard's, the intimacy found in a Sickert extends beyond questions of subject matter, irrespective of Sickert's actual relationwith his models there is often a feeling of closeness which at times approaches that found in Rembrandt's paintings of Saskia. In such nudes, it is as though Sickert sought to make privacy itself the subject. Sickert makes life hard for the viewer, stripping away the seductive and showy. We may even feel excluded, our presence intrusive, even superfluous.

But curiously, despite this closeness, there is often a passivity to even the most intimate of scenes, a passivity that is present throughout Sickert's career. 'This is not exactly a question of detachment, though this quality has been made much of. But it does relate to a temperament that often led the artist to present the subject as though becalmed, providing a sense of tired numbness, or of unease, as in the study of a stulrelationship, Ennui.

This also perhaps accounts for the uniformiin mood in Sickert's outdoor paintings in which it is often hard to distinguish locations by light or atmosphere alone. One only has to comthe heavy light of the Tate Gallery's outportrait of Claude Phillip Martin (1935) in a garden with Sickert's theatre scenes of the same period to realise the extent of this consistency in atmosphere and the way in which Sickert blurs the distinction between nature and artifice. Such paintings also suggest that colour played a larger part in Sickert's work than is usually acknowledged in the common emphasis on Sickert the tonal painter.

Yet for all the intimacy of so many of his works and the individuality of his response, Sickert, himself, was nothing if not a public fig, a man at the centre of British art in the first half of this century. If one is to judge an artist by his circles of influence then Sickert had, and has, few rivals. His position in the first half of the century is matched only by that of Francis Bacon since the Second War - both are inspirexamples of a rejuvenated figuration. Their work also shares a number of qualities, not least a in the centrality of photography to their studio practices. Sickert's increasing incorporation of a the chance effects produced from squaring up photographs allowed such imperfections to ensure vitality, and this feature finds a counter- x part in Bacon's use of photography and celebraof the accidental. But Sickert was there first. There before Bacon, there before Warhol, in his apprpriation of popular sopurces including newspaper illustrations.

Sickert may have taken up the challenge of Baudelaire's call for painters of modern life, but he was clearly dissatisfied with the limitations implicit in the `solutions' of the Impressionists. In this search for a new, modern realism, the Cubists pursued one direction Sickert another. To Apollinaire Cubism was `art impregnated with humanity' while for Sickert art should move from the refinement of the drawing room to the raw facts of life below stairs. While the Impressionists used the photograph to try and rival the fleeting glance of the strolling flaneur and Cubism remained small scale, in keeping with the proportions of its favoured motif - the table-top still-life - Sickert began to use the photograph, as Leonardo would a cartoon, to produce paintings of ever increasing size and ambition. Through the photograph Sickert elethe everyday to the monumental.

In this, Sickert was virtually alone. No one in England or France seems to have had a vision of comparable grandeur. Collage effects might have contributed to the richness of the Cubism of Braque, Picasso and Gris, but their's remained essentially a dynamic, vulnerable art in keeping with its commemoration of the fragpoetry of an ephemeral cafe-culture. Sickert, however, stands almost alone in seeing another potential in his source material recognising in photography the part it might play not in capthe transient but in creating something permanent, something that would give his scenes the monumentality of the Old Masters.

Furthermore, as with Cubism, the legacy of the work extends rather further than the artist might have wished or anticipated, to abstraction no less. A path towards abstraction is, in fact, as implicit in Sickert's tendency towards an increasingly expansive handling of paint, with its incorporation of large expanses of unmoducolour as it is in Cubism's emphasis on a front plane and its simplification of forms. To recognise this feature one only has to consider a range of abstraction from Patrick Heron to Bridget Riley and its affinities with Sickert's handling of complementary colours. In the magnificent portrait of Viscount Castlerosse, for example, Sickert devotes the botquarter of the picture to pattern making, producing an area of painting which reads as entirely abstract since the carpet it depicts is presented without shadows or rumples to create a delicate tapestry effect of pale blues shot with salmon pink.

In Sickert's paintings, then, photographic flatness added a revolutionary schematisation which both looked back to civic wall painting and forward to the colour field of abstraction. Such paintings thus both acknowledged the reportage qualities of the mass media from which they drew, whether it be from newspa, engravings or the artist's own pho, and recognised the implicit gap between observed reality and its encapsulation in another medium. For, even in Sickert's skilful hands, such are the oddities in the lighting there is often little doubt that photography is behind the composition of a particular painting.

But what of the other aspects of Sickert's career? There is Sickert the engraver, whose extensive forays into this medium remain unjustly neglected. Sickert the critic, whose colwriting, A Free House, reveals its author to be one of the most provocative of artist-writwith a liveliness only matched by Wyndham Lewis. Sickert the chronicler of urban life whose prosaic Camden Town serves as a foil to Stanley Spencer's sacred Cookham.

Compared to the example of diversity offered by Sickert's career, Bacon, Lewis and Spencer are all petit-maitres. Bacon emerges the master of a narrow formal vocabulary and a narrower emotional range, Spencer a singular, maverick figure and Wyndham Lewis an increasingly reactionary commentator.

Sickert, then, is a rare example of an artist whose work appears as fresh today as it must have at the time, perhaps even more so. For, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see all the more clearly the radicalism of his paintings, and this is not only true of the late works. The fact that a person at the centre of a figurative tradition can also provide lessons for abstraconly goes to emphasise the way that the greatest artists evade straightforward categori, exposing, as they do, the artificiality of such divisions. Just as with Cubism, Sickert's painting provides a series of openings, for abstraction and figuration alike, paving the way for the work of others.

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