Can This Really Be the Tale of Two Cities? Tate Britain's Latest Blockbuster Aims to Show the Connections between Degas, Sickert, Toulouse-Lautrec, and British and French Painting of the Late 19th Century - but Its Message Is Hopelessly Confused

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

FOR more than half a century I have been convinced that the histories of French and British art during the years in which Impressionism and Post-Impressionism flourished - that is from 1874 to 1914 - have been absurdly but enduringly distorted by myth and prejudice. In France, the triumph of Manet, Monet and Cezanne has, with a mythology of romantic tales of adultery, syphilis, alcohol addiction, abject poverty, critical rejection and Van Gogh's ear and suicide, utterly eclipsed all recollection of the continuing traditions there of academic Salon painting; and in Britain the Salon painting, that was for so long the traditional offering of a powerful and influential Royal Academy, blinded us to the lively and quite obvious connections between a small legion of British artists, informally led by Sickert and Philip Wilson Steer, and contemporary French painting.

Who were the "blinded us"? How did the myth of a British School of painting, isolated from the Continent and oblivious of what was happening in France, come into being and last so long? How is it that in a recent utterance Sir Nicholas Serota himself, great tyrant of the Tates, gave credence to the old notion that the Impressionists were despised and rejected even in their own country and died in destitution? Half a century ago, when I gave lectures at the Tate (they would not ask me now), I did my damnedest to counter the belief in a high road for the French and a low road for the British, for even in those impoverished days there were pictures enough permanently on view in the old Millbank gallery to make the simple point that British painters either side of 1900 had been profoundly and profitably influenced by every aspect of Impressionism and its successor movements. But the old enemy, the critic Roger Fry, still influential now, had, in 1934, the year of his death, fulminated against the literary foundations of so much British art and for ever damned it with "No, let us recognise straight away that ours is a minor school". This was a betrayal, for Fry, the Englishman who had in 1906 (ridiculously late) "discovered" Cezanne, and been, in 1910, the organiser of the seminal London exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, had in 1912 mounted its successor, the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, in which he seemed to preach that Vanessa Bell, Stanley Spencer, Duncan Grant, Eric Gill, Spencer Gore and Fry himself (an amateur painter) could be matched with Picasso and Matisse. It was a brave, foolish and, no doubt, patriotic idea, but where, if he wanted it to carry weight, were Sickert and Wilson Steer, far more significant British painters of whose particular and peculiar post-impressionisms Fry was quite certainly not unaware?

Every student at the Courtauld Institute in my young day knew of them and their French connections - indeed, one of my immediate contemporaries has ever since devoted her academic life to Sickert, and another his to Steer, yet the myth persists of a great aesthetic gulf separating the British from the French, and so too the subsidiary myth of Sickert as a minor and very English painter. That Tate Britain should now mount an exhibition devoted to Sickert in the context of Degas, who was his friend and mentor, much admired as "perhaps one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen" (an assertion unwisely improved as a chapter heading in the catalogue with the more positive "The greatest artist the world has ever seen"), though neither pegged to a centenary nor much a matter of particular moment, is welcome as an official attempt by the nation's gallery of British art to make us see something of a unity and interchange between the art worlds of London and Paris in the decades separating the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

It is my belief that this last, a war that left Britain and France economically exhausted, their currencies devalued, burdened with unemployment and industrial unrest, troubled by the growth of international Fascism and Communism and mutually mistrustful, had a profound influence on the arts of both nations and drove them apart. …