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.

But then Sickert does seem to have glided with a commanding, but also sweet-tempered, confidence through life. He was a man of the world by the very circumstances of his birth. His mother was English, his father Danish, and when Walter was born, in 1860, his parents were living in Munich, where his father was working on a local newspaper. When he was eight, the family moved to England, where Walter, in his few years of schooling in London, picked up enough Greek and Latin to read both for pleasure for the rest of his life, even to mystify an audience once by giving much of a talk in Greek. As his art journalism, his letters, the many stories about him, and even the scribbled notes at the bottom of his drawings attest, he could burst out in a song in German at a party, deliver the punch line to a joke in Italian, or make a conclusive point in an art review in French.

In a lifetime that included three wives, a possible illegitimate child, a long-term French mistress who otherwise sold fish on the Dieppe waterfront, the creation and abandonment of one little art school after another, a profound inability to hold on to money, an insatiable love of having studios (at one point he simultaneously had two in London and three in Dieppe), and bedroom conquests too numerous to list, Sickert managed to make hardly any lasting enemies—except Whistler, of course—and to make people giggle and smile as we do reading of his antics.

Fundamentally, Sickert was always trying to wake people up—whether in his art writing, whose most striking moments are down-to-earth statements about the nature of paintings, or in his everyday encounters. We see him playing with this or that person’s assumptions from William Morris in the Victorian era to Roger Fry in the modern one. He could enrage the formidable Degas, but their relationship endured. The caring and forgiving response of his first wife, Ellen Cobden, was typical of many. After their divorce (he plainly confessed an inability to be faithful), she secretly funded for a time his impoverished existence by giving money to a mutual friend who then bought paintings from him.

As he got older, Sickert’s sense of everyday life as just another stage grew to dizzying proportions. In his stream of letters to newspaper editors in the 1920s and 1930s, he “moved beyond art,” as Sturgis writes, “to cover such important topics as kilt-wearing, seawater bathing, fish as food, women’s dress, family life on barges, and the use of the word ‘poetess.’” He continually grew beards in a variety of shapes, then suddenly would get rid of them. More startlingly, he might turn up with all his hair shaved off. Props were not ignored. In Dieppe, he could be a French street painter with a beret, long hair, and a huge necktie, in London he might appear as the rustic farmer just clumped into town. For some reason, he arrived in Edinburgh one day in “his ‘Bill Sykes’ costume.” Always desirous of surprising people with a new persona, he dropped his name Walter when he was in his sixties, and insisted henceforth on being known by his middle name, Richard (and later wanted to be known as Walter Richard).

Yet as Anna Gruetzner Robins notes in the Tate’s catalog, Sickert’s need to keep switching parts in his daily existence undoubtedly connects with the many “changes” in his work. If the artist remains little known outside Britain today, it surely has to do with the seemingly unconnected nature of his accomplishments, and the way he eludes easy historical classification. Like Marsden Hartley and Philip Guston, he was continually finding, losing, and then reconnecting with himself, right into relatively late in life, when, like the Americans, he probably did his deepest and most personal painting. Like Hartley and Guston as well, Sickert’s body of work is strewn with more than his share of false starts and hollow pictures. His views of Dieppe and of Venice, of London and of various countrysides, seem so much marking time. There are lovely exceptions, but his cityscapes and landscapes overall are like stage sets waiting for the actors to arrive.


Sickert found his special note when he was in his late twenties, not long after he began to absorb Degas, in paintings of theater life. In the works in the Phillips show and, perhaps even more, in pictures of music hall entertainers or their young bowler-hatted fans that are not in the exhibition, he caught a certain gleeful, harsh, and rowdy spirit that is unlike anything in English or European art of the time and is subtler and more insidious than the German Expressionist art of decades later. But Sickert could build only sporadically on these successes, and it wasn’t until around 1905, or some fifteen years later, in pictures of life in tatty North London rooming houses, such as La Hollandaise, that he hit his stride again.

