Tate’s Walter Sickert show is a hazy panorama of Victorian dirt and loads

Inspired by the Frenchman’s scenes of the ballet in Paris, Sickert repeatedly portrayed the performers and audience in London’s music halls. Gallery of the Old Bedford (1894-1895) shows a group of male players crammed into the gods at the Bedford Music Hall in Camden, watching the naughty singer Marie Lloyd at work. They include a starstruck teenager who looks down with a mixture of wonder and longing.

In 1905, the prominent French critic Louis Vauxcelles referred to Sickert as “a man … the evening when the curtains catch all light”. He meant it as a compliment, praising a dingy, suffocating quality in the artist’s work – but it also points to a major problem. Sickert’s palette was cloudy and muddy with countless types of brown, but only slightly in color. Which may be fine, even captivating, in a modest show, but not suitable for a retrospective of 150 works. Going from room to room becomes a bustle. There is not a single image to put a spring in steps.

Sickert was the Duke of Darkness. Even his paintings of architectural landmarks, such as the Église Saint-Jacques in Dieppe, were largely executed at sunset. Elsewhere, his habit of blurring the faces of his characters – in some cases just as blurs, thanks to powerful impasto – is hardly viewer-friendly.

The curators also fail to address a long-standing paradox. Before making it in the arts, Sickert was an avid, if not hugely successful, actor. Throughout his life, he loved to dress up and assume different identities: The first room of the exhibition has 10 self-portraits of him doing just that. (One identity he assumed, though never pictorially, was Jack the Ripper: a character that certain crackpots over the years have even claimed was Sickert himself.)

The paradox, then, is how the provider of sharp documentary realism could at the same time embrace such stifling fictional theaters. Sickert’s character, like his art, is quite difficult to distinguish – and this frustrating show is proof.

From Thursday to September 18th. Tickets: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk

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