Friday, May 31, 2013

Master Drawings III: Noctes Ambrosianae

After the tranquillity of Turner's Tintern Abbey, Noctes Ambrosianae enters an entirely different realm. Painted in a gloom of darkness, it is a picture of expressionist spectators, whose leering is either a Hogarthian, rebuking portrait of the prurient mob; a modern variation on the demons in the background of a Renaissance-era Hades or the rabble who attack Christ once his life is about to end; or a prescient envisioning of a radical feminist's Male Gaze. Or, it can simply be an audience whose expressions are partly peacefully concentrated and partly mobile in reaction to the dramatic plot on a stage. 'What are they watching?' is a question which seems in some ways beside the point; demeaning and greedy, or absorbing, spectacles are not entirely rare and the artist's mass psychology might apply as well to any.

The painter was Walter Richard Sickert, whose long life evenly bisected itself into the late 19th century and early 20th century, beginning in Munich and ending in Bath. He was very young when his family left Germany and he was educated in England - in King's College School, which has among its alumni Charles Dickens's son, Leopold de Rothschild, Dante Gabriel Rossetti . . . and a band member from Mumford and Sons. He dabbled in acting, then finally launched himself into art, passing through impressionistic and expressionistic phases — in my opinion he tried to be Turner here, Lucian Freud (or is that vice versa) there, possibly Toulouse-Lautrec there, etc., though rarely at a slavish level of imitation — and in general being considered as an avant-gardist.

Writers have conjectured that he was Jack the Ripper. Firstly the voracious speculation on said murderer seems tawdry, and secondly I doubt the plausibility (albeit in the absence of evidence pro or contra) of the Sickert surmise. In Sickert's defence the Wikipedia article turns the suggestions against him on their heads; it describes how his prolific affairs and fascination with crime like Jack the Ripper's seem to have inspired sympathy and indignation at the vulnerability of prostitutes' existences in him, which he also expressed in his work. He was, at any rate, on excellent terms with Winston Churchill; this is perhaps a sign of final respectability.

"Walter Sickert" [Wikipedia]
"King's College School" [Ibid.]
N.B.: Due to copyright I am not posting an illustration of Noctes Ambrosianae here.


IN 1934 Virginia Woolf published Walter Sickert: A Conversation in London.[N.B. In some countries, probably including mine — I'm crossing my fingers that this heavy quoting from it is fair use —, it is not copyright-free yet.] It is not a conversation with Sickert but rather a dinner party conversation between various observers about him; and their reflections delve into his use of colour, his approach to fleshing out characters and their situations, general parallels between the thematically ambitious and socially conscious painter and the thematically ambitious and socially conscious novelist, and class problems.


Illustration: Southwark Fair (1733-34), by William Hogarth
It is intended to be a cheerful scene, at least according to an early 19th century tome in which it appears and which states, "it is sufficient to remark that it presents us with an endless collection of spirited and laughable characters, in which is strikingly portrayed the character of the times." [via Wikimedia Commons]

WOOLF broaches a general synopsis of the conversation with all its shadings of subject into that of the newly opened Sickert exhibition:
"Somebody had met a man whose business it was to explore the wilder parts of the world in search of cactuses, and from him had heard of these insects who are born with the flowers and die when the flowers fade. A hard-headed man, used to roughing it in all parts of the world, yet there was something moving to him in the sight of these little creatures drinking crimson until they became crimson; then flitting on to violet; then to a vivid green, and becoming for the moment the thing they saw—red, green, blue, whatever the colour of the flower might be. At the first breath of winter, he said, when the flowers died, the life went out of them, and you might mistake them as they lay on the grass for shrivelled air-balls. Were we once insects like that, too, one of the diners asked; all eye? Do we still preserve the capacity for drinking, eating, indeed becoming colour furled up in us, waiting proper conditions to develop? For as the rocks hide fossils, so we hide tigers, baboons, and perhaps insects, under our coats and hats. On first entering a picture gallery, whose stillness, warmth and seclusion from the perils of the street reproduce the conditions of the primeval forest, it often seems as if we reverted to the insect stage of our long life.

"On first entering a picture gallery"—there was silence for a moment. Many pictures were being shown in London at that time. There was the famous Holbein; there were pictures by Picasso and Matisse; young English painters were holding an exhibition in Burlington Gardens, and there was a show of Sickert's pictures at Agnews. When I first went into Sickert's show, said one of the diners, I became completely and solely an insect—all eye. I flew from colour to colour, from red to blue, from yellow to green. Colours went spirally through my body lighting a flare as if a rocket fell through the night and lit up greens and browns, grass and trees, and there in the grass a white bird. Colour warmed, thrilled, chafed, burnt, soothed, fed and finally exhausted me. For though the life of colour is a glorious life it is a short one. Soon the eye can hold no more; it shuts itself in sleep, and if the man who looks for cactuses had come by he would only have seen a shrivelled air-ball on a red plush chair."

