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November 10, 2005

Degas, Sickert, and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 - Christie Davies is delighted by this tale of two cities linking three great artists

Posted by Christie Davies

Degas, Sickert, and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910
Tate Britain, London
5th October 2005 - 15th January 2006
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

Phillips Collection, Washington DC
18th February - 14th May 2006

Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Sickert at the Tate Britain is in some respects an even better exhibition than was its predecessor Turner, Whistler, Monet. The latter was a joy because of the sheer number of masterpieces it contained but it is now difficult to remember the many connections between them. In Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Sickert by contrast the links are demonstrated with great clarity, both through the juxtaposing of the pictures themselves and by the indication of the direct personal contacts between the artists. This exhibition, aptly named London and Paris 1870-1910, emphasises this title by showing how all three artists sold their work in both countries and how they travelled between them. Sickert worshipped Degas' work and Degas regarded Sickert as a close friend to whom he communicated his artistic thoughts. He liked the bilingual Sickert so much that he regularly mocked him for being English; ethnic joking is the true mark of friendship and esteem.

Today such a relationship would be impossible, such is the total divide in language, culture and outlook between the two countries. For the English France is alien, it is "the other", a country we neither understand nor wish to understand. Anyone who seeks intellectual stimulation in the twenty-first century goes to the United States, not to moribund France. It was not always so. In 1870-1910 British artists flocked to France to learn that which was new and fresh and this is the theme of the exhibition. So did collectors; at one time the largest collection of Degas work in the world was held in Brighton by Councillor, Captain Henry Hill. The co-operation went even further, for some of the British artists had illegitimate children in France by eager French mistresses. Sickert, a successful womaniser, may have had several French bastards and he certainly had a child by a Mme Augustine Villain, a fish-mongeress with whom he lived in Dieppe for several years. What ever became of his descendants? What did they have to say about their famous ancestor? Sickert failed to learn from experience and his third and final wife was French.

The influence of Degas on Sickert is perhaps best seen at the end of the exhibition where Degas' Interior 1868-9 is hung alongside Sickert's Ennui 1914. In Interior a man and a woman are set tensely apart at the edges of a room, the man leaning back against the door. In the centre a bright light gives an open box a glowing lining. In Ennui the room surrounds the two figures, the man slumped in a chair intent on his cigar which is at the hard suck stage. Behind him, close to him, leaning in the opposite direction against a dominant chest of drawers, the woman looks up beyond a glass showcase full of lower-middle class stuffed birds towards a portrait. They are disconnected, bored, possibly trying to survive a very English "pleasant Sunday afternoon". Yet we do not know what they are thinking or even what the relationship between them is. They are simply two bent human shapes leaning counter to one another and "part of the furniture"; the round table in the foreground and the chest of drawers control them. It is a totally ambiguous picture, a far cry from the silly stories, the moral and dramatic, socially engaged stories of an earlier generation in England such as that told by William Holman Hunt in The Awakening Conscience.

Virginia Woolf once noted how many complex narratives could be generated by a Sickert picture. Sickert called this one Ennui which fits but then he often, seemingly arbitrarily, changed the titles of his paintings. In the 1970s Swami Puja Debal, a knight unlike all other knights, claimed of Ennui that the picture on the wall at the side is Queen Victoria and that she has a gull on her shoulder to tell us that her physician Sir William Gull had hushed up the story of her grandson's responsibility for the Jack the Ripper murders. It was the beginning of a long series of wild speculations about Sickert and Jack the Ripper, culminating in the daft idea that Sickert himself was responsible.

Sickert, who was a great prankster and writer of anonymous and pseudonymous letters. He was fascinated with press reports of sensational murders and trials and would have been most amused had he known of the effect his pictures would have on the impressionable decades after his death. It is of course an absurd accusation, since, as my great-grandmother told me, the Jack the Ripper murders were all committed by a Miriam Howells of Penrhiwceiber. Even today her house, Pant y Dwr, in fashionable Glanbrydan Avenue, is regarded with a certain foreboding. It was much easier for her to pop up to London on the famous GWR express train, Y Ddraig Goch, to do the murders than for Sickert to cross the Channel from Dieppe. Besides who would ever suspect a little dwt of a woman like Miriam of anything worse than the odd poison pen letter.

