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…

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