Art Projections, or Scary mirrors of Walter Sickert

 

This story has the same roots as a small vignette about cassone and the posting about Monet and his Bar, namely, my recent visit to the Courtauld Gallery. It is there were I’ve seen my first ‘real’ Walter Sickert; I’ve seen a few copies of his works before, but all of very poor quality – something of this sort:

 

but there were very interesting, in a weird way, and I kept planning to learn more about the artist.

Beside the core theme of my studies, that is, ‘mirrors in art’, what I really like about this project is the discoveries of new and unknown names I keep making on a regular basis. I considered myself relatively knowledgeable about art in general, and art history in particular, and yet when I started this project I realised, very soon,  the depths of my ‘known unknown’ ( and don’t even want to think about the ‘unknown unknown’).  So, the time has come to learn about Walter Sickert, and his mirrors (there is one, by the way, in the work I’ve shown above; but let’s explore them in a proper order).

That’s how Sickert is introduced in the Courtauld: as ‘one of the most significant and influential British artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’:

If to believe this description, Sickert in many ways ‘reinvigorated’ British art, and also made possible the appearance of such masters as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. These are all very powerful statements, but let’s sort out some ‘facts & figures’ first.

His name Walter sounds a bit German, and indeed he was born in Germany, in Munich. His mother, Eleanor Louisa Sickert, nee Henry, was an illegitimate daughter of the famous British astronomer Richard Sheepshanks and one Irish dancer; his father, Oswald Sickert, half-German, half-Danish, was a painter (and a son of a painter); of course, now he is more known as the ‘father of Walter Sickert’ and it’s not easy to find his works on the net.  I found a couple and post them here to illustrate the benchmark against which Walter would have to work first.

Was there something Oedipus in his constant critique of classical art? Anyhow, the works like these had been considered by Walter Sickert as too sugary and fake, and he always tried to work differently.

He was born in 1860, but already in 1868 the family moves to England. He got excellent education and initially wanted to became an actor, he even performed in some plays. But then he changes his mind and began to study painting (though he kept close connections with theater throughout his life.

When twenty, he entered the Slade School of Fine Art , or The Slade, a famous art school, part of the University College London (it remains to be one of the best up until today.) We can consider him very lucky, because almost immediately after the studies he enters the workshop of James Abbot Whistler, an American painter who worked and lived in England, and made quite a significant impact on the British art landscape of the late 19th century.  Whistler was averse of the moralistic and sentimental style still prevalent in England at that time, and propagated his own alternative approach, and combination of realism and impressionism.

I haven’t seen the earliest works by Sickert, but it is believed he was following the manner of Whistler very closely, including applying the same technique of alla prima, or wet-on-wet painting, when every next layer of paint is placed on a canvas before the previous would dry out. This technique is more typical for blurry watercolor works, by impressionists also started to use it when using oil paints (there were not the first, of course, and rather reappropriated the methods f the Old Masters, such as Rembrandt.

I have recently found a relatively early work by Sickert, the portrait of some Helen Carte that he painted in 1885 (she was an actress, but even more so a manager of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company – because of that the painting is often called The Acting Manager, but sometimes the Rehearsal:

This works resembles many of the Whistler’s ones (and very dissimilar to the typical Sickert’s ones, as we know them now).  Additionally interesting for me is a rather strange mirror he painted here; I don’t know if it was a special mirror made for dressing rooms, or was it just a fashion of the time (its design resembles the one of Monet’s Nana, a bit).

In 1883 Sickert travels to Paris where he met Edgar Degas, who becomes his new idol. The influence of Degas’ tempera works can be traced up until the very late paintings by Sickert.

Degas, expectedly, advises Sickert to abandon all the affectations of impressionists with ‘live light’, and work exclusively in studio, where only, he believed, possible to construct the ‘right’ lighting. I have a feeling that it is when Sickert also developed his interest to marginal and bohemian themes (semi-perversive demi-monde, distant from – and often despising – the rest of the society).

In the end of the 1880s Sickert comes back to London (though it’s really difficult to call it a ‘return’, the painter frequently travels to the continent and back), where he joints the recently established New English Art Club (a lookalike of the similar union in France, and also created as an opposition to the British Royal Academy of Art.)

Sickert creates a few works depicting artistic (and often fairly frivolous) life of London (like this Study of High-Steppers (1888); the official art critique’s reception was quite coldly, but what was even more disappointing for Sickert is that his own peers also considered these work of low value.

At some point around 1890 Sickert moves back to France, to Dieppe, where he lives with his mistress (and allegedly their son). Here he starts painting very different works, much more down-to Earth and realistic and rough, both in terms of topics and style:

Café des Tribunaux, Dieppe (c.1890)

These paintings are never done on plein air, as advised by Degas. Sickert makes first sketched on the streets, but finishes his work in a studio (even despite the fact they are mostly very small works, 13 x 18 cm or so). I don’t know what was his source of income, and can’t believe that he could make his living only selling these small works.

