“Sickert: A Life In Art”

Walker Art Gallery, until 27th February 2022, £11-£13.50

Walker Richard Sickert was an attention-seeker. In Sickert: A Life in Art we see this inspire his greatest moments, but also his biggest problems. Originally an actor, Sickert became an artist who observed, often understood and always exploited the idea of ‘mass’. What I found myself reading through this expansive show is the story of how this manifests at different points in a long career.

a view of a theatre balcony. A group of men are all looking over the balcony, some are standing very high to get a view.
Gallery of the Old Bedford

When Sickert paints the music halls, he does it as a participant in their world. You can tell that he’s come here to observe the people and the place. Sickert was friends with Edgar Degas, but he doesn’t apply the same voyeurism to the stage as his artistic associate. The people on the page are just one part of the story – the place and audience are at least as captivating. The standout painting in this section for me is “Noctes Ambrosianae, Gallery of the Old Mogul”, in which the faces are painting with such brevity to be unreadable, especially in an already low-toned work. But what better way to capture the reality of an audience – fleeting faces in a transient crowd? A group uninterested in posterity, but in the moment, and this is how you capture that. It’s more effective at telling us about this world than how the exhibition tries to do it – hanging posters, scores and even film to capture the spirit of the entertainment. Unfortunately listening to “Daisy Bell” on repeat is exhausting, and drives you away rather than reeling you in.

Soundtrack aside, I really like a lot about how the show’s been put together. It rarely tells you what to think, but leaves little breadcrumbs which hint at the artist’s personality. The only thing it really does specifically ask us to focus on is Sickert’s portrayal of architecture. It’s weird this push, like they need to convince us; I suspect they fear people have come for other sensations. In fact I find his paintings of Venice a mixed bag. Some feel very by-the-numbers commercial, and all the more uninteresting when contrasted with what Sickert is capable of. Because he can find the angle and the moment, which makes Venice feel like a city which is lived in, rather than a museum site. He does this even more effectively in his paintings of Dieppe for the Hôtel de la Plage. You can understand that these weren’t exactly what the manager was looking for: “Le Grand Duquesne” is captivating as a colloquial scene, rather than tourist-friendly. But they feel like he’s answered what the city actually feels like.

The Walker’s particular institutional contribution to Sickert: A Life in Art is their collection of 348 of his drawings – the largest in the world. At points studies sit alongside the works they inform, but they also have a room to themselves, where they really shine. They get to be works in themselves: drawn at speed and capturing an array of faces and moments. They’re the work of an artist in the centre of a milieu at which he feels completely familiar. These are his people.


But by the time we get to the Camden Town sections, I sense Sickert has a different motivation. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but I see hints in the notes and quotes that let us know that his observation is coming from what could be called ‘outside’, though maybe ‘above’ is more correct. He’s no longer interested in getting to know a place. The Sickert who captures Dieppe from such interesting angles portrays Camden in broad symbols: poor women, prostitution, domestic chintz. It feels less grounded in lived understanding and more as through he’s using symbols chosen for an audience, almost as if he’s detailing an ethnographic investigation.

And it’s in this context that his ‘cashing-in’ on the Jack the Ripper story feels especially distasteful. It would always be vulgar of course, but in this mode of being an outside viewer it’s especially voyeuristic. Exactly the quality I felt was missing in his music-hall work is here employed in the name of sensational. While I find that a couple of his nudes are painted with a genuinely interesting perspective, this is where we find Sickert at his most exploitative. It’s as though he’s no longer interested in experience, but power. Sickert’s ended up with a legacy as the alleged Jack the Ripper: he wasn’t, but you wonder if he would have got a kick from the credit.

Back to the art: and one thing you can’t help noticing about Sickert’s paintings across all places and times is how dark they are. Often details are incredibly challenging to pick up on. It’s frustrating and yet so tantalising: it keeps me in front of the works, determined to read their stories. It also makes the contrast with his late paintings even more stark. Hats totally off to the curators for explicitly explaining this not just in terms of Sickert’s new lease of life after a lag in energy, but the influence of the women in his life. In the interlude of work by Thérèse Lessore we see a conversation emerge, an interplay of ideas. Lessore shares Sickert’s interest in the theatre, but her palette and subjects of pleasure are a welcome break and contrast. It casts Sickert’s later paintings as the products of a relationship, in which interests are shared and influence travels both ways.

With that said Sickert’s late works feel less intense than those which came before. His subjects feel benign, softer, more sentimental. He is said to have felt a new lease of life after a stroke, and perhaps has turned his observational skills to life in a different way. It makes total sense that an artist so interested in mass forms of entertainment would work from photographs.

The Walker’s exhibition is huge but its diversity of material, framing and stories more than hold your attention. I’m still not sure I like Sickert’s work, but I do leave with a better impression of it than I had before. It, not him. When he’s looking for truth, he finds it – and dammit, he has a good eye for an angle. His appetite for sensation disappoints at times – but in the end, would you drag him away from the action?

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