PRINT May 1967

Walter Sickert

THE TRAGIC FLAW in English painting is compromise, unwillingness to be committed to a point of view, a desire to have the best of two or more worlds (especially, in our time, a present and a past world). Wilson Steer tried a compromise between Impressionism, Constable and Gainsborough, Matthew Smith a compromise between Fauvism, Delacroix and the Venetians, Sutherland a compromise between Palmer and Picasso. It can have the most honorable causes—like excess of humility or excess of imagination. But it’s always a drag on development, because it prevents that carrying of one idea to an extreme conclusion which is achieved by every great artist (as well as a type of bad artist).

Walter Richard Sickert (recently shown at the Hirschl and Adler Gallery in New York), however un-English he was in his habit of looking straight at the visual facts and in his easy mastery of picture-making problems, was thoroughly English in his lack of single-mindedness. His paintings do too many things. They are highly visual, with a camera’s indifferent reflection of fortuitous effects of light and a marvelous eye for the totally unexpected shapes which crop up in nature if only one can be mindless enough to see them; they are highly esthetic, with their impeccable design and harmonization of tone and color, and their fastidious feathery touch; they are highly psychological, with a novelist’s eye for specific human tensions. There has never been another painter who managed to combine these particular qualities. And the point is that Sickert only combined them by having them exist side by side. They don’t fuse as the disparate elements in the work of great artists fuse so that each is inconceivable without the others.

Although he is both a brilliant observer and a consummate designer, his recording of sensations doesn’t fill out the whole design. The highly typical Camden town interiors relate to certain interiors by Vuillard. Vuillard grasps the entire space of the scene and everything in it as a comprehensive whole: sensation has become composition. The Sickert interiors are esthetic arrangements within which there are passages of observation which are fresher and keener than Vuillard’s; but only passages—only the nude on the bed, not the nude on the bed in the room. Vuillard translates what he has seen into a painting; Sickert sees like a draftsman, and then builds a painting around his drawing.

There is dissociation too, between his eye and his handling of paint. The brushwork looks marvelous, only it’s not a vehicle for his sensations but a way of covering a canvas with a lively and lovely surface. Compare those heads where the paint is at its freest and liveliest with those late Manet portraits of Berthe Morisot which make a similar use of broad abrupt diagonal strokes slashing across forms. In the Manets, the accumulation of marks corresponds (as it does in a Velasquez or a Rembrandt or a Goya) to an accumulation of observations: it’s a pattern of assertions, qualifications, denials as to what was seen. In the Sickerts, the configurations of marks say nothing about the actual process of seeing: they are mosaics designed to give the paintings a surface vitality. This dissociation between the act of seeing and the act of painting becomes really obvious where the marks are less broad, as in the townscapes and interiors. The way light falls across a naked body on a bed or the facade of a house is registered with the greatest delicacy, but we can conceive of its being registered with marks other than those which are there, as we can’t with a Vuillard, or with a Whistler.

For instance, looking at L’Affaire de Camden Town, we can ask why it is that the modeling of the nude figure is achieved with black hatching, as if the painter had been free to make an arbitrary choice as to how to put down his vision. And the positive proof that Sickert’s handling was largely a matter of caprice, not the inevitable result of what he had to express, lies in the quite random differences between the kinds of marks he used in the different versions of those paintings which he did several times over. So seeing comes first, paint comes after—the draftsman again. Sickert. for all his French training, painted as Legros accused all English artists of painting, by making a drawing and filling it in. And it’s no answer to say that Sickert’s actual method was like that—doing a drawing, transferring it to canvas, painting it without transforming the shapes. The point is that a visual painter is a kind of painter who can’t afford to work like that, more especially if his handling is conspicuous: the way he paints needs to be as empirical as the way he sees, else he risks producing something like a piano sonata scored for symphony orchestra, as Sickert did in the famous Ennui.

And just as the qualities of his handling and design stand apart from his grasp of visual realities, so do they stand apart from his equally accurate grasp of psychological realities. In looking at a Vuillard, we don’t know where his peculiar kind of formal pattern ends and his peculiar kind of feeling-tone begins; in looking at a Vuillardesque Sickert, we begin by seeing it as marvelous colored design and then proceed to disentangle what it is about in human terms—and I’m not talking about the common experience of responding to a picture’s form-and-color before we recognize its subject, because this normally means that the form-and-color is conveying the artist’s feelings about his subject. With the Sickert we go from form-and-color to subject to feeling.

