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'.

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