Friday, 9 October 2015

'SICKERT IN DIEPPE: THE ART OF MODERN LIFE'

(Yep, another art exhibiton reviewed after it closes!)


For Foreign Shores

An accessible destination even in Sickert's day, Dieppe was once a fashionable resort – a mecca for holiday-makers and a haven for expats. The artist first visited it as a child, made it his honeymoon destination in 1885 and lived there from 1895. But more, the show boldly claims that “it was in Dieppe that Sickert formulated some of his most important painterly techniques and pictorial strategies”. As if it was as much a rosebud to him as Tahiti was for Gauguin.

His initial influence, however, was Whistler – to whom he was even apprenticed. An artist who, in all honesty, I know even less than usual about. The show cites 'La Plag, Dieppe' (c. 1885, below) as one of these early works. The sea, very often, is simply a setting for a painting – a backdrop for the actual subject, or at least we see human figures in interaction with it. Check out for example Monet's 'Jardin a Sainte-Addresse'. Human figures fill the foreground, the sea but one section of the perspective, and even then is shown busy with boats. Sickert, we're told, mixed with the fishermen and even learnt their local dialect. But the subject of his sea paintings is very much the sea itself. All else arranges around it, both boats and human figures pushed to its periphery. The different shades of the sea become the work, in a painting only one step away from a tone poem. (Our pal Wikipedia cites Whistler as a proponent of Tonalism.)


The story picks up as we're told “it was in Dieppe that Sickert became affiliated with French Impressionism”. Which makes sense. At that time Impressionist art didn't just feel frightfully modern and continentally chic. Fidelity to subject, then a new notion for an artist, tied their art to French soil. A French way of looking at things combined with a way of looking at France.

Meeting Degas in 1883, he fell under his influence and began to turn to “direct painting” of more naturalistic settings. (Perhaps remarkable in itself, for Degas was notorious for being truculent and reclusive.) 'Dieppe Harbour' (c. 1902, below) is perhaps a good example. The sea is no longer a central colour field but a murky depth lying beneath a deep harbour wall - at the base of a tall painting. It's no longer vivid and shimmering but built up by thick dabs of grey and deep green. The whole painting characteristically displays what the show calls a “low tonal key”. His palette seems simultaneously deep and muted – frequently returning to ruddy browns, burnt oranges and cold greys. Whistler's disinterest in human figures is retained, however - we see the hotel on harbour-front but the figures before it are dwarfed.


A Nation At Unease With Itself

Let's take the next two pictures together...

'The Fair At Night' (1902/03, below) has the recognised Impressionist sense of verite. We're not outside the picture plane dispassionately peering in, we're made to feel we're there on that street with that bustling crowd. The awning and buildings are angled and cropped, giving a sense of immediacy rather than a detached and calm composition. And yet at the same time the crowd's collective back is to us - we've no way of joining it. This is a paradox which will come back again and again in Sickert's work.


While 'L'Hotel Royal Dieppe' (1894, up top) has the strangest of colour schemes. Beneath an eerily pink-purple sky sits a strangely green-hued hotel, in front of which flags hang rather than flutter. The figures on the lawn, as a contrast to the barely individuated crowd above, stand isolated. The two most foregrounded, in nearly the only use of white in the painting, look almost ghostly. This was painted before Sickert was living in Dieppe. But still it has a haunting, end-of-season feeling. The viewer's mind travels from the end of a day, the point where objects seem to radiate luminosity rather than have solidity, to the end of the season. And quite possibly the end of an era.

Its worth considering how unlike the popular image of Impressionism these works are. They're some way from the verdant gardens or promenading dandies depicted in bright, vibrant colours. How much of this is accurate and how much it's merely a popular stereotype will have to wait for later. (And we should remember Degas did not necessarily fit the model, to the point where he took umbrage at being described as an Impressionist at all.) But its this popular view of the school against which Sickert's works would have been seen. And had he stuck to a more orthodox take, held to its themes and tone, he would have most likely been a mere copyist. Perhaps an accomplished one, but still a footnote in art history.

We should remember Impressionism had arisen thirty years earlier, and society had not stood still in that time. The show makes much of Sickert's associating with 'decadent' artists, including during his stay in Dieppe - such as Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons. As curator Katy Norris puts it in the Pallant House magazine: “His strange and unsettling imagery was paralleled in the work of decadent writers and illustrators that typified the fatalistic attitude of the fin de siecle”.

As a catch-all name for a social trend rather than a movement which emerged clutching a densely worded manifesto, the fin de siecle isn't something that could be precisely defined. The Tate, however, call it “an umbrella term” which “expresses an apocalyptic sense of the end of a phase of civilisation.”