The same attempts to impose arbitrary meanings on ambiguity can be seen in the renaming of Degas' Interior as The Rape. Why? The room is not in disarray, the neat bed in the corner is undisturbed, the couple are far apart, the man looks frustrated rather than satiated. Why ask such questions of an interior in which the man and the woman are merely two surfaces facing towards each other. In Ennui, Sickert has merely brought the people-surfaces closer and closer together until they look like the shape of a convex lens. In Degas' Interior the room is between them, in Sickert's Ennui it is around them and yet they are very alike. Sickert of the dark palette and settings and Degas of the bright palette and the world of rich leisure are both opposites and the same thing.

Both paintings can be seen as just abstract patterns but it would be misleading to do so. Degas liked portraying people as seen. On one occasion when Sickert was chatting to Degas in his studio they decided to go to a café. Sickert wanted to call for a fiacre but Degas said:

I don't like cabs, you don't see anyone. That's why I love to ride on the omnibus – you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren't we.
It is from this sentiment that Degas' and in turn Sickert's fusion of realism and impressionism stems and hence their ambiguous open-ended stories within paintings that appear to be contrasting but are in fact closely related.

We see this in Degas' L'Absinthe 1875-6 where a drab woman sits in a café her mind dulled by the green cloudy glassful in front of her. Her dark clothed, dark-bearded, long haired companion has moved on to nicotine to re-sharpen his mind. They stand out as individuals yet they are also impressions and the café holds them fast regardless of the rules of space or optics. The café tables both point at her and imprison her. Behind the two of them there seems to be a mirror reflecting the backs of their heads as dark shadows but it hints also of a screen with another couple behind. It is the kind of strangeness you see in the mirror in Edouard Manet's The Bar at the Follies Bergére, which curiously also has listless tedium on the face of a woman who is a central figure in a place of escape.

L'Absinthe was a picture whose bleakness shocked and divided the British critics of the time. Was it more a sordid scene than it was a beautiful painting or did art transcend dissipation? For some it had all the artistic quality of dancing with a Fée Verte, a green fairy, and perhaps with the associations that that image evokes but for others it was Gaul and wormwood, as sharp as a two-edged sword and the road to Sheol.

France in the latter part of the nineteenth century was for the English a place where you went for culture but also for booze-and-sex tourism. The organisers of the earliest Thomas Cook excursions for the imparting of culture to the working man were disconcerted to find that on arrival in Paris he was diverted in other directions. Some things never change. In fairness the French were as disgusted by the public insobriety then as they are today in Mr Blair's green and drunken land.

It was no doubt this aspect of France that helped to boost Toulouse-Lautrec's popularity in London, though he did not try and sell his more explicit brothel pictures here. It was left to the Edwardian Sickert of the iron bedstead, often with a sprawled nude on it in a cheap room, to give us French titled pictures of England – Cocotte de Soho 1905, La Coiffure 1905-1906, La Maigre Adeline 1906, Le Lit de Fer 1905, La Hollandaise 1906. Sickert's deliberately dark Camden Town does, though, lack something of the colourful excitement of Toulouse-Lautrec's Montmartre. No one says "oh la la!" with a nudge and a wink and a snigger of "know what I mean, man of the world" about Camden Town.

Commercial sex was better organised in Paris which is the real reason why Edward VII pursued the Entente Cordial. Edward VII enjoyed having sex with two women at once and had a contraption of pulleys and stirrups designed for him in Paris to make this possible for a man of his corpulence. Yet this is also why prostitutes made good artists' models. They were shameless and willing to adopt all manner of indecent and contorted unclad poses for Sickert for long periods of time without a trace of embarrassment, awkwardness or cramp. By contrast we are shocked to learn that Gwen John is the woman posing for La Muse Nue, bras coupes 1905-6 by the appalling Auguste Rodin who had seduced her. In this naked statue, about as appealing as a "Flashing Gnome" from a plebeian garden centre, she has one foot on the floor and one held high and resting on a rock, her lack of arms draws our attention to more private matters. The curators tell us that Rodin said that Miss Gwendolen Mary John of Denbych-y-Pysgod provided:

a quivering truth of generous nature.
No doubt she did.

