'Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes' Courtauld Gallery, London: 'Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group' Tate Britain, London
Hardy, Pat, British Art Journal
It may have seemed a clash of timetabling to schedule two exhibitions which focused on and featured Walter Sickert (1860-1942). But these two shows were both complementary and enlightening. 'Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes' at the Courtauld Gallery (dosed January 2008) and 'Modern Artists: The Camden Town Group' at Tare Britain (closed May 2008) were explorations of an early 20th-century attempt by British painters to redefine the parameters of their art. As the titles suggest, the Courtauld show presented a microcosm of Sickert's work and his obsession with the female nude, while Tate Britain concentrated on broad contextual and cultural themes relating to artistic identity and modernity in the early 1900s.
A clear artistic argument ran through the Courtauld Gallery show, assisted by the fact that the 17 oils and nine drawings were all in one room and an immediate survey could encompass the whole. The conception of this show rested on the reinterpretation or revisionism of the nude by Sickert and his reaction to decades of stylisation by strict Academic rhetoric. In presenting the evidence to back up this argument, the show was entirely successful, developing the thematic points introduced by 'Exposed: The Victorian Nude' at Tate Britain in 2001.
Three sections divided up the space, 'Biography', 'The Camden Town Murder' and 'Dramatising the Nude, making it clear that the Camden Town subject-matter' was to be examined within the wider scope of Sickert's experimentation with the nude. From around 1902 to 1912-13 we saw a series, in oil and pastel, of female nudes placed on iron or brass bedsteads in dingy fiats with shabby decoration. They are shown either reclining or sitting, sometimes alone, or sometimes with a clothed male figure, usually in muted, dappled light. Angle, colour, perspective, and storyline are all played with as Sickert delves with anatomical intensity into the fleshiness of the female body.
Two points emerge from this series. The first is Sickert's speedy adaptation of the Camden Town byline to develop his own creative purposes. The ideas and motifs created in The Rose Shoe, c1902-04, painted in Neuville outside Dieppe, were easily transported to North London in 1905, translated into paint in Le Lit de Cuivre, c1906 and marvellously handled in La Hollandaise, c1906. But the relevance of a painting's title became evident when Sickert, by 1907, began using London locations, although care must be taken with Sickert's titles: the exhibition made it clear that he used them interchangeably.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The experimentation is highlighted in two paintings, Mornington Crescent Nude 1907 (cat. 11) and Mornington Crescent Nude, 1907 (cat. 12). The former demonstrated an absorption with paint and with the beauty of the female form. Soft light falls on a slim figure, a real figure, shown sleeping soundly, not even having had time to unpin her hair, on a lumpy white feather eiderdown and mattress. Tenderness pervades this image but the truncated legs jar and unsettle in the same way as the turned back of the nude in the second painting causes the narrative to pause and destabilise.
The second point to emerge from this exhibition related to the artistic narrative of these paintings, revealed to be theatrical painterly mediations on topical subject-matter readily exploited to great commercial effect. How much Sickert intended his paintings to be associated with the notorious Camden Town murder in 1907 murder is still debated laboriously, for instance the position of the wash-stand and shoes are pored over to find clues to Sickert's engagement with the incident.
This confrontation with the remaking and readjustment of the real relies on a multi-layered process and was demonstrated, although not always explained, in the second exhibition, 'Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group'. By incorporating Sickert's vision within the Camden Town Group it became clear just how striking and interesting was Sickert's development. …