Walter Sickert review – serial killer, fantasy or self-hatred? This hell’s ingenious show leaves only questions | Art

Wlike Walter Sickert, the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper? This ugly realistic painter has been faked for the Whitechapel murders by ripperologists, including Patricia Cornwell. But I did not expect to find damning evidence in a serious investigation of his work at Tate Britain. Not that they flaunt it. But when I got to the last essay in the beautiful catalog, my jaw dropped.

In 1888, this actor and artist – who was born in Munich in 1860 and moved to Britain as a child – appears to have written a series of letters to the police in which he claimed to be the killer. He used his drawing skills for macabre use in these missives, drawing caricatures of brutal male faces, sketches of men with knives standing over women’s bodies.

That does not mean he was actually the serial killer, reads the sensational essay by Anna Gruetzner Robins. There were many such letters. But the letters with artistic touches – including the use of a cartoonist’s pen, even a woodcut – really seem to be by Sickert. In 2002, Tate’s conservation department got the respected paper analyst Peter Bower to compare Sickert’s correspondence with some of the Ripper letters. His research “has conclusively shown that the paper with three letters written by Sickert in 1890 matches two Jack the Ripper letters of October 1888”.

A killer's job?  La Hollandaise by Walter Sickert at Tate Britain.
A killer’s job? La Hollandaise by Walter Sickert at Tate Britain. Photo: Seraphina Neville / Tate

Are you sitting comfortably? You will not be. There is solid evidence that even though Sickert was not the killer, he may have believed or fantasized that he was. He even made a painting of his own apartment and called it Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, which was recently shown at the Walker Art Gallery’s Sickert exhibition.

And the centerpiece of this exhibition is an unlimited display of Sickert’s nude photos. Against the gallery’s dark walls, in violent, yet subtle lighting, the women are laid out. Their bodies are scattered, exhibited, arranged, “like a patient betrayed on a table,” to quote TS Eliot. One model is lying with her legs hanging over the bed, arms outstretched. She could be the dead Christ. Another washes herself, but as