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Sickert’s Theater


As its unlovely title implies, the exhibition Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870–1910 is something of a history lesson and a sprawling mess. Organized by Tate Britain, the show aims to demonstrate chiefly that English artists (and, as pointed out in the catalog, English collectors) were no slouches when the call of modern art was sounding in France. The curators want us to see how London, home at the time to a number of French artists, as Paris had become a crucial stop for adventurous Englishmen, played a part along with the French capital during an era when city life in itself became a theme for emerging painters and sculptors. It was the period when new levels of congestion in a city, its new kinds of entertainment (and the novel nighttime lighting that now went along with it), its boulevards with their sudden huge, empty spaces, and the way urban experience was altering the role of sex in everyday life—all became motifs for young artists.

The exhibition presents this mighty but no longer unfamiliar story through the work of more than two dozen primarily British and French artists, whose work is seen in clusters, like small group shows. There is a section devoted to the new, sometimes awkwardly barren look of urban settings and a section about “the dandy,” which features primarily lean figures wearing mostly black. There are images of cabaret life by Lautrec and his English followers, and the French artist, we learn, had his biggest show of his lifetime in London, and was, like Degas, an Anglophile. Degas’s involvement with pastel is the reason we see the attempts in this line by such English artists as Sidney Starr and Philip Wilson Steer; and the French painter’s desire to bring into painting a candor about relations between the sexes lies behind a grouping of pictures of female nudes and of people in interiors by Whistler, Walter Sickert, Bonnard, and Degas himself.

What keeps all this from gelling is that some of the works on display don’t obediently take viewers in the designated art-historical direction, while many of the others don’t take viewers anywhere at all. The paintings by James Tissot, for example, a Frenchman based in London and an old friend of Degas’s, are here because he could compose his crowded scenes a bit the way Degas did, with figures clipped by the frame’s edges. Yet Tissot probably engages people now less as a constructor of complex settings than simply for all the clothing details of a vanished era he packs in. Tissot’s paintings are at least fun to look at, but many of the other works here, including William Orchardson’s enormous period piece of a mother and her baby, William Tom Warrener’ s fuzzy sketches of French music hall dancers, and the stiff and joyless paintings of William Rothenstein, let alone Whistler’s wispy nudes, or the unaccountably bland works by Lautrec and Bonnard, offer even less.

Yet the exhibition, which essentially revolves around Degas and his particular take on the realism, or naturalism, of the era, has at its core a quest which remains, although the terms have changed, a live issue for artists today. Very much an urban, and a critical and ironic, soul (unlike his fellow Impressionists), Degas in his early mature years, and especially in the early 1870s, wanted to make a scientifically detached art, one that showed, for example, the exact way that the people who looked at his pictures in galleries actually lived, down to the wallpaper in their bedrooms. He was desirous of making pictures that, while essentially visual, could also handle kinds of experiences normally the province of novelists or playwrights, psychologists or newspaper columnists—such as the way people sharing the same space can remain perfectly indifferent to one another, or, without uttering a word, at war with each other. More than anything, perhaps, Degas wanted an art that could convey the actual ways we see, which can be haphazardly, emotionally, indistinctly—that is, in angled, indirect ways, with the nominal object of our interest off to the edge of our line of vision, and something inconsequential, or empty space in itself, bang in front of us.

Degas’s thinking had a great impact on Lautrec, Vuillard, and Bonnard, and a more coherent and convincing presentation of his influence might have been made by a show limited to Frenchmen. Tate Britain obviously has a different agenda, and its exhibition, it is thought, represents the first occasion when English artists of this time have been displayed alongside their European contemporaries. The result is that Degas has been brought together with Sickert, the artist who, English or French, may have absorbed him most deeply. Degas gave Sickert, who was a generation younger, both his most important early subject matter—theater life and scenes of people in interiors—and his particular disinterested way of presenting it.

Sickert, though, was as much Degas’s equal as his (ardently self-proclaimed) disciple, and his dark-toned music hall scenes and equally low-lit views of women in bed-sitting rooms are the most forceful pictures in the Phillips exhibition. For most Americans, these works will be their first exposure to the artist, who is, with Francis Bacon, the preeminent figure in English painting of the last century but who is also almost completely unknown here. His only serious painting show in this country was held in 1938, in Chicago and Pittsburgh. If his name rings a bell at all, it is as a candidate for the man who, in 1888, committed the Jack the Ripper murders—a notion that has been disproven by factual evidence but that has come back over the years, fueled by Sickert’s love of periodically making radical changes in his personal appearance and by a sense of foreboding, even imminent violence, that hangs over some of his pictures. He was fascinated by the Ripper case himself, and at one point made paintings about a celebrated news item of a later day called the Camden Town Murder.

