There is more to the work of Walter Sickert than current deluded conspiracy theories, as an exhibition at Tate Britain shows.
It’s a curious irony that the artist Walter Sickert, born in Germany but raised in England, is probably best known these days for what he was not, and he was not – with any likelihood whatsoever – Jack the Ripper. Fascinated by true crime? Certainly; he’d have had a Netflix account these days like the rest of us. Not above a little gleeful black humour? Certainly not; his theatrical streak and his love of a good yarn made it irresistible to him. It also seems that retitling some of his paintings in light of a notorious murder showcased a bit of entrepreneurial vim as well as that black humour, as people – then as now – are fascinated by the darker impulses, and it helped cement his name. But Sickert was not simply the man who did the morally-ambiguous nudes; his real love seems to have been the stage, a profession he originally trained for. He also painted a few shop fronts and churches along the way for good measure.
To the credit of Tate Britain, they have provided a good selection of Sickert’s work and equally to their credit, they haven’t mentioned the crackpot theories of Cornwell et al anywhere. (This also means they’ve omitted to explore a few of the genuine, odd connections between Sickert and the case, which do exist, such as the painting he titled ‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom’, but I can’t blame them for that). The first room, dedicated to his self-portraits, shows not only a young and Romantically good-looking young man progress into a strangely bearlike elder, but it’s also a decent potted history of how his artistic style developed during his career – how he took up influences (such as Whistler) and moved on from them, though his style never seems to have been really ‘completed’, even if pretty recognisable.
Initially training as an actor, Sickert’s passion was for performance and many of his finest works are based on his happy evenings whiled away at London’s various music halls. One of the exhibition’s rooms is dedicated to this phase of his work. Unusually, and whilst he did paint the performers themselves, he was also intently interested in the audience and on occasion just painted their reactions – keen, indifferent, dismissive – to what they were watching. He also liked to play with angles and distortion, painting reflections in stage-side mirrors or similar, which makes for a fairly disorientating experience as your eye tries to make sense of what you’re seeing. All part of the show, perhaps.
The room in the exhibition containing his ‘Camden Town Murders’ paintings was unsurprisingly the busiest, and personally, the jury’s out on a few topics raised by the blurb displayed on the walls. Yes, these are interesting, even unsettling nudes; they were always meant to be. Sickert wrote an article in 1910 where he deemed the highly artificial nudes of yore too contrived to represent anything about the human body as it really is (hence his influence on later artists, Bacon and Freud). So, he went at it differently, and differently is how they come across. However, the Tate’s stated concerns that he probably negatively objectified the working-class models he used seems to deny them any voice and agency, which is exactly what I’d class as negatively objectifying, rather than hiring them to model. Surely there’s a real danger in simply speaking for people in this way? To me, they look…bored, if anything, which they probably were, and possibly a little cold, but very much alive, with the kinds of bodies women end up with if they’ve lived in them. Let us not forget that the model for another of the paintings kept at Tate Britain – John Everett Millais’ Ophelia – caught pneumonia whilst lying in water to pose as Ophelia, and no one seems too troubled about that now that the resulting work’s fully within the embrace of the establishment. Sickert’s nudes, or Sickert’s naked bodies, are not idealised, and that is their great strength. There’s also a great interplay between their bodies and light, particularly light streaming in from outside. The backdrops look sordid to some perhaps, or indeed perfectly ordinary and perfunctory to others: sparse rooms, iron bedsteads, drab bedcovers. Sickert himself lived in respectable poverty for a good share of his life. This wasn’t a world he was intruding on to make a sordid point; it was where he had lived and worked himself.
Where Sickert’s nudes are depicted alongside seated, dressed male figures – his Camden Town Murder series – then they do take on more of a claustrophobic edge, by nature of just how small a space is being occupied by two adults. These are also more ambiguous – which Sickert was bound to have recognised – with a couple of the paintings open to the interpretation that the male has just murdered the female; there is no interaction between them, the woman’s head lolling passively to one side as the man buries his head in his hands or else, clasps his hands together, a trick of the light looking making his hands look a little bloody. But that’s not a certainty, and another look turns up a different interpretation. One of these is suggested by the alternative title Sickert used for his most infamous work, shown at the top of this article – What Will We Do For The Rent? If we factor in this title, the painting is about poverty, and the desperate measures it might take to keep even a paltry roof over the couple’s heads. It’s a theme far more borne out by his later works – such as a personal favourite, Ennui, which simply shows a man and woman in a state of torpor, familiarity not quite breeding contempt, just the comfortable nothingness of everyday existence. Retitling his work to reflect public interest in the notorious murder of Emily Dimmock in Camden perhaps reflects that he, too, was swept up in the case – a case which London’s tabloid press dined out on for months – or he simply saw an opportunity via the glum, enigmatic rooms he had originally painted.
It seems a shame now to have missed so many other exhibitions over the past few years; with a bit of forward planning, a day out in the Big Smoke is reasonably affordable and a round trip of just four hours from the North, which is more than tolerable given a seat and something to read. The Sickert exhibition is certainly worthwhile, a well-curated selection of his work displayed with plenty of room and more than enough scope left open to interpret his work as you see fit, if you’re so inclined.
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It’s funny how artists always seem to be open to charges of exploiting the poor they paint, but authors tend to be venerated for highlighting the desperate straits they live in. I suspect that’s because a painting leaves us to look at our own prejudices, presenting us with the uncomfortable question about why people live in the circumstances they do.
That’s an interesting point, @Nick – I’d never really thought of it like that, but you’re right. Maybe visual art is just more confrontational. – Keri
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