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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Hello darkness, my old friend

You might think you know Walter Sickert, creator of dark interiors suggesting darker deeds. But as I found at Tate Britain’s current exhibition, there is more to this part-German, part-Englishman, the son of a painter who began as an actor before turning to art himself. There is even some brightness. The dark end of the street is, though, never too far away.

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich in 1860. His mother’s Danish heritage caused the family to emigrate after the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, a territory formerly under the control of Denmark. Sickert received a good education and decided initially to become an actor, a profession that was to fascinate him all his life. Quickly changing career to follow that of his father and grandfather, however, a brief period at the Slade led him to work for James Abbott McNeill Whistler, another émigré and fellow Francophile, who became a primary influence and a good friend for a decade or so. They travelled to Dieppe together where they painted shopfronts in closely matching styles, sharing sombre colours, implicit grids and still, almost static yet highly-charged atmospheres; in Sickert’s case these anticipate Edward Hopper by half a century despite his figures being absent or at least well-hidden. In Paris Sickert met Edgar Degas and absorbed his working practices and preferred subjects too, especially his concentration on bars, theatres, dancing and other public entertainments. On returning to England Sickert brought both mentors’ ideas to his own work, which focussed on London’s music halls.

Here we see Sickert using all that he had learned, synthesised into a new kind of art for a new world of shadow and, yes, light. Performers are seen but audience members as well, and indeed the former is often sidelined in favour of the latter. Sickert chooses viewpoints that upset expectations, here looking up into the gods, there looking into the prompt mirror beside the stage. The darkness is the deep dark of the box, the pit and the stalls, but gaslighting caresses gilded wood and highlights rapt faces. Sickert here uses rich reds, warm browns and striking yellows, building on careful but lively sketches made there and then and blending these with models posed in his Camden studios. They were very successful and given many of these works are ‘brighter’ than his Dieppe scenes, one can assume that Sickert’s heart really was at the Old and New Bedford, the Marylebone Music Hall and the rest.

Certainly it was not in his portraiture, as the curators are forced to admit – “Closer to genre paintings”, indeed. His early subjects – and, it seems, his models – were closely allied to the nightlife he enjoyed, and included street sellers and prostitutes. Sickert was proud to show “the sumptuous poverty of their class” but one press review savaged his work and, by extension, morality by denouncing it as “vaguely indicat[ing] a type of humanity of the most degraded kind”. Blurred, anonymised – almost dehumanised – faces and uncertain poses cannot have helped, though later works featuring known actresses and more respectable women display greater resolution.

Prompted by his dealer Sickert then stepped outside, turning to topographic views of London, Italy and France. Back in Dieppe he radically expanded his themes to encompass streets and landmark buildings, most notably the church of St Jacque, whilst in Venice he portrayed St Mark’s; he painted both from different angles, at different distances and at different times of day. The curators are surely correct to locate his inspiration for this work in Monet’s multiple-exposure, morning and evening ‘shots’ of Rouen Cathedral, and the Impressionistic quality of Sickert’s paint together with abrupt colour shifts to blue skies and buttery sunlight are thrilling. A painting of the Doge’s Palace – one side catching the sun, the other in shadow – was, it is claimed, caught from a boat and very much has the effect of a photographic snapshot, an ability and source that Sickert would turn to in the final phase of his career.

This began with the other subject for which he remains famous – nudes, and interiors in which a man and a woman are posed in situations evoking feelings varying from poverty to unease to menace. Sickert titled the series The Camden Town Murders after a real such case, and here again I would argue Hopper is conjured, years before his time and with the solemn palette of Sickert’s earlier work. That he revised these compositions over the years, swapped the sexes and clothed and unclothed them seems of little moment to me than the arguments made by the curation, and I found them less loaded with meaning than I was clearly meant to.

As Sickert entered what would be his last years he returned to society portraits, often at a larger scale and copied from photographs culled from newspapers or taken by his then wife. This is, we are told, notable because the artist cropped or adjusted them and adopted flat planes of subdued colour to create the intended image. I wasn’t convinced here either, and found the results flat and dull. Copying a photograph is a strange objective for any painter let alone one raised in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist world where capturing light on canvass was the aim. I’m more persuaded by this period as evidence for Sickert’s continued fascination with pop culture and the modes of its disbursement (he painted the first known picture of a public film showing, which is included in the exhibition and focusses, naturally, on the audience rather than the screen), thus positioning him as a precursor, too, of Pop Art. I would have welcomed more about this, his championing of and links to other artists and the nature of his own influences.

As for that reputation of Sickert as a man toward whom something wicked this way comes, the curators agree that casting Sickert as the harbinger not just of change but the negatives those changes would bring – photography privatising pornography, cinema breeding the snuff film or electricity the electric chair – is too simplistic. There is little new in artists being drawn to the lower classes, and he was simply making his portrayals à la mode and in ways that felt more truthful to him. The deployment of mirrors in several of his works, a tradition anchored today in Diego Velázquez but having plenty of other practitioners before and since, is impressive technically and speaks to his view of the positivity of light; so too does the dazzle in the music hall and landmark images, at the very least suggesting Sickert was not completely obsessed with the shadows. And yet…

Sickert had a mistress in Dieppe and was married three times. He was once seriously ill, and encountered financial troubles. A run of self-portraits that opens the show echoes this eventful life, beginning in his early twenties when he scowls at us like a villain. At 35, he stares from a blank background, a strange slash or scar across his nose evoking a Dorian Gray glimpsed far too early. Ten years later still he has receded into a dim room scattered with classical busts, a broken man amidst many, the whole reflected in a mirror to further distance subject from viewer. In one of the last, Sickert’s head is grossly distorted, squashed, as if from the sheer pressure of living. He was, then, as unsparing with himself as with his models, as would his admirers Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon be with both in their own works.

Thus it comes as little surprise to find that though Sickert was living in genteel Bath when he died in early 1942, the darkness seems to have followed him even there – German bombs had already fallen on its golden crescents the year before, presaging the targeting of that city just a few months after his death. Perhaps he knew something after all.

Walter Sickert continues at Tate Britain, London SW1 until 18 September 2022

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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