Sickert had been Whistler’s full-time studio assistant when, in 1885, at twenty-five, he fell under the spell of Degas’s work and of the man himself. Among artists of the era, few were as caustic and witty, or as caught up in the processes of making and showing art, as Whistler and Degas. Sickert easily held his own with both. He had been proud to be associated with the American, and he was quick to understand how much more he could absorb from the Frenchman, with whom he remained on intimate terms for the rest of the older man’s life. And taking in his muscular reworkings of Degas, we are given the long-overdue chance of seeing the French artist afresh.

Not that pictures by the two men look alike. Sickert’s rough-edged, brushy style, accompanied by often somber tones lit by clusters of bright, jabbed-on colors, has little apparent relationship with his mentor’s flow of crisply and elegantly defined forms. The younger man, in addition, never painted ballet dancers, had little interest in the world of horse racing, and rarely structured his pictures with dynamically angled, empty spaces. But no artist so fully got Degas’s sense of the theater, which was really an attitude about art.

Degas’s pictures of the opera, like those of the ballet, are about the sheer craft, and artificiality, that lie behind performance of any kind. He conjured a world where the performer on stage was merely an aspect of the night’s event, and for Sickert making an art that exposed the techniques of artistic activity was immediately understandable. He had been schooled by Whistler, whose guiding point was that the style of an artwork was its substance, and he had been, additionally, an actor himself around the age of twenty. He was predisposed by his upbringing to have no illusions about art, as his father was a painter who earned his bread by working as an illustrator on a newspaper.

If Degas might reduce ballet dancers in a production to a jumble of limbs wedged between a descending curtain and an orchestra beneath them, Sickert went further by showing performers almost as apparitions. It is undeniably spooky to realize, in some of his dimly lit pictures of London music halls of the 1890s, that we look at performers who are actually reflections in mirrors. Even more than Degas, Sickert saw the night’s audience, with its bustling inattentiveness one moment and transfixed watchfulness the next, as a full subject, and in his pictures from the time of London’s Old Bedford Theatre Sickert forsakes the stage entirely, to show how an audience watches and listens.

No painter of Sickert’s generation was so attuned, moreover, to Degas’s frank and unsentimental sense of sex. Some of the strongest pictures in the Phillips show are Sickert’s Two Women on a Sofa: Le Tose, his La Hollandaise (of a voluptuous nude woman on a rude iron bedstead), and his La Maigre Adeline (of a nude woman lying on her back on a bed, her genital area nearly the centerpiece of the image). Most dating from roughly 1903 to 1906, these pictures, where heavy shadows or the sitter’s position keep us from easily seeing anyone’s face, are, as stories, about flesh waiting to be taken. In them, Degas’s deglamorized vision of the relations between the sexes, and of women as sexual beings, was given an emphatic physicality. Lautrec’s images of lesbians in bed, or Bonnard’s scenes of couples in rooms after lovemaking (kinds of pictures which aren’t in the present exhibition but are in keeping with its spirit), are also indebted to Degas’s effort to make adult sexual behavior a subject for painting. But where Lautrec and Bonnard are concerned with the romance, disillusionment, or bitterness of sex, Sickert, like Degas, says, with a brutal and comic frankness, “It’s about intercourse.”

Sickert is now the subject of a biography by Matthew Sturgis, who wends his way through the jungle of anecdotes accompanying the artist’s life with a light, sure, and pleasingly sympathetic touch. Sturgis calls the painter “a great man and a great artist,” and he rightly notes that it is the man’s life, not his art, that has needed to be seen in a balanced account. Sturgis, furthermore, hardly ignores Sickert’s professional existence. He sensitively describes works of art, and he can be quite witty on the subject of the various art-world dilemmas Sickert found himself in. Sturgis’s comments on Whistler—the “great topics” of whose life, we read, were “his work, his reputation, and his enemies”—are particularly acute.

Yet Sturgis’s way of making Sickert’s painting a sort of secondary issue, and his reluctance to speculate about the artist’s shortcomings or motivations, result in a biography where, whether the reader is familiar with the work or not, Sickert the person glides through an enormously active life (he died in 1942, not yet eighty-two) with part of him somehow missing. It doesn’t help that Sturgis doesn’t say what he thinks is the overall path or pattern of Sickert’s achievement, let alone where his art stacks up with that of other artists, English or otherwise.

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