Walter Sickert, a narrative artist with a taste for the theatrical and claustrophobic, is the subject of a terrific new show at Tate Britain which really shows how his art evolved and how his place as a leading artist of the 20th century is richly deserved.

Jack and Jill, 1937, based on a promotional image for the 1936 mobster film Bullets or Ballots.

I’ve always been a Sickert enthusiast. OK, he doesn’t do pure colour, or even much colour, but his subjects always have a wonderfully intense feel to them. He often used photographs as reference – so many artists do, and why not when you need an interesting image to work from – and, as you can see in the image above, which is based on a promotional still for the mobster film, Bullets or Ballots, he has taken a photograph and rendered it painterly. There’s very little under-drawing and he has plunged into the painting with broad brush strokes creating a very urgent impression of the two protagonists.

But going back in time, here’s a self-portrait, also made from a photograph. The blobs of paint are cohesive and blend beautifully to create a wild, expressive painting. I have a theory that Sickert worked at high speed too. I don’t think you can get this effect from a piece which has been slowly laboured on (but I’d love to talk to more experts about this).

Sickert, born in 1860, started out as an actor. He was clearly drawn to theatre, performers and the audiences who filled music halls and arenas. He follows in a fine tradition of artists such as Hogarth, who loved a bawdy crowd in a theatre, or Degas who loved dancers and musicians and Lautrec who captured unusual angles of performers. These three examples, above, include High Steppers 1938, Theatre de Montmartre 1906 and Bonnet et Claque, Ada Lundberg at the Marylebone Music Hall.

You get a real sense of Being There from the paintings. The angles are curious and, with many of them, you feel as though you are right in the action; Ada Lundberg is singing right in front of you.

I was very drawn to this moody impression of a deserted Maple Street from 1916. It’s just a bit sinister, unpeopled, possibly late at night but that pop of red in the shop window is not only thrilling but quite chilling too. Loved it.

Ah, relationships. I get the feeling that Sickert was not successful in his relationships with women, but perhaps I’m reading these paintings too literally. These three all show couples operating at an emotional distance from each other. There is no tender gaze going on, more a sense that they’re on the brink of separating or just putting up with a claustrophobic situation. His Camden Town Murder range of paintings are unsettling. His nudes are amazing but you do feel that the women depicted have a defeated look about them.

Here’s a really unusual portrait. It’s rare to see teeth in a portrait, or teeth that are the focus of the painting but he’s captured the character of The Blackbird of Paradise in 1892 which was exhibited with the title ‘A Study of Expression’. Again, I see speed of painting and a freedom of style which is very engaging. I think Hogarth would have approved.

And finally, a few sketches which show us that Sickert didn’t only use photographs but liked capturing the action as it unfolded in quick and expressive drawings which inspired the paintings.

Walter Sickert is on at Tate Britain from 28th April to 18th September 2022.

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