Sickert was always an active traveller, and he visited many places, both in France and in Europe in general, but it was Venice that became his favorite destination. He stayed there few times in the period from 1893 to 1903, considering it one of the most beautiful European city, with a characteristic atmosphere and habitus, as Bourdier would call it.

During these years Sickert created quite a few works about Venice, its streets, palaces and churches, and its people, too.

(two small paintings above are the exterior and interior of the Saint Mark Basailica in Venice).

Here I can finally show the paintings I saw in the Courtauld Gallery (fortunately they do allow to take pictures); let’s start with the San Trovaso, Venice (1904)

What was shocking for me is to discover these painting are very small, and very dark, one could even them ‘dirty’. At the first sight it is what people call ‘daub’, as is in the paintings executed by newbie, without much skill. However, is that very one would spend more time before the painting (perhaps not the full three hours suggested by Jennifer Roberts, but at least a bit more than the notorious 17 seconds people spend per painting in the museums), he would start  understanding, and hopefully appreciating the accuracy with which the painter captures the light.   I take many pictures myself and often discover this dissonance, between the first impression from the scene (usually much brighter and colourful), and a more realistic one that you shape by observing either the scene itself for a longer period, or looking at its picture; the latter impression is less sparkling and more realistic).   

It is believed that Sickert began painting his first models in Venice. I don’t have too many of his works of this period, and can’t say with certainty what was his technique at this time, nor how he approached the work (for example, whether he painted the sketches first or created his oil works in real time):

Giuseppina against the map of Venice (1898)

However, the manner with which he painted these models is already unmistakably Sickertish, if anyone would look at many of his later works he would immediately recognize many of the features that already manifest in the early portraits:

Study in Rose (1903)

It’s not only me who doesn’t know much about these works, very little known in general about his period, of his life, and of his oeuvre. There was not yet a community of followers and critics who would record his achievement, and on the other side some of his contacts were pretty indecorous; Sickert later admitted that many of his models at this time were indeed prostitutes.  

When Sickert returned to London in 1905 (he was 45 by then), he was already a painter with a large, diverse portfolio. But he was still hardly interested in art as decoration, as a way of life beautification, and firmly rooted himself on a ‘realism’ side, both content- and style-wise.  He rented a studio in Camden Town, now a very nice and touristic area of London, but a very poor, ill-fated and unsafe district of the city by then. 

It is in this studio he had created one of the most famous series, so called Camden Town Nudes. Following the example of Degas, he invites women to the studio to sit for the portraits (these were not only nudes, and the women were not only prostitutes, but the combination of the latter two was frequent).   

The portrait of reclining nude above, known as La Hollandaise, is perhaps one of the most famous work of this series. The woman could be indeed Dutch, but may be not, Sickert was also known for giving completely fictitious titles to his works (this will puzzle the future historians of art, and is an important thing to keep in mind for one story I will tell later). 

By the way, there is a mirror in this portrait – although, as with many other of his works, it presents a puzzle: is it really a mirror? or may be a window? or even a door, perhaps? 

If we compare these mirrors with the ones of Degas, we see quite an important difference: they are not used actively and intently (like in case of multiple ‘women at their toilettes‘ of the French master), yet at the same time they are not just an interior element as with early mirrors of Degas. The mirrors of Sickert are crucial tools that help him to create a very distinctive play of light that occurs in his paintings. I have a feeling that these ‘plays of light’, and ‘plays of colours’ were whay he was mostly interested in. And knowing that I consider the talks about ‘societal importance’ of the subjects he depicted (such as ‘societal deprivation’, or ‘economic inequality’) an example of wishful thinking of some of critics.  It seems that – and in this case similar to Degas – Sickert didn’t really care what to paint, but rather how, and he wanted to do it realistically, that is, honestly to the light and atmosphere.    

Similar to the works of many impressionists, we often see paradoxical, unbelievable combinations of colours – That can not be true! – and yet these colours create very authentic, and very expressive representations.

There are few works of this period in the Courtauld, for example the Iron Bedstead (1906):

I tried to take a few pictures of his works, and now understand why most of the reproductions that I keep finding online are of such poor quality – it is indeed very difficult to make a true representation of these portraits. First, they are dark and one needs a good light to take a picture (Courtauld Gallery didn’t have one). But more importantly, these works are three-dimensional, they are not just flat canvases filled with colours, but very textured surfaces, where the reliefs created by paints are as important as the colours.    

I also think that they were not intended to hang on the walls, these types of work one would place on the table, or better even, always examined in hands, handling them as 3D objects, not just pictures. In the art-speak they call this technique technique impasto when the paints are laid on canvas very thickly.