Actresses and dancers are essentially in the same business as prostitutes, that of illusionary allure; that is what Degas' ballet dancers have in common with Sickert's music hall scenes and Toulouse-Lautrec's wild erotic chahut flaring Moulin Rouge. There is a front stage and a back stage, women on display in bright finery and dark male clients and gawpers in black bowlers and toppers. Consider Toulouse-Lautrec's lithograph L'Anglais au Moulin Rouge 1892. Here is Toulouse-Lautrec's friend and colleague, the Lincolnshire artist William Warrener, in the height of fashion, gloves held in his hand, cylinder hat and cane, leering forward with his moustache at two provocative, negotiable women Rayon-d'Or and La Sauterelle. Warrener, face and clothes alike, is done in dull colours throughout but they, like the background walls are bright, white faces, red dress and red hair, black neck band and long gloves. But in the version in the Metropolitan Museum in New York this use of the technique is reversed.

Degas' Ballet Scene from Robert le Diable 1876 and Sickert's Gatti's Hungerford Palace of Varieties 1887-8 both exploit the duality of the stage. In the Degas we see the ethereal soft lit ghosts of the disavowed nuns on stage. In front the onlookers skin is white against their hair. The brightest light falls on the scores of the musicians in between, whose wind instruments poke up like guns over the parapet of the stage. With Sickert all we see is the sheer brightness of the woman in yellow in a spotlight. The rest is dark but we are looking across at the stage over the heads of dark men capped with dull dark bowler hats and reflecting black top hats in the stalls.

Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sickert were all masters of the sudden, spontaneous apparently careless but in reality artful snapshot. Degas used the frame to guillotine his paintings cutting out an arm or half a head and chopping up a sequence as in Two Dancers on the Stage 1874.

In Jockeys Before the Start c 1878-79 a pole divides the struggling morning light and impressioned grass and wipes its way through a horses head. It is just the kind of obstruction that today a bad photographer fears and a good one exploits. The same seizing of the instant may be seen in Toulouse-Lautrec's The Portrait of Dr Henri Bourges 1891, in appearance a sly and satisfied medical man, caught in his overcoat, putting on his gloves, about to leave, apparently unaware that he is being portraited. Quite different but using the same trick is Sickert's Aubrey Beardsley 1894, lit from behind on his neck, and the right of his chin with his face in profile and in shade looking away; only his collar and the long line of his stick are brightly white. For the rest he is a grey emaciated figure against a darker brown and doesn't stand out. The short-lived Beardsley is a wraith. The amateur photograph shuns the colours of the dull. Sickert is their master.

The three artists should have converted the public to their ideas, yet a glance at the window of any commercial photographer in the high street shows that what sells is still the posed face or figure centred in an oblong frame. Everyone wants to look like a glowing American televangelist parked against an unobtrusive background with a characterless smile. Spontaneity and ambiguity have not caught on; they do not fit with the certainties of late modernity. But you can escape back to them with Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sickert at the Tate Britain and also search out that lost time when London admired Paris and the English were liked and welcomed in France. We should congratulate Anna Gruetzner Robins and Richard Thomson on their skill as curators. And of course a word for our sponsor, The British Land Company plc, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004 and is engaged on an academic study of bastards.

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Was it more a sordid scene than it was a beautiful painting or did art transcend dissipation?

Such a question could also be asked of 'The Bar at the Folies-Bergère' or of Tracy Emin's bed. The latter, however, reminds me of a scene from James Thurber's "The Pet Department". It shows a room ruined by cats crawling all over it, and carries the text:

We have cats the way some people have mice.

to which the reply is:

So I see. However, I cannot tell from your communication whether you are seeking advice or just boasting.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 10, 2005 07:02 PM

Miriam Howells - a female "Jack The Ripper" indeed. Who but darling old Prof. Christie Davies could come up with the idea that Jack The Ripper was a woman. What a bit of revisionism - perhaps the most famous Victorian woman hater was in fact a woman.

Posted by: Jane at November 14, 2005 02:51 PM
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