Walter Sickert in Camden Town
Tate Britain’s big survey of Walter Sickert (1860-1942) begins today. Although Sickert was German born, he is an emphatically significant and influential figure in British art history, his family having emigrated to England when he was eight. This blog piece looks in particular at Sickert’s ‘Camden Town nudes’ from the 1900s.
Virginia Woolf was regularly accused by her sister Vanessa Bell, and other Bloomsbury painters, of having little or no appreciation of the visual arts. Woolf herself begged to differ, but I suppose the point is that it was not Bloomsbury's mantra of "significant form" that she was looking for, but a work of art’s narrative or literary dimension. Her discovery of this quality in Walter Sickert made him one of her favourite painters. Contemplating the extreme care with which Sickert composed his images, Woolf was reminded of Turgenev; and, comparing him to other realist novelists such as George Gissing, she commented that his figure-painting "likes best to set characters in motion, to watch them in action".
But Sickert began as a very different kind of artist from the one Woolf admired. Matthew Sturgis, a recent biographer, traces the painter's early career as an acolyte of Whistler, and profound admirer of Degas, neither of whom were much concerned with character, and certainly not with scenes from stories. Sickert learned, especially from Whistler, to understand paint itself as "a beautiful thing, with loveliness, and charm, and infinite variety", and he built up a knowledge of paint's properties unparalleled by any of his contemporaries. This makes him, from the 1890s to his death, the most painterly of his generation of British artists. He used the medium partly as the impressionists had done, to record dispassionately what was seen – to be, as Gauguin called Monet, "an eye, but only an eye". But pure impressionism did not fully satisfy him and, as he got down to painting London's fin de siecle music halls, an expressionist energy increasingly possessed his brushwork, with paint taken from a deliberately restricted palette, its colours subdued to the twilight and the lamplight in which he delighted. But then, as the century turned, another step-change in Sickert's development was in the offing, and it was by this that he became Woolf's kind of painter.
The Rose Shoe (1902)
As Sickert turned 40, he was living in Neuville, near Dieppe, where he painted 'The Rose Shoe', a canvas that appears both extremely rapid in its execution and at the same time as carefully posed as any Victorian genre scene. In a corner of a shadowy, unadorned bedroom a nude woman sprawls aslant a bed. The light is dim, dappled, and her flesh seems half-submerged in the bedding. She lies front down, her face hidden in the crook of an arm, her back and bottom exposed and her hair disappearing into shadows. In the foreground, on the floor is one black shoe, adorned with salmon pink ribbons that are startling in the gloom.
Everything about the picture is cropped, foreshortened or partly hidden. The girl has no companion in view, any more than the rose shoe has, yet the work is highly dramatic. The design and props are minimal and this, coupled with the free-handled paint, creates a paradoxical nexus with the piece's deliberately staged dramatic dimension. It is like a knot made of two different thicknesses of string. The drama emerges, first, in the artist's creative act, his brush slashing, bobbling and sliding across the ground, line over line and colour over colour. And then, wound and looped through this painterly excitement, is the mis-en-scene itself and its unanswerable questions about location and identity, and especially that single shoe, with its enigmatic echo of Cinderella's glass slipper.
Although he would not return to live in London until 1905, this is the precursor of Sickert's 'Camden Town Nudes', the series of paintings, pastels and drawings carried out over the next decade. In them, a nude woman is invariably shown slumped or sitting on a cheap bed amidst rumpled sheets, a theme on which Sickert worked through variation after variation and which is best expressed as being that of the relation between the naked and the clothed. In cases where the woman is apparently alone in the room we – the picture viewers and gallery visitors – are the clothed. But in several cases a second figure is introduced into the paintings themselves, a fully-dressed male who stands or sits apart, brooding over the woman and the business they have been doing together. It is implicit in these two-figure compositions that they have just had sex, and that the female is a mistress, or a prostitute – and indeed Sickert's models for these works were often picked up in pubs and the street. The emphasis on low-life, on cheap lodgings and dingy scenarios, was part of Sickert's determined campaign against the idealisation of the nude and the stultifying propriety of academic painting in England. It also has its place as an early modernist statement of social disjunction and psychological anomie, a spirit that hovered increasingly over Sickert's work in the years before the Great War.
The Camden Town Murder (1908)
One run of four paintings, within the Camden Town series as a whole, was especially calculated to outrage bourgeois critics and academicians. In September 1907, while Sickert was on holiday in France, he read in the press about the death of a young Camden Town streetwalker named Emily Dimmock. Her throat had been cut. The murder scene, her lodging, was exactly comparable to the sordid settings already used by Sickert for his recent nudes and, back in London, he produced four more paintings in which the nude woman lies, unknowable as ever, on the bed, while a fully-dressed man sits or stands lost in thought nearby. Although these paintings were titled 'The Camden Town Murder' or 'The Camden Town Affair', they do not actually show murder: there is no blood, and no reason to suppose the woman is not alive. Perhaps Sickert is depicting a moment before the act of violence itself; perhaps (as I think more likely) he merely intends to illustrate the underlying conditions of such horrors as Dimmock's murder. It is a fact that these titles were in some ways peripheral to the paintings themselves, appended by Sickert after he'd finished, and able to be changed at will. Sickert, for instance, gave 'The Camden Town Murder' a completely different, and under the circumstances rather bathetic (or ironic?) slant when he renamed it, at one point, 'What shall we do for the rent?'
As a postscript, I should mention that these Camden Town murder pictures were what led the American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell to accuse Sickert of being Jack the Ripper. Cornwell went so far as to buy and destroy a Sickert painting, in the hope of finding DNA that might link the artist with the Whitechapel murders, which were committed nineteen years before the unrelated Dimmock killing. Cornwell found nothing, nor is there anything that I can see in the way Sickert paints his women to suggest he wants to kill and eviscerate them. There is certainly reserve, strangeness, even alienation here, as well as the desire to shock. But the mood the artist creates, with all the finesse you might find in a story by Virginia Woolf, is much more like post-coital tristesse than incipient violence.