Illustration: Photo of Old Bond Street, September 2010, by flierfy
The flags of Dolce and Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, et al. underscore the expensive reputation of the district. I perfidiously vandalized the photo for the sake of highlighting the red brick apartment building on the left hand which houses Agnew's Gallery, the now mostly defunct fine art dealer which mounted the Sickert exhibition in Virginia Woolf's day. At a point in time which I haven't been able to uncover it was renumbered from 39 to its current 43 Old Bond St. direction.
[via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Licence]


GRADUALLY the conversation turns to class and the same idea of plebeian virtue which Wordsworth espoused:
"The life of the lower middle class interests him most—of innkeepers, shopkeepers, music-hall actors and actresses. He seems to care little for the life of the aristocracy whether of birth or of intellect. The reason may be that people who inherit beautiful things sit much more loosely to their possessions than those who have bought them off barrows in the street with money earned by their own hands. There is a gusto in the spending of the poor; they are very close to what they possess. Hence the intimacy that seems to exist in Sickert's pictures between his people and their rooms. The bed, the chest of drawers, the one picture and the vase on the mantelpiece are all expressive of the owner. Merely by process of use and fitness the cheap furniture has rubbed its varnish off; the grain shows through; it has the expressive quality that expensive furniture always lacks; one must call it beautiful, though outside the room in which it plays its part it would be hideous in the extreme. Diamonds and Sheraton tables never submit to use like that."
This passage appeared to me a bit precious, particularly since when one is poor one tends to take furniture as it comes. It may be acquired by chance, or generosity, or by scrimping as Woolf suggests, but it rarely involves great aesthetic choice or 'expression of the owner.' It reflects the taste of whomever passed it down to you, or the taste of a mass manufacturer/retailer which underpays its labourers; and I think that the cycle of passing poor taste off on the poor and of receiving demand for poor taste in return is a terribly cynical and very real one. Besides a dividing line between poverty and endurable poverty is constituted by the means to take care of the possessions one already has, and to replace shoddy quality with sturdy quality and superannuated with new. A trivial argument, but perhaps sound in a wider metaphorical sense, too.

To let Wordsworth have a word, here he describes the choices of themes in his Lyrical Ballads (1800):
Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that situation the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

AT THIS point my comparisons with Wordsworth seem much less intuitively inspired:
"He never goes far from the sound of the human voice, from the mobility and idiosyncrasy of the human figure. As a poet, then, we must liken him to the poets who haunt taverns and sea beaches where the fishermen are tumbling their silver catch into wicker baskets. Crabbe, Wordsworth, Cowper are the names that come to mind, the poets who have kept close to the earth, to the house, to the sound of the natural human voice.

"But here the speakers fell silent. Perhaps they were thinking that there is a vast distance between any poem and any picture; and that to compare them stretches words too far. At last, said one of them, we have reached the edge where painting breaks off and takes her way into the silent land. We shall have to set foot there soon, and all our words will fold their wings and sit huddled like rooks on the tops of the trees in winter. But since we love words let us dally for a little on the verge, said the other. Let us hold painting by the hand a moment longer, for though they must part in the end, painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common."
Returning more closely to Sickert's painting:
"And, thinking back over the show, we have to admit that there is a great stretch of silent territory in Sickert's pictures. Consider once more the picture of the music-hall. At first it suggests the husky voice of Marie Lloyd singing a song about the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit; then the song dies away, and we see a scooped-out space filled curiously with the curves of fiddles, bowler hats, and shirt fronts converging into a pattern with a lemon-coloured splash in the centre. It is extraordinarily satisfying. Yet the description is so formal, so superficial, that we can hardly force our lips to frame it; while the emotion is distinct, powerful and satisfactory."
THAT the praise and profundity of interpretation of Sickert are perhaps a little over the top in Woolf's circle, is further hinted at in the closing sentences:
"since he is probably the best painter now living in England, whether he is called Richard or Walter, whether he has all the letters in the alphabet after his name or none, scarcely matters. Upon that they were all agreed."

Walter Sickert: A Conversation [Gutenberg Canada], by Virginia Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1934)
Tip of the hat for Woolf monograph to: description of Sickert's painting Ennui from its Complete Illustrated Catalogue of Paintings.

Preface to The Lyrical Ballads [Wikisource], by William Wordsworth

Agnews and Sons [London Gallery Project — Bowdoin College]
Agnew's Gallery [Ibid.]
Helpful resource for tracking down the art gallery historically and in the present.


Au Moulin Rouge (1892/5), by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
(Oil on canvas, 123 × 140,5 cm, in the Art Institute of Chicago)
[via Wikimedia Commons]

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