In Review

Sickert: A Life in Art – macabre works tackling ‘the seedier aspects of urban life’

Works by painter best known for controversial Camden Town nudes displayed at Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool

Walter Sickert (1860-1942) detested the “effete” and decorous style of his late Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. The German-born British painter was determined to tackle the seedier aspects of urban life: drinkers, debtors, prostitutes.

His “most controversial contribution” to British art is the series of “sordid psychological studies” known as the Camden Town nudes. Inspired by the notorious “Camden Town murder” of 1907 – a young woman was found dead with her throat cut – he painted “women lying slumped or spreadeagled on squalid iron beds in dimly lit London rooms”.

These macabre works even gave rise to the “improbable” rumour, first circulated by a man claiming to be his son, that Sickert had committed the Jack-the-Ripper murders. But as this fascinating chronological tour of his career in Liverpool shows, Sickert’s work rises above the lurid “true crime” theories.

He was a “bravely modern” artist of great talent, effortlessly flitting “from portraits to townscapes to theatrical subjects and landscapes, from architectural paintings to domestic interiors to nudes”.

It’s no wonder, though, that Sickert was mistaken for the Ripper, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. He even referenced the killer in the title of a painting of his own flat, the “spooky, sensual” Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom (1906-07). Beyond this, his art is loaded with “hints of evil”: depictions of London music halls like Gallery of the Old Bedford (1894-95) have a ghoulish quality completely at odds with the jolly subject matter, hinting at some latently “savage sexuality”.

His nudes have the air of corpses – faces obscure, mouths rendered as black holes. Even his scenes of Venice transform the city – normally a pleasantly anodyne subject for artists – into an “architectural morgue”.

We should take Sickert’s dramatic paintings with a pinch of salt, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. Before committing himself to art, he was an actor– and “he never lost his taste for the theatrical”. His art brims with “melodrama”: an early self-portrait of 1896 sees him “gobbled up by shadow”, his skin “disintegrating”; elsewhere, we glimpse him in costume, sporting spectacles that “he didn’t need”, and even a chef’s hat.

The Camden Town nudes, meanwhile, show a canny appreciation of the “career-accelerating power of notoriety”. Yet however stagey they might seem, these paintings have great art-historical importance. Without Sickert’s “dirty” realism, “there’d be no Bacon, no Freud, no Auerbach”. This is “a tremendous show”.

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (0151-478-4199, liverpoolmuseums.org.uk). Until 27 February 2022

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