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November 10, 2005

Degas, Sickert, and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 - Why Richard D. North thinks it should have been called Walter Sickert: Influences in London and Paris

Posted by Richard D. North

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

It's hard to pull off even a good trick twice and Tate Britain's new show isn't the crowd pleaser that TurnerWhistlerMonet [sic] was earlier this year. Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec just don't carry the populist clout of their predecessors. This second show is the natural child of the first, however. In the first, we considered Whistler, and his supposed debt to Monet and Turner. This time, we look at Sickert, who frankly proclaimed his debt to Degas. Both shows concern the easy flow of patrons, paintings, and inspiration between London and Paris. Which is perhaps why the show has its subtitle. One can't help feeling that the British cultural cringe assumes that inspiration mostly flowed from the cultured French toward the drizzly Anglo-Saxons, and the assumption hovers over this show as it did over the former. This show faces more severe problems. It heaps up complications. First: there isn’t a clear argument linking the three artists it purports to be about. Second: the show is about far more than the three painters it purports to focus on.

Maybe things would have been clearer if we had been offered: Sex in the Shadows: Fin de Siècle London and Paris. Or Swagger and Shame in London and Paris, 1870-1910.

Instead, we had the job of seeing how these paintings by many hands might have a unifying thread. Recourse to the catalogue doesn't help: it merely repeats the multiple themes of the hang. One moment we were wondering whether there wasn't a certain dissidence in Tissot's paintings of British maritime celebrations. Certainly, the one face we are invited to focus on in his The Ball on Shipboard (c. 1874) is wistful going on disenchanted. And did we agree with the curators that part of this uneasiness came from the deliberately off-centre cropping of the pictures? ("Cropping" was the word they used, though I had always taken that to be a term derived from modern photography.) The next, we were revisiting the lovely problems of "impressionism". George Clausen's A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill (1881) is a piece of social realism, but while it has eccentric "cropping", it also has a looseness of style which heads well away from the photographic. The Degas ballet paintings fit into all this, but are hardly crucial to the issues.

We get into the stride of the show when Walter Richard Sickert makes his entrance. He is the most disarming of figures. There is the moment, which must happen to everyone who looks at his work, when one wonders if he doesn't owe everything to Degas, who succeeded Whistler as Sickert's greatest influence. We have his music hall pictures (The Gallery at the Old Bedford, say) to bounce off the much more famous opera house scenes of Degas (The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera Robert Le Diable, for instance). To my eye, the Anglo-Dane's are the more challenging and insightful psychological studies even if they are clumsier. Sickert was completely unafraid. The more one looks at his work and life, as revealed so well in Matthew Sturgis's gripping biography [Walter Sickert: A Life, by Matthew Sturgis, HarperCollins, 2005], the more one realises that there is boldness in borrowing as freely as he did from those he admired. And much as he learns from others, he always uses the opportunity to take a leap of this own choosing.

Sickert's quality reveals itself sneakily and clearly when we look at other Degas-influenced painters (many of them guided toward the master by Walter). Here are Elizabeth Forbes, James Guthrie and Sidney Starr: all interesting, but none with the force of a Sickert. When we move up a gear and compare Sickert with Philip Wilson Steer, we see that the latter often does lovely things, but they are seldom as powerfully experimental as Sickert's.

On to the Toulouse-Lautrec's. All his life Sickert disparaged the little Frenchman's work, but the latter's darker work is Sickertian. His The Clowness Cha-U-Kao has a bulky woman dealing with a corset's unequal struggle with her own bosom and his Dr Péan Operating has a bibbed-and-tuckered gargoyle at work on his patient's awesome gape: the surgeon has more the appearance of someone preparing to eat than one bringing succour to a patient. They both feel as though they carry the insight of Sickert and the technique of Degas.

There is a passage in the show when we look at swagger portraits, and one might see a certain coherence in the idea that we have been looking at showfolk and their sophisticated audiences. We have been looking at urbanites. Fine, and I was glad to see – for the first time, I fear – the Glam work of Giovanni Boldini. But even his lovely portraits of Lady Colin Campbell or Whistler are matched by Sickert's Aubrey Beardsley.

And then we go into the later stages of the show, and the golden thread of Sickert's talent gleams yet more richly and darkly. Degas' Absinthe is one of many paintings in this show which have from the start been discussed as shockers. Why, oh why, the conservative critic has always asked, must these painter-Johnnies make challenging pictures out of sordid scenes? Sickert's interest in squalor was so profound that – with mad disregard to the evidence – he has been identified as Jack the Ripper. The truth is more likely that Sickert was drawn to prostitution by its theatricality and its painterly possibilities. He was, by the way, not a sinister type: he was widely loved, and honourable. He had a peculiarly respectable streak to go along with his bohemianism.

Sickert may well have liked actresses and whores. But professionally they were even more handy: they offered the exotic and the picaresque, and they made willing nude subjects. Human flesh is the great painterly challenge and we know that Sickert is a genius because he shined in his representation of it. His La Hollandaise trumps the nudes of Degas or Whistler (let alone of Manet, included for reference in the catalogue but not the show). Sickert meets serious competition only in the fabulous Bonnards in the show.

The show's last act is at first sight a curious, gentle one. We leave behind the squalor and grandeur of stage and swagger, and flesh and sin, and instead see domestic interiors. Sickert's Ennui, perhaps his best known painting, is indeed remarkable: it risks being as null as its theme. It has the merit of not being much like Degas' Interior (The Rape) which seems stagey and old-hat by comparison. Still, these last rooms parade heavenly painting, some of it almost sentimental. Bonnard's Interior with Boy, and Edouard Vuillard's Woman Sweeping are warmly engaging. Vuillard's Woman Reading is a perfect match for Sickert's The Mantlepiece: they are studies, as the catalogue says, of "easy intimacy". They are studies, too, of glinting light cannonading off crockery.

You will see by now that I admire Sickert. He is not in the absolutely first rank: perhaps, even, he is less important than Degas. But in at least two ways he is a more interesting master. First, he was a vastly disputatious painter. His work is an argument with his own eye and heart, with paint, with canvas, with society and with his subjects. But he is generous to a fault. He admits his debt to others. Better yet, and this is his second strength: he is hungry for new attitudes and subjects. He borrows other people' tricks and discoveries and so embraces new risks. It takes courage to display restless intelligence. This show doesn't have as much generosity or verve as its unsung hero, if it had, it would admit that Walter Richard Sickert is its star. It should have been called: Walter Sickert: influences in London and Paris.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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