November 6, 2007

Crime-obsessed Walter Sickert's paintings of prostitutes

"Walter Sickert: The Camden Town," curated by Barnaby Wright. Institute of Art Gallery, London. Through Jan. 20.

In the Telegraph, Richard Dorment reports: "Reacting both to the slick academic nudes exhibited at the Royal Academy and to the tepid Impressionism of artists associated with the New English Art Club, Sickert developed a gritty, tactile art, which caught the look of people living hand-to-mouth. Applying opaque oil paint with slashing, stabbing brushstrokes, he makes us aware of the weight and texture of coarse skin and flabby stomachs, sagging breasts, and massive thighs. Sickert never allows us to see the faces of these women because to do so would be to grant them an identity, and therefore humanity, that the prostitute's client would not see....Sickert followed with fascination the lurid coverage of the murder and its aftermath – the arrest and then acquittal of Robert Wood, the only suspect. This was the beginning of a series of paintings which we know today as the Camden Town Murders. Once again, each canvas shows a nude woman lying on an iron bed in a sparse room – but now she is joined by a clothed male figure seated beside her or standing above her."

Martin Gayford writes that these are "wonderfully sleazy images, of naked women and clothed men in dingy London rooms. When first exhibited, they were described by The Observer as 'the utter depravity of a particularly unsavoury phase of life.' In that respect these pictures, and Sickert's other Camden Town Nudes, could be said to fall into a grand British tradition. From Hogarth to Tracey Emin, squalor is a mode at which British artists have long excelled."

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