Society had been transformed in the previous decades to a then-unparalleled degree. It had been possible to witness and believe in uninterrupted linear progress. Now people were starting to ask, perhaps too late, where we were being taken. And many feared that social harmony had been left behind, that we had made ourselves degenerate. A rootless cosmopolitanism and a disconnected sense of self-absorption seemed to go together in making up the modern mind, a sense of being everywhere and noplace.

And bohemian artists, with their introspection, with their dangerously new ways of looking at things, were perhaps the lightning rod for this trend. Wikipedia cites Munch's 'The Scream' as “a prominent cultural symbol of the fin de siecle era”. Though there are two other (semi-silhouetted) figures in his picture they're distant, removed from the screamer. It's not a painting conveying what the screamer might be screaming about, its subject is given in its title – the scream, the subjective experience of the artist. Sickert takes up similar themes but essentially faces the other way - he paints not the outsider artist but society in the act of not cohering. To misquote John Major, a nation at unease with itself. So,with 'The Fair At Night', we're there with the crowd on the street, yet at the same time removed from them.

We should remember that at this point, England still regarded Impressionism as dangerously modern. (France in general was seen as the centre of the wild and the scandalous.) So works such as these would have seemed both commentaries on and examples of this 'decadence', records of their own condition. (Disclaimer: Sickert was also exhibited in France at this time. Whether he'd have been seen in a similar way in the home of Impressionism will have to stay an open question.)

Back to Churches

Perhaps counter-intuitively for a 'decadent' artist one of Sickert's main subjects was the churches of Dieppe. He returned to paint them again and again, at different times of day and under different lighting conditions. Once more this shows an Impressionist influence, for Monet had repeatedly painted Rouen Cathedral in a similar fashion. (Though Sickert's motives here may have been part financial, he called Dieppe his “only goldmine”.)


In 'La Rue Piquet' (1900, above) the angle of the view part-obscures the Church while the long shadows suggest a particular time of day. The indistinct, suggested figures may well have originated from sketch, where he started filling in the horse and cart only to see them driven away. However his decision to then keep them in (while moving them off-centre from the original drawing) gives the work a ghostly sense, as if they are fleeting and impermanent against the solid stone. The sky's confinement to a small snatch of grey at the upper left adds to the architecture's imposing dominance.


In 'Rue de la Boucherie with St. Jacques' (c. 1902, above) the colourful shop awnings suggest at human life. Yet the square before them is devoid of activity, its literally in the shade of the Church. The expanse of browns is as uninhabited, as much a space in it's own right, as the sea in 'La Plag, Dieppe'. In these works, it's the Impressionist sense of verite which is both present and contrasted. The light and shadows fix the works to a distinct time of day, yet there's also a sense of timelessness. The result is quite Gothic. The churches are never isolated from the town, as if they're being made the subject of study. Yet at the same time they dominate the town, often towering over it.

The show describes these works as “a conversation between the mysterious and the commonplace”. Yet is it more of an awkward silence? One way of reading them would be to see the human activity as forever milling around the churches, but never finding their way in. They’re almost akin to the way Paul Nash and others painted megaliths, something irrefutably present on the landscape yet at the same time inscrutably strange.


Not all of Sickert's town studies are in this style, however. For example 'The Basket Shop, Rue St. Jean, Dieppe' (1911/2, above) shows the Impressionist luminosity in full force, and is almost a bookend to 'La Rue Piquet' - its street running in the opposite direction. There's even another cart. And this time the street does not run up against an imposing church but opens to a bright skyscape, with a telegraph pole pointing upwards. The feeling is one of forward motion, as if we're being pulled into the painting., Human figures, however, are still de-emphasised. Similarly, in 'Une Dieppoise' (1900) the titular figure is foregrounded but then sheathed in shadow to the point she's almost silhouetted.

New Horizons

If there was any doubt over the show's main theme, that Dieppe was Sickert's muse, it's confirmed by the next section. For its not set in Dieppe at all and is by some margin the weakest in the show. In 1912 he bought a house in Envermeu, some miles inland and took to landscapes. Mostly these show how social subjects were his forte. The best of them is 'Dieppe Races' (1920/6, below).


While the horses are an active blur, one caught by the edge of the frame, they're kept to the lower quarter of the composition. The audience are not raked but placed directly behind them, visible only in the gaps between the racers. Over half of the picture becomes graduations of skyscape, similar to the seascape of 'La Plage'. Nature takes the place of the churches in the earlier pictures, with human activity a blurry and transient presence before it.