To a degree, the darkened and run-down yet glimmering world of these Sickert paintings was similar to the one in contemporaneous pictures by the American Ash Can artists. The difference is that Sickert’s exquisitely punchy brushwork and very personal color harmonies, his range of muted green, purple, tan, and brown, not to speak of the sensual, ominous, and enigmatic note of these pictures, could hardly be matched by the American realists. With his candor about sex, and the casually brutal way he shows beams of light wrecking havoc with the features of a face, or highly visible teeth mangling the point of a smile, Sickert’s brusque naturalism of the time is if anything far more of a piece with much later pictures by Bacon and Lucian Freud.

Yet in the art world of the era, Sickert’s ideas were fast becoming out of date. The avalanche of new painting from Paris, which began hitting London in 1910—painting that, unlike his, was not concerned with pinning down a specific light and space—left him, in his fifties, an increasingly stranded man. He remained capable of strong work. But he had taken a hit. He was unprepared for Cézanne’s nearly abstract sense of form, let alone the instant acclaim it received and the painting by Picasso, Matisse, and others that followed it. By the middle of the 1920s, though, he was in full gear again. In his mid-sixties at the time, he began basing his paintings on Victorian magazine illustrations and, with much greater success, on photographs. And for the next dozen or so years, he created his most audacious pictures. None of the photo-derived paintings is in the Phillips show, of course, yet in an indirect way, they are related to, and even extend, Degas’s realism.

Painters have used photographs as aids in their work, rather as they would use drawings or oil sketches, since the early days of the medium. Painters who were older than Sickert, moreover—Degas, for instance, or Eakins—became involved with photography as an end in itself. Sickert, though, may have been the first painter to make what are essentially paintings of—one might say portraits of—photographs. Far from camouflaging their connection with photography, Sickert on occasion included on the front of his paintings the name of the photographer who supplied him with his source.

He also worked from his own snapshots, from press clippings, and even a still from an Edward G. Robinson movie. His aim was not to reproduce in paint the sleek or glossy texture of most photographs so much as the porous or gauzily focused look and feel of images as they would be encountered in a slightly dated newspaper or on a movie screen. Many of these later Sickerts are in impressively tall and narrow formats, and some of the best are based on images of public life. We see a patriarchal George V listening conspiratorily to his racing manager in one painting from the late 1920s, or the lithe, tentative, and recently crowned Edward VIII walking along in a work from 1936. There are images of dancers called the Plaza Tiller Girls and of brides on their wedding day. Many of Sickert’s favorite actors and actresses of the era are presented in their recent parts, and Winston Churchill, to whom Sickert gave painting lessons, is seen in a close-up dated circa 1927 where, appealingly, he seems caught just before he had the time to compose a “look.”

Even when Sickert wasn’t working from images from the public realm, there is a sense of something larger than life about these photo-derived paintings. The most mysteriously powerful of them came in the late 1920s, in a number of pictures based on photographs he had taken of himself in one moment or another. With titles such as The Raising of Lazarus and The Servant of Abraham, and with Sickert at the time sporting a full beard, we seem to be seeing stills from the not-quite-focused home movies of some mythical being. Never a ham in his self-portraits from any era (he saved what a good friend called his “megalomania” for dinner parties and letters to the editor), Sickert appears in these pictures as if by chance—as if in the next “frame” he will be gone—and this oddly makes these pictures all the more mesmerizing.

Regardless of how one rates Sickert’s later work, it should not be assumed that deriving paintings from photographs was the career ploy of a man whose realism, in the 1920s, was hopelessly out of date. Sickert’s later method was very much a logical development of his thinking all along. His most firmly held beliefs as a teacher were that a painter both works from life and—this was equally crucial—bases his or her painting on the drawings made as “life” was being grasped. Sickert’s conviction was that a painter’s rough, on-the-spot drawings, with their nebulous areas and jagged zones of light and dark, and in themselves somewhat abstract, be the faithfully followed floor plans, so to speak, for the painting to come. His genius was to see that a photograph, and the more contrasty and raw the better, could serve the same floor-plan-like purpose as a drawing.

