Thursday, January 10, 2008

Walter Sickert, the Camden Town Nudes

Courtauld Gallery

Walter Sickert, The Camden Town Nudes 25 Oct 2007 - 20 Jan 2008

Good news, is it is free Monday all day, which is when I went; bad news, it ends very soon, on 20 January.
When the sky is grey and the weather dour, looking at the Sickert nudes will not cheer you up. Much better to watch the jolly skaters on the rink in the courtyard, especially at night when the flares are lit.
But no, you want to see the paintings on the Third Floor. It is a small collection, and I think dominated by the study of a young girl sitting upright and resting a hand on the small of her back, just as if she is tired of all the household chores - after all these models are not going to be ladies who live a life of luxuary, they are probably housemaids, or shop-girls.
I was struck by the darkness of the images, the density of the paint, the thick impasto. Sickert probably loaded the paint onto the canvas, then waited for it to dry thoroughly before putting the next layer. There are blobs and ridges, which catch the light. It is so thick it is intrusive. It gets between you and what the painting is about. It is particularly evident in the two studies on the central wall, both referring to the Camden Town Murders. They are entitled also, 'What shall we do about the rent?' On the left, the painting is highly varnished and it is difficult to look at the image - too much disturbing light reflections. The painting on the right is matt, and easier on the eye. It has a cool, blue tinge, reminiscent of Manet. The paint is not so thick and treacly.
However, in addition to the difficulty of looking at the paintings, I wonder why Sickert painted with so many darks, why he chose not to paint the faces of these nudes and why the titles of the works hint at such dreary, depressing aspects of life in the big city at about 1906 or 1907.
The blurb on the free leaflet says "the exhibition traces Sickert's reinvention of the nude, exploring the ways in which these powerful paintings addressed pressing artistic and social concerns of the period". In what way does he reinvent the nude? Other than making the body itself so dark that you can hardly note its mass, I suppose he had an influence on other painters working shortly after these dates, the Euston Road School for instance, who later had an influence on the way painting was taught at Camberwell Art School and other art schools such as the Slade.
Sickert has a place in our consciousness because of the subjects he liked to paint, the seedy rooms, the music halls. Perhaps beforehand the British had not liked to look at the 'underbelly' of life. Pretty cottages had been painted, but not dreary poverty. Dickens and others have written of such themes, Degas painted the little working girls, Toulouse Lautrec the tarts of Paris. The is a difference in approach, the tarts and working girls of Paris have colour and movement, they are not bogged down in anthracite smokey darkness, heavy, unresponding, too dreary to be saved, even by the philanthropists who, I suppose, are referred to in the phrase 'pressing artistic and social concerns of the period'.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Siena, Art for a City, at the National Gallery, London, and what I though of the exhibition

The exhibition Renaissance Siena, Art for a City. 24 October 2007 to 13 January 2008.

The exhibition includes a few sculptures, some bas reliefs, some drawings and three large frescos. Also medals and mirror frames, and panels from marriage chests. But most of it is painting on wood, either in oil or tempera.
These paintings are not very familiar, no names I readily recognized except Raphael. He is represented with a beautiful small work, part of which by coincidence was reproduced, and increased in size, on the Christmas cards currently being sold at half price in the gallery shop!
What can I learn from these works?
The paint is applied in thin glazes, there are no brush marks to be seen. The colours glow and impress by their luminosity.
Particularly impressive, in its sexual allure and masculine display, is the painting by Luca Signorelli of Two Nude Youths. One has his back to you and shows his beautiful buttocks, lovingly highlighted with reflected light on the underside of the curves.
Several works have inscriptions, and this itself is quite unlike any paintings made today, in that a typical inscription reads, (and I quote this as it appears in the exhibition booklet), "'the flame refreshes her/it and tortures me" encircle a dragon-headed salamander in the middle of a fire'.
Many of the paintings are full of hidden meanings and are definitely narrative. In particular I looked at the series The Story of Patient Griselda, in which the story is illustrated in three parts, but on each of the three panels several episodes are shown, as in a comic strip. The colours used are often symbolic and would be understood by the viewer at the time, in Siena.
I like to paint narrative paintings, I like to include text in my work. Several of my recent works are on wood, which I find a sympathetic support for oil.
There are stories in my paintings. I endeavor to put references, both obvious
and hidden, in the paintings, to modern associations with the human subjects.
For instance in my current painting, the subject is loosely based on the legend of Diana and Acteaon, when Acteaon looks at Diana bathing, and is turned into a stag and devoured by his own hunting dogs. My inspiration was a painting by Cranach at Somerset House earlier in 2007.
I have painted the yellow sign that you can see at Somerset House, warning of a steep drop, and changed it to a human figure and the head of a ravening dog. Acteaon is represented by a male cyclist glancing over his shoulder.
In particular I might consider painting in thinner paint, with less emphasis on the painterly quality of oil paint. I might make less emphasis on the correct physical depiction of the human subject.
Many of the paintings in this exhibition are distorted or have extremely small or excessively large head, hands, feet.
I might increase the amount of textual messages I employ and I might incorporate two or three episodes of a story.
My next work may be a portrait of a male cyclist, who I will paint with his back to me, possibly in shorts and top. The rest of the painting will give a picture of the route, and the difficulties and the encounters which the cyclist might meet in his planned route from one end of Britain to the other.