The Twilight Life (Company Loves Misery)

Following the death of his wife in 1920, Sickert was back in Dieppe. Though he only spent a further two years in the town before returning to London, its this brief period which may well yield the best material in the show. The nearest comparison from the already-seen works would be 'The Fair At Night'. However, Sickert retreated not just to Dieppe but from expansive landscapes to interiors.


In 'Chez Varnet' (1925, above) the three foreground figures are all in profile, the one furthest left unceremoniously half-chopped by the edge of the frame. They look neither at us nor one another but off, to something we can't see. While they look present, there in front of us, its almost impossible to actually focus on them. Sickert seems more interested in gesture and placement than what they might actually look like.

Like his mentor Degas, Sickert is less contrasting the mysterious with the everyday than finding the mysterious in the everyday. He paints not grand events but 'normal' scenes. Yet by virtue of them being paintings, we expect his paintings to be explicable, poses and objects arranged in such as way as to convey a meaning. When they don't the normal becomes compelling inscrutable. Every now and again, you may be in a pub or cafe and suddenly become fixated on people on another table – trying to discern their relationships from what little you see of their interactions. 'Chez Varnet' gives this sense. The exhibition notes find an insightful quote from Virginia Wolfe: “The figures are motionless, of course, but each has been seized in a moment of crisis; it is difficult to look at them and not to invent a plot, to hear what they are saying.”


The bright light through the windows, however, makes this an unusual work for the period. To the interior he normally adds the nocturnal. Take for example the artificial light of Baccarat – The Fur Cape' (1920, above). It's suggested Sickert was obliged not to show the gamblers' faces by their unwillingness to be witnessed, engaging as they were in so twilight an activity. If so, he made a less a virtue of necessity than made it the subject of the painting. With the great block of the back of the chair, the titular cape and wide-brimmed hat, Sickert mixes verite with anonymity. While there's little open space the image is less claustrophobic than entangled. The lines of composition close in on one another, leaving no room for the viewer. It's a table without a place for us.


'Au Cafe Concert, Vernet's Dance Hall' (1920, above) does centre it's composition on the singer, and shows her addressing the crowd open-armed. But the line of tables that lead to her are cluttered with the night's detritus to the point they make a veritable obstacle course. Not least amongst this is the jutting elbow of a slouched figure, who manages to have his back to us while paying no attention to her. Night life is not only shown as something seedy but strangely isolating, the promise to get out of yourself and meet people unfulfilled, everyone trapped in their own reverie.

Wikipedia is unusually eloquent on the theme:For his music hall subjects, Sickert often chose complex and ambiguous points of view, so that the spatial relationship between the audience, performer and orchestra becomes confused, as figures gesture into space and others are reflected in mirrors. The isolated rhetorical gestures of singers and actors seem to reach out to no-one in particular, and audience members are portrayed stretching and peering to see things that lie beyond the visible space. This theme of confused or failed communication between people appears frequently in his art.” Again in the Pallant House magazine, Katy Norris suggests mourning for his wife acting as Sickert's spur for these works. There seems some evidence, however, the earliest of them were planned before this.


'L'Amoire A Glace' (1921/4, above) translates similar themes to a domestic setting. The woman is placed beside, not in front of, a mirror. Hands clasped in her lap, she looks almost like an attendant. Her face is towards us but, almost in shadow, is indistinct and barely delineated. This cropping allows the mirror to dominate the frame, even suggests the room is arranged around it, yet neither do we really see it reflect anything. After thousands of paintings of a woman looking into a mirror, Sickert paints us a mirror.

We saw earlier that a recurring theme, both of Sickert’s art and his era, was self-absorption. And, in a scene boiled down to a woman and a mirror, we have the theme in its purest form. But it’s a thwarted self-absorption, someone not connecting even with themself. The central yet removed mirror is an echo of the imposing church walls we saw earlier. (And if there seems a detectable taste of misogyny to all this women-and-mirrors business, then you ain't seen nothing yet.)

An attentive disciple of Degas, Sickert was adept at something we don't commonly associate with Impressionism - but probably should. He could create apparently straightforward-looking works which have an indefinable, beguiling quality to them. He took this further by playing elements against one another. This gives many of this works a strangely unsettling quality. We're invited into them at the same time we can't feel at home within them. And this quality is intensified by the difficulty the viewer has in figuring out just how they feel that way. You’re not even completely sure that something is wrong, you just can’t shake the nagging sense that all might be not quite right.

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