The later paintings as a whole were celebrated in their day, in England—in good part, it would seem, as the blithe and naughty creations of a grand eccentric in the autumn of his life. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, however, that they began to be looked at on their own, as artworks. For a generation that had lived through Pop art, with the new importance it gave to commercial illustration and newspaper and magazine photos, the paintings of Sickert’s latter years, even those based on publications from the Victorian era, had a startling currency.

Since then, the concern of artists for working from photographs, or in some way connecting with the many overlapping kinds of commercial reproduction, has intensified and changed its character. When, in the 1960s, Andy Warhol took news photos and publicity stills and silkscreened them directly onto canvas, or when, a little later, Malcolm Morley made paintings that literally recreated banal photographs of cruise ship life, it could seem that painting in itself, after decades of exploring every facet of abstraction or of the promptings of this or that artist’s unconscious, was being jolted into acknowledging the gleaming or messy look and texture of the real world (not that only artists who referred to photographs were on this track). Over time, however, it became clear that using the appearance of photographs in the making of a painting could produce the entirely opposite effect. Instead of imparting to painting an ironically playful sense of everyday experience, photography became for some painters a way to make an art about the vaguenesses and distortions that are built into a mechanical and “objective” process of seeing.

Visual ambiguity certainly marks the work of Chuck Close, whose large portrait heads, as our eyes run over them, can resemble the hills and dales of a landscape. For Gerhard Richter, who has made paintings in the spirit of blurry family photo album snapshots, or of indistinct frames from TV coverage of inflammatory public events, photography has been crucial in a quest to deal with the ambivalence a German of his generation can feel about his national identity. For the equally influential, and younger, Luc Tuymans, the Belgian painter whose last New York show included a painting entitled The Secretary of State, which probably was based on a newspaper or TV image of Condoleezza Rice, photography, especially in its more whitened-out, nearly unfocused moments, has been a component in a body of work that appears to be about recognizability—about the difficulty of saying exactly what an image is of.

Sickert’s photo-based paintings are remarkable in part because while they share the cheeky and buoyant spirit of work from the Pop era, with that moment’s enthusiasm for the conventions of the mass media, they are also mystifying in much the way that works by Richter or Tuymans can be. Looking at his picture of Edward VIII on his way to a ceremony, one feels that, like a gossip columnist, Sickert wants to capture the news of the very moment. Yet the effect of his painting, with its chalky and cottony-soft brushwork, and its sense of an image coming into and going out of focus at the same time, is of ghostliness and uncertainty.

In the work he did in his sixties and seventies, Sickert appears to be telling a different story from the one Degas told in his last years. Degas took his scientific naturalism, and his feeling for a faceless art—an art about anonymous people doing a characteristic thing—to the point where the blank-faced ballet dancers of his late pictures, seen one overlapping the next, might as well be iridescent creatures in a biology textbook. Sickert went in the opposite direction. From a young man who responded to Degas’s vision of, as it were, a theater without theatrics, he grew into a painter of performers. Memorable faces crowd the pictures of his old age.

Yet Sickert never lost touch with the cool and distanced spirit he shared with his mentor. With their slightly confectionary air, his paintings from the 1920s and 1930s are too ironic, even vaudevillian, merely to glorify his subjects. Forming, as a whole, a kind of painted newspaper, they have the same underlying passive-aggressive disinterestedness—the same way of saying “I will let the look of actual life dictate how my images come out”—that Degas wanted for his art. And in a formal sense, Sickert and Degas came to a similar conclusion. Both wound up making works that were consistently brighter than anything they had done in their early maturity. The buzzing, static-filled quality of Degas’s late images of dancers is echoed in Sickert’s own later paintings, where colors and forms seem to have a carbonated lightness.

If Degas had our vantage point, he might be proud to see how his desire to make a probing and unsentimental art about contemporary existence had been developed by his star disciple. Seriously competitive, he would be even prouder, no doubt, to think that, with Sickert’s photo-derived paintings taken as a link, his own frank and sometimes oblique views from the early 1870s could be seen as forebears of some of the stronger painting of the current day, which also, at times, aims to look with a critical detachment at the assumptions and textures of public and private life. It might give him pause, however, to comprehend just how many of the surprises of contemporary life his disciple found a way to bring into the art of painting.