Unreal Nature

January 24, 2017

They Don’t Fuse

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

Sickert only combined them by having them exist side by side.

This is from ‘Sickert’ (1960) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

The tragic flaw in English painting is compromise, unwillingness to be committed to a point of view, a desire to have the best of two or more worlds (especially, in our time, a present and a past world).

sickert_ennui
Walter Sickert, Ennui, 1913

Sickert, however un-English he was in his habit of looking straight at the visual facts and in his easy mastery of picture-making problems, was thoroughly English in his lack of single-mindedness. His paintings do too many things. They are highly visual, with a camera’s indifferent reflection of fortuitous effects of light and a marvelous eye for the totally unexpected shapes which crop up in nature if only one can be mindless enough to see them; they are highly aesthetic, with their impeccable design and harmonisation of tone and color, and their fastidious feathery touch, a moth’s kiss of a touch; they are highly psychological, with a novelist’s eye for specific human tensions.

[line break added] There has never been another painter who managed to combine these particular qualities. And the point is that Sickert only combined them by having them exist side by side. They don’t fuse as the disparate elements in the work of great artists fuse so that each is inconceivable without the others.

To begin with, although he is both a brilliant observer and a consummate designer, his recording of sensations doesn’t fill out the whole design. To see what I mean, compare the Camden Town interiors in the exhibition at the Tate with Vuillard’s The Loaded Table (c. 1908) in the permanent collection. Vuillard has grasped the entire space of the scene and everything in it as a comprehensive whole: sensation has become composition.

[line bread added] The Sickert interiors are aesthetic arrangements within which there are passages of observation which are fresher and keener than Vuillard’s; but only passages — only the nude on the bed, not the nude on the bed in the room. Vuillard translates what he has seen into a painting; Sickert sees like a draughtsman, and then builds a painting round his drawing.

There is the same dissociation between his eye and his handling of paint. The brushwork looks marvelous, only it’s not a vehicle for his sensations but a way of covering the canvas with a lively and lovely surface.

vuillard_ladentable
Edouard Vuillard, The Laden Table, 1908

Sickert, for all his French training, painted as Legros accused all English artists of painting, by making a drawing and filling it in. And it’s no answer to say that Sickert’s actual method was like that — doing a drawing, transferring it to canvas, painting it without transforming the shapes. The point is that a visual painter is a kind of painter who can’t afford to work like that, more especially if his handling is conspicuous: the way he paints needs to be as empirical as the way he sees, else he risks producing something like a piano sonata scored for symphony orchestra.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.

-Julie

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