Walter Sickert

I recently visited the Walter Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain. What I found wasn’t what I was expecting…


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I’ve been a fan of Walter Sickert forever. I thought his work brought imagination, light and texture to a period of British art that dripped in sentimentality. He was an Edwardian art killer and quite frankly, anything and anyone that put a stop to Alma-Tadema and friends was a hero of mine.

For all that Edwardian art conjured up, Sickert seems to have taken a hammer to it. He smashed and bulldozed his way through the acceptable pornography of taste and dished up his own narrative of dirt, darkness and murder.

So I’m not sure why I was so disheartened when I saw the exhibition. The gloom of his muddy street scenes and the emptiness of his art left me feeling uninspired. Artists who rebel against the norm, usually exist in the pain of their own destitution but I got none of that from Sickert’s view of the world. His own emotional perspective seems absent from the work and worse still, his attempt to imbue the portraits with the sorrow of his sitters seemed disingenuous.

His apparent lack of empathy for any of the people he portrayed, smacked me right in the face. No joy, no light, no sorrow, no despair, his subjects (some of which are painted from news clippings and old photos) just hung there in a vacuous pose. Void of any detail in the face, you’re left looking for clues in the artwork to establish any kind of tenderness. It’s the sort of thing you see in modern art when a portrait is painted from a  photo; lacking any of the delight and liveliness of emotive intercourse between painter and painted.

All I kept sensing was the odour of his own arrogance. 

I should have realised all of this a long time ago. Nina Hamnett is known to have said that she received his wisdom often, doing instead, the opposite of his advice. And having seen Hamnett’s work at Charleston last year, I know the power of her portraits; ‘The Landlady’ for one…

Sickert’s ‘Murder’ series of paintings is another tale in the woeful sham that is his taste in porn. Often given two titles (depending on what exactly?), these paintings are meant to give us the opportunity to be either murderer or voyeur. The rendering of women in naked repose and men astride in full attire is reminiscent of Edwardian camp and at worst the dire dereliction of sensitivity toward his subjects.

But all was not lost, I did admire some of the technique, the over dramatisations and muted tones. At times I thought, set to the right music, you could feel something for the people in his pictures. I will never entirely hate his work, you can’t, he’s the epitome of self-promotion and you do keep falling into his trap.