Sickert: A Life in Art review – the master of malevolence tackles the jugular | Art

Oalter Sickert was not Jack the Ripper. Let’s be clear from the start. Apart from anything else, the Walker Art Gallery points out in its thrilling journey into the world of this menacing artist, he was abroad for much of 1888 when a series of working-class women were murdered in and near Whitechapel, East London.

Except that right next to the wall text saying that hangs a painting that Sickert has given the title Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom – and it depicts the artist’s own apartment. Venetian blinds let in a faint ghost of daylight that animates a pink bedspread, as if the bed is haunted by a memory of flesh. The creamy pigment suggests broken skin.

The painting dates from 1905-1907. Sickert said his landlady told him that in 1881 she had rented the room from a man she believed to be the Ripper. But this bit of urban folklore hardly explains the picture. Without getting into the realms of conspiracy theory, the spooky and sultry way he paints the play at the very least confesses that Sickert had a morbid and oddly personal interest in crimes. It gives the piece a mysterious, suggestive blur: is it a woman’s head forming in the shadows?

A barely restrained sexuality… A dancer in a green dress, 1916 by Walter Richard Sickert. Photograph: Courtesy of British Council Collection

Maybe I was seeing things because I was already confused by Sickert’s subtle and dark pictorial spells. He can find clues of evil anywhere. This bewildering man who was born in Munich in 1860, emigrated to Britain as a child and became one of our greatest and weirdest artists, comes across in this excellent show as even stranger than I thought. It is in this disturbing gaze that lies its modernity.

Venice, one might think, is a downright charming subject. Yet when Sickert began visiting it in the 1890s, he painted it like an architectural morgue, in a sultry but cruel brushstroke that makes its beauty look like hollow theatrical scenery. Victorian art critic John Ruskin praised Venice as a stone testimony to the communal spirit of medieval Christianity. Sickert takes that same architecture and makes it appalling: a God-forsaken Venice. Then he paid Venetian sex workers to pose for him in his hotel room. A woman clings to the bedpost as she has been told, her face twisted and one eye staring. She is fully clothed but the sense of coercive sexuality is creepy.

If Sickert’s Venice is frightening, his London is malevolent. In the music halls he began to paint in the 1880s, gilded sculptures of classical gods sparkle with splendid architectural fantasies. But we know that everything is cardboard. It was when Sickert painted these Victorian nightlife spots that he came to some grim conclusions about human beings.

The sketches he made reveal how he surreptitiously observed onlookers, caricaturing them as they laughed or ogled. And we know they look at women. Sickert’s drawings and paintings oscillate between audience scenes and young women singing on a large empty stage. Her 1892 painting Minnie Cunningham shows her fierce red dress and hat, but her face is engulfed in night. The sketches show her features in close-up and she looks miserable.

Sickert unleashes his cynicism on the male audience. In his canvas Gallery of the Old Bedford, made in 1894-1895, a crowd in bowler hats witnesses a seemingly exciting act. They sway like excited monkeys, hanging from the front of the upper balcony, their faces masked with meat. In another scene, the faces are even more monstrously chaotic. When you look closer, they dissolve into random specks of pigment.

Old Bedford.
“Like excited monkeys, their faces masked with meat”… The Old Bedford. Photography: Courtesy Walker Art Gallery

Sickert’s London nightlife scenes are inspired by the cafe paintings of the French Impressionists, especially his favourite, Degas. Their paintings find their beauty in modern life. Even when Degas portrayed a solitary absinthe drinker, she was pretty and he liked the green of absinthe. Sickert sees something really ugly in the English music hall – a wild, barely contained sexuality.

London in 1900 was the richest and most powerful city in the world, center of a global empire. For Sickert, it’s a Darwinian cesspool. Men are barely evolved from apes. They stare dumbly at a beauty they just want to grab and crush.

Which brings us to his nudes. By the time Sickert was painting Jack the Ripper’s bedroom, he was beginning to paint naked women in cheap London bedrooms. The criminal edge continued. In 1907 Emily Dimmock was murdered, apparently by a client, in Camden Town. Sickert had recently moved to the area and in 1908 began painting nudes that explicitly allude to this crime. The Camden Town murder or what do we do to pay the rent? shows a man seated beside the possibly lifeless body of a woman. The artist himself clumsily compares voyeurism and violence, painting and murder.

Other nudes painted by Sickert in Camden bedrooms are equally uneasy. Mornington Crescent Nude from 1907 allows us to look through an open doorway at a woman waiting on a bed. You can see her breasts and her hips in the light filtered through a blind – but her face is dark, her expression unreadable. The Dutchwoman, painted in 1906, has her legs towards us, her breasts exposed, but again her face is lost – in fact there is a black hole where her nose should be. As in a skull.

The Walker’s tremendous exposition goes right up to the jugular of Sickert’s tense, stressful art – the crazed nighttime crowds and unsettling nudes. To understand him, you have to see him not in the distinguished salon of British Victorian and Edwardian art, but in the larger realities of his time. His Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud saw civilization as a thin veil over the sexual desires and obsessions that drive humanity. Sickert’s paintings of music halls assert something similar. Her nudes explore her own psyche. He does this not only to shock but to liberate art from dishonesty. These are not polished paintings, these are sordid confessions. Walter Sickert’s modernism is not pretty. But that’s life.