This is another nude from Courtauld, so called Nude, Contre-jour

It is not even one, but the whole series of such contre-jour, against the light, portraits; the one below is called Mornington Crescent nude, contre-jour (1907):

 

 There are also mirrors in the last two paintings, in fact, one and the same mirror, a large oval mirror supported by an elaborate curved frame; we will see it in many other paintings of Sickert too.  

Apparently he made a large number of such paintings, and by now nobody knows with any certainty how many was made. He worked as a fabric of some sort, the models were posting every other day and in the days between the session he was finishing one work, and preparing the next one. 

Not all these nudes are ‘reclining’, we also see the ‘sitting nudes’: 

and ‘standing’ ones: 

or the ‘bathing’ ones:

Also, not all these works had mirrors on them, but many, and in the most cases the mirrors had been used actively, not necessarily by the subjects themselves, but as I wrote earlier, to create an interesting interplays of colours, as in this Self-portrait (1906):

The painting above is perhaps difficult to call a true self-portrait, we see only the hand of the painter, but there is also a more classical self-portrait – which is also a depiction of mirror surface at the same time:

 

 The Painter in his Studio (1907)

All these works are very far from the typical style with which the women had been portrayed at this time, and that Sickert strongly despised; “The modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of ‘the nude’ represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy”, wrote he in 1911.

I don’t know how long he would keep doing such portraits and if would stay in this studio, but there happened an event that made him, and his series famous, albeit notoriously.   

In 1907 a murder was committed in London, of some Emily Dimmock, a young woman who we would describe today as a part-time, or causal prostitute. She wasn’t a professional prostitute and didn’t work in a brothel, and even had her partner, but from time to time she also saw her clients thus earning at least some part of her income in that way; I understand it was a very common way for many women from this area at that time.  

Emily was found by her partner (who apparently didn’t know about this side of her life) stabbed to death, in her own room, after the night she spent with her client.  The brutality of the murder (the killer cut her throat) shocked the public, and the case became the center of media attention:  

An artist named Robert Wood was a suspect, a card with allegedly his handwriting was found among the things of the victim; he was arrested but denied any involvement with the woman.  The trial was watched by if not the whole country, but at least the whole city – in that day an opera was interrupted by the news from the court room. Wood was acquitted, and the case became unsolved (still is).  

Soon after all these event Sickert began to paint the works of such kind:

or that:

They are not intended as the illustrations of the famous Camden Town Murder Case. It is not even very clear what is portrayed here and the content is very ambivalent, like in the case of many projective tests, such as TAT; one can interpret them as romantic scenes of young lovers, of mundane daily event between a wife and husband – or as a dramatic moment of a criminal case. 

But Sickert unpretentiously called them Camden Town Murder – thus causing immense interest to this works (also financial, he was selling these works quicker than his usual nudes, and soon for higher prices). But the series also resulted in heated debates about the position of the artist – did he really try to bring attention to the social problem that caused this terrible murder? or simply cynically exploited public interest to the case? Or shall we still believe that neither of the above was really interesting to him, and as before he was primarily motivated to depict the lights and colours?         

 Courtauld Gallery also has one work that apparently belongs to this series: 

… but the title of the painting, What Shall We Do for the Rent?, suggests a completely different interpretation, as if the couple is debating their dire straits and planning some extreme coping strategies. 

Yet another work may also look similar to the above examples – we also see a semi-named woman, and a fully dressed man sitting nearby her bed:  

 … but the title is Prussians in Belgium (1912), and all of a suddenly the girls became the symbol of defenceless Belgium who is just about to be brutally attacked by the rude German warrior.

Small issue is that Belgium was indeed attacked by Germany, but only in 1914, and here we either had to assume deep prophetic capacity of the artist, or a much later opportunistic attribution of the work to this theme.   

The Camden Town Murder case made the painter very know, and scandalously so. It created a brand of certain kind during his time, and even today for many Sickert remains to be a painter of a criminal and immoral underground of London.  

Of corse, he was painting not only these ambivalent portraits, even during the peak of these affairs. There are many more ‘just portraits’, and some of them are very lyrical – and some have more mirrors in them, like this American Woman (1908).

I also found a painting (Girl at a Looking Glass, or Little Rachel, 1907) that depicts in full the famous Sickert’s oval mirror that we often see on a backdrop of his nudes:

The painting below, the Mantelpiece (1908), shows perhaps the most complex interplay of two (if not three!) mirrors:   

 

The obvious one is the mirror of the mantelpiece itself, that is used as a looking glass (usually the mantelpiece’s mirrors weren’t); but we also see another, large mirror on the background – we also meet it in a few other paintings by Sickert). The third ‘suspect’ is the mirror hanging on a wall – it is reflected in the first mirror at the top right corner.  

