Throwing light into the darkness and shadows

FOR UNKNOWN REASONS, we were initially reluctant to bother with viewing the exhibition (at London’s Tate Britain until the 18th of September 2022) of paintings and drawings by Walter Sickert (1862-1942). However, I am glad that we did because we got to know and appreciate an artist, of whom I had heard but knew little about. That little which I did know was that for a brief while Sickert had one of the Mall Studios in Hampstead, where years later the sculptor Barbara Hepworth worked and resided with one husband, and then another. Later, Sickert moved from Hampstead to Camden Town.

Sickert was born in Munich (Germany). He and his family moved to Britain when he was 8 years old. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-1885), an artist, introduced him to the works of important British and French artists, but Walter’s inclinations led him to study acting. However, in 1882 he entered London’s Slade School of Art (at UCL) and he became a student and assistant of the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Soon, he began spending a lot of time in France, where he met Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose work was to have a great influence on his style.

The exhibition at Tate Britain successfully demonstrates that Sickert was a highly competent artist. His topographical paintings (notably of Dieppe and Venice) are superb, as are the many of his portraits, some of which verge on being impressionistic, on display. His depictions of scenes within theatre show his great ability to portray light and shade. A series of paintings of nude women, some of whom are shown being in the company of often disinterested-looking men in far from elegant clothing, throw light on the shady world of the poor in places such as Camden Town and its environs.

Although some of Sickert’s paintings show features that later would become associated with artists such as the impressionists, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon, he is not one of the first artists that springs to mind when thinking about the great artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Why is this the case? Despite hinting at what was to become common in the works of the Abstractionists, he never broke through the barrier into Modernism as did painters such as Braque, Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse, and Mondrian. In no way does this detract from the brilliance seen in Sickert’s work. In a way, he was born too late to be considered as distinguished as those I have mentioned. Considered alongside 19th century artists, he shines. But, although he received many commissions, he was painting during an era when the more adventurous and innovative artists were in their heyday. That said, I can strongly recommend the exhibition at the Tate, which demonstrated to me that Sickert, a master of light and shade, was an artist who deserves much more attention than he gets today.

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