At the Petit Palais, the piquant enigmas of Walter Sickert

In his youth, Englishman Walter Sickert began a brief acting career. Then he embraced painting by entering Whistler’s studio. His taste for the theater has never left him, however, judging by the many music-hall paintings and self-portraits, as changeable as a chameleon, exhibited today at the Petit Palais. This is one of the charms of this retrospective, the first in France devoted to troublemakers.

We owe its rediscovery to Delphine Lévy, director of Paris Musées and author of a solid monograph on Walter Sickert (1). Died suddenly in 2020, it was she who had imagined this vast Parisian exhibition, today deployed through some 170 paintings, engravings and drawings… The painter indeed maintained close ties with France, starting with Dieppe where he sharpened his brushes in 1885 alongside Whistler. Seized frontally, in a somewhat muted palette, its shops, Butcher’s shop or Laundryevoke decorations, haunted by small characters.

These paintings of music halls are scandalous

A friend of Edgar Degas, whom he met in Paris, Sickert was influenced by his depictions of dancers and musicians, his views from behind the scenes and his bold framing truncating the figures. Back in London, he painted scenes of music halls that caused a scandal. These places of popular entertainment, where alcohol and prostitution mingle, are hated by good Victorian society. With an innate sense of provocation, Walter Sickert enjoys creating confusion. His compositions, focused on the audience, often leave the stage off-screen or evoke it in the reflection of a mirror, blurring all our bearings. Gallery of The Old Mogulwhich shows men from behind flexing their elbows and shoulders to catch a glimpse of a piece of cinema screen in the distance, is one of the first paintings to represent the 7th art.

Defended in Paris by the Durand-Ruel and Bernheim-Jeune galleries, Sickert also paints picturesque views of monuments in Dieppe and Venice, prized by collectors. Always original, he multiplies the variations on the Basilica of Saint Mark, which turns purple or green under an orange sky, as a precursor to pop art! Long before Warhol, Sickert amused himself at the end of his life by painting from current photographs, like this Arrival of Miss Earhart in 1932, where the aviator who had just crossed the English Channel appeared surrounded by the crowd, in the pouring rain.

Creepy portraits of couples

The artist likes to paint women. He devotes himself to paintings of anti-academic nudes which borrow from Degas again, but also from Lautrec, Bonnard. The hairiness of the models is clearly visible. Woven in interlacing touches, the poses are tired or lascivious in cramped rooms, furnished with an iron bed, a chamber pot… « Shocking ! », will say his Puritan compatriots. Half a century later, these paintings will feed the very raw inspiration of the painters of the London school, from Francis Bacon to Lucian Freud, via Frank Auerbach.

Sickert also revisits, in his scathing way, the very English genre of conversation pieces. He paints portraits of couples in which boredom oozes, sometimes even a dull violence, like this naked woman who tries to protect her face under her arm, facing the erect man, very close to her. With a keen sense of publicity, the artist baptized this painting The Camden Town Affairin reference to the murder of a prostitute in his neighborhood, which caused a sensation in the press.

Thirty years earlier, he had already shown himself fascinated by the crimes of Jack the Ripper, even claiming to have painted his portrait. Playing with fire, he would also have written certain letters sent to the police and signed ” Jack the Ripper “, according to expert opinions cited in the catalog (2). After other authors, the famous Patricia Cornwell drew a whole novel from it in which she makes the painter the perfect culprit. However, it is established that Sickert was in France during several of the murders. It’s time for the public to taste his bizarre art, rid of this bad thrill…

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