A painting ought to leave us in a state of doubt whether the subject was a pretext for putting down what is on the canvas or whether what is on the canvas is the outcome of an obsession with the subject. With Sickert this sense of necessity is absent. The subject always appears as a pretext for painting a picture: Whistler professed to treat his subjects in this way; Sickert really did. So that when the subject has a human interest, this seems to be gratuitous. And yet the human interest is needed. The architectural paintings, the views of Dieppe and Venice, look precisely like stages on which the actors have not yet appeared. In the Camden Town paintings the actors are brought on. But the human interest they acquire doesn’t go beyond interest: Sickert is intensely curious about them and extremely shrewd about them, but he has no emotional involvement with them or moral point of view about them, which is why the analogy that has been drawn with Lautrec doesn’t go very far. So extreme is his detachment that he sees them as if he were not so much a psychologist as a zoologist—though one fancies that zoologists tend to feel more empathy and more wonder. He knows it all, and he enjoys hearing himself telling us about it. And we, for our part, can feel, yes, people are like that; but this recognition doesn’t make us love or hate them any better.

The greatest interest, in fact, in Sickert’s handling of human themes is in that it makes him show his own hand more and is therefore revealing about himself, his attitude to life. It is an attitude of sophisticated, indifferent curiosity which, when applied to themes like the Camden Town murder, is like watching to see what fascinating and bizarre shapes present themselves when a couple of creatures in a murky pond fight it out to the death. The human element as such merely provides him with a pretext for displaying how much he knows about life: the one thing that passionately obsesses him, that involves his feelings, is the unexpected shapes which forms of life assume. A liking for strange shapes, queer, misshapen shapes, either abstracted or invented, is a very English taste: we find it in painters as different as Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon, William Scott, as we find it in Fuseli and Blake and Stubbs’s baboon and even Turner. Sickert’s particular genius is that his feeling for such shapes is completely unromantic. This is the essence of his uniqueness. The other elements in his art are seasoning.

This is why I believe that the portraits are, throughout his career, the most consistently successful aspect of his work, because in these he tends to indulge his taste for curious shapes without confusing the issue by telling a story and because he allows the shapes seen in a particular head to be the design rather than mounting the shapes he has discovered for himself in the setting of a received type of design. And it is why I believe that his finest works are the best of his late period (found distasteful by many of his devotees, as the selection of the present show at Hirschl and Adler reveals)—the ones made from squared-up photographs in raw scrubbed color with their dry graceless paint sinking into the coarse-grained canvas, works which are nothing but the strangeness of the shapes that the eye sees in nature when the mind, with its knowledge of anatomy and its memories of tactile experience, is not allowed to intervene. Here Sickert accepts himself as he is, declines to dress up his central obsession. And in so doing he achieves images of the most startling and brutal originality and modernity. The portrait of Hugh Walpole, with its one bespectacled eye looking out uncannily from a full face, two thirds of which is a flat pale brown shadow, is in its way hardly less astonishing and hallucinatory than a double head by Picasso.

More remarkable still are the portraits of Sir Alec and Lady Martin which belong to the Tate. Here there is nothing very weird about the shapes. Here Sickert goes beyond a sense of the unexpectedness of the shapes we see to a sense of the very unexpectedness of a human presence. These figures are no more than presences: they haven’t been built up into characters; there is no more of them there on the canvas than they would manifest of themselves if we came into a room and saw them sitting there. No more but also no less: they are very much there—solidly there, and yet they are mere shades of figures, have none of the corporeal substance which we know human figures to have. Degas, when using photographs, was still too much the classic artist not to impose upon the visual image his knowledge of tactile experience; Sickert, painting the Martins from photographs, had the boldness to leave unexplained and made no pretense of explaining those forms which did not explain themselves to the camera’s eye, adding nothing not given to the eye. The portraits simply reflect back at us a sensation of the sitters sitting there, a sensation of their there-ness.

The greys and pale dirty browns which are the colors appropriate for translating a camera’s vision into paint are relieved by flat areas of turquoise—that turquoise which is the very symbol of fin de siècle estheticism, the turquoise of Whistler, of the background of the caricatures of Vanity Fair, of the background of Sickert’s portrait of George Moore. But here the turquoise only serves to accentuate by contrast the chalky pallor of the overall harmony. It is rare for painting to match the pallor of reality. Painting is generally either darker or more colorful, and the mature Velasquez remains almost the only painter whose tones are the tones of nature. The Sickert of the Martin portraits has a Velasquez-like acceptance of what appears to the eye. The figures look as they look in Northern daylight coming through a window. This is life as one would see it if one had no feelings, no thoughts, no moral or esthetic prejudices. And these portraits are like demonstrations that life seen like this is life as it is. They have an empiricism as ruthless, as disenchanted, as raw, as absolute, as the empiricism of Hume. It was Sickert who was only an eye but what an eye!

––David Sylvester