‘Walter Richard Sickert is one of Britain’s most important artists’ – so wrote Charlotte MacDonald in her introduction to a recent (2021) retrospective at Liverpool. Like most art historical criticism important can also mean difficult. Sickert is certainly challenging both in his style and subject matter, which makes this Latest exhibition at the Tate so exhilarating.
Born in Munich in 1860 to artistic parents he moved to London when he was eight. His early career was as an actor but very quickly took up as a painter. This crossover between the stage and visual art may explain the expressiveness of his work and his challenging perspective. He painted life as it was lived, not as the academy would want it to appear. His landscapes always contained ordinary figures in ordinary situations in the foreground.
This was especially true of his nude paintings which showed the model as naked and not nude. The academy insisted on the perfect realisation of the female body, as the classical Greeks had. Sickert expressed his view in a 1910 publication of The New Age saying that ‘Nude paintings were so artificial in setting and in form that they bore little resemblance to the human figure’. His Camden Town series were his typical dark palette, distinct line and dappled light that they were interpreted as representing low life and prostitution, subjects which offended the establishment.
The Music Hall and the stage were subjects that always appealed to Sickert and he painted a series of these views at the turn of the century, featuring not only the actors and actresses but of the settings themselves. This followed the lead of the French paintings such as Toulouse Latrec, in the Paris theatres.
The exhibition takes the viewer through all six decades of his life and his various themes from figurative works to the landscapes especially in Dieppe and Venice, where he stayed some time. I particularly like his method of painting, almost completely abandoning the ‘line’ so admired by the academy. This seemed especially prevalent in his portraits and self portraits, sometimes just referring to areas of colour.
Sickert is an acquired taste and, not everyone’s. He does not appear on chocolate boxes as one might see from the impressionists and post-impressionists of his time. But he is none the less highly important in the development of the British Avant Garde inspiring others such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon to follow later in the twentieth century.
Images: The Tate Gallery