Starting from 1910 Sickert spends more and more time to form and develop a new art movement, called in the name of the very region of his first studio – Camden Town Group.  It was created following an example of the French Société des Artistes Indépendants, but not without special British peculiarities; for example, in the charter of this movement it was stated that an any given movement there shouldn’t be more than 16 members in it. It was very clubbish (and snobbish) an enterprise). In different times among the group members were Duncan Grant, Lucien Pissarro (the son of Camille Pissarro), Spencer Gore, William Ratcliffe and many other very interesting painters (some of them also created very interesting ‘mirrors in art’, and I’d love to write about those too, hopefully one day soon.)

Sickert also started to teach, mostly in the Westminster School of Art, and in a few other art schools as well. Thematically he is going back in some way, and starts again to pain the views of the city, but now his topics are not the famous landmarks as in Venice, but rather mundane streets and buildings of London:

Queen’s Road Station, Bayswater (1916)

About this time he also meet his second wife, Christine Angus, one of his students who was 18 years younger than him; they marry in 1911. His first marriage was not very successful, and they divorced already in 1889. But even during this marriage, and especially later his personal life was, let’s say, complicated, and turbulent. It looked like that the time has come for a safe and peaceful harbour, at last. Unfortunately, Christine died relatively young, in 1920, and Sickert again escapes to his beloved Dieppe.

He continues to paint portraits, but by now they are less melodramatic and and not so dark and gloomy; he also experiment with other techniques, for example, pastel and water-colour that are much lighter and airy than oil. I selected only a couple of works where he also depicts mirrors.  

Mrs Barrett (1922)

The Blue Hat (1920)

For one of the works from this time I have examples of its development over time. Here is the first sketch, of 1922, of what will later become L’Armoire à glace, or The Cupboard with a mirror. 

A year later we see a more detailed drawing: 

And only two years later, in 1922, the final version of the painting was completed :

 

In 1926 Sickert had a stroke, and for a while stopped to paint. He will begin to pain again after few years, but his style will be very different, and sometimes one may have impression that these later works are created by a different person. In some way it’s true, at least he created them using a very different method. He doesn’t paint from the real life, or the models, instead he uses the photos, either made by him, or by his new wife (who is also a painter); sometimes he even uses the pictures from the newspapers. Symbolically, he stops using the signature ‘Walter Sickert’, and instead shifts to ‘Richard Sickert’.

Here is an example of his late ‘photographic’ works, the portrait of Sir Alec Martin (1935); I’ve chosen that one also because of the mirror:

In his late years Sickert paints, but slowly and rarely, and it’s not always clear how much of his works is made by him; it’s believed that his wife helped him, especially when completing large surfaces, like the walls on the above painting. 

Here is their own photos, around mid-1930s:

But independently of his contemporary productivity, Sickert is an unquestionable guru by then, and his opinion about art in general or about any specific painter is highly valued. Interestingly, but for a while Sickert was a teacher of Winston Churchill; the later painted himself, and was also avidly following the developments in visual art. Churchill later admitted that Sickert significantly changed his ideas about art, and about life, too.   

We now have at least one portrait of Winston Churchill painted by Sickert:

Sickert died in 1942; he was almost 82 by then.

His impact on the British visual art is colossal, if you don’t know anything about Sickert you can’t understand why and how we later have Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and the whole British School in general. But Bacon and Freud are mega-stars today, while only the specialists know about Sickert’s works.  

Not so long ago the interest to Sickert, and this awareness of his works had been raised quite noticeably, in many ways using the same trick as Sickert used himself with his Camden Town Murder series. At least two books was published that claim that Walter Sickert was no less than Jack-The-Ripper, the famous manic killer from London who sadistically killed a few prostitutes in London in 1988.  The killer was never caught, and with time became a city legend (also creating a whole detective genre).

In 1990 some Jean Overton Fuller, a British writer specialised on the spy/secret service conspiratological writings has published a book Sickert and The Ripper Crime where she revealed that it was Sickert who in the end of the 1880s committed all these horrible killings in London.

To prove her point, she uses many solid arguments, such as the interpretations of his paintings, his friendship with Degas, his frequent trips to Dieppe etc. As if to help to all these later revelations, Sickert indeed has a painting called… Jack The Ripper Room (1907):

Quite obviously, I tend to think that what you see in this painting is a mirror. That reflects – Jack The Ripper? Or Walter/Richard Sickert? Or… yourself, dear reader of all these stories about dark & dangerous mirrors?  

***

I usually conclude my stories with a morale of some sort, verbal or visual. In case of Sickert I didn’t come with it, at least yet. I don’t know what’s the meaning of the Sickert’s mirrors for my Grand Theory of Mirrors in Art, beside the fact that his works had been a very clever example of perceptual traps, catching the projections of our psychic. Did mirrors play a special role in all that?   

 

PS: As I started to also develop slideshows for every story, you can find the one about Walter Sickert’s mirrors here.

 

 

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