Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Look now

To the Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday to see Sickert in Venice. Walter Sickert (1860-1942) made three long trips to Venice in 1895-96, 1900 and 1901. The captioning explains that he repeatedly painted the famous bits – St Mark's Basilica, the Rialto Bridge etc. – because he thought they might sell.

Yet, as Richard Dorment noted in the Telegraph, it's immediately reminiscent of Monet's haystacks or Rouen Cathedral, where the same subject is painted again and again with different light effects and mood.
“But unlike Monet, after painting the whole building, Sickert then zooms in like a film director to make dramatic close-up studies of details like the golden horses on the roof.”

Richard Dorment, “Sickert in Venice at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – review”, The Telegraph, 20 April 2009.

I think there's a more telling influence on these extreme and cropped close-ups: Sicket is aping (and may well have been reliant on) photographs. The immediacy of the photograph had a huge impact on painting. First, there was no longer a need to strive so hard to capture a perfect image; painters were free to explore mood and sensation – the impression left by a scene.

Photography also made painters break up the strictness of composition. In the old days if you were painting a picture of a house, you'd put the house centrally in the frame, maybe foregrounded by its owner, maybe showing off the grounds. Sickert has images of the Basilica and other Venetian buildings that might have been snapped on a phone. It's not just (as Dorment suggests) that he's focused on particular architectural details. Instead, not getting the whole building into the frame makes it seem larger, more looming.

Sickert clearly used photographs as the basis of many of his pictures. The captions explain where he produced multiple outlines of a picture using carbon paper, working them up in paint so they had different lighting and effects. The exhibition shows a number of his works in progress – sketches, canvases divided into grids, scribbled notes and observations.

The Dr was fascinated by a portrait of Israel Zangwill, author of the novel “Children of the Ghetto” (1892), and later the play “The Melting Pot” (1908), with Zangwell in front of the Venetian ghetto. The background seems based on another small picture in the exhibition,
“so thinly painted on its panel that the wood-grain shows through, depicting the built-up warren of Venice’s old Ghetto. Sickert orients the facade of the buildings parallel to the picture-plane — something he does quite frequently, actually — but here, the lack of ornament and superabundance of windows creates a strange, grid-like pattern, scraped out in the thinnest layers of golds and bronzes. It’s a magical little painting. If it didn’t so clearly recall this distinctive Venice neighbourhood, it could easily be mistaken for an abstract composition, and a strong one at that. All of which goes some way towards explaining why the best of these paintings have the quality they do. Even at his moodiest or most workmanlike, Sickert rarely ignored the imperatives of formal persuasiveness. There are moments when one can almost feel the artist losing himself in the abstract challenges thrown up by colour and form, treated as ends in themselves.”

Fugitive Ink, “‘Sickert in Venice’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery”, 5 May 2009.

Of course there weren't postcards of either the ghetto or Zangwill's portrait.

I was also surprised by his models – the Venetian prostitutes, La Giuseppina and La Carolina. They're more often than not clothed, lounging about talking, doing nothing very provocative. There's a fascination with their madly piled-up hair, but also with them doing humdrum, ordinary things like sitting about and chatting. They're prostitutes and yet they're not doing anything rude (well, sometimes they're sat fully clothed on a bed); they're exotically Italian and yet not doing anything wild.


Bunny Smedley said...

While I entirely share your outrage at the wretchedness of the postcard selection, let's also find time to deplore the fact that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art - owner, apparently, of the Zangwill portrait - hasn't seen fit to put an image of it online. We are, after all, talking about a national collection, with a public service and education remit. Arresting portrait, fascinating man, but no access unless you're able to see it in person. What's that all about?

Thanks, anyway, for the link. I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts about this deeply interesting exhibition.

0tralala said...

Ooh, you're right: no image online. Not even a low-res one.

(I can understand why they wouldn't post a high-res one: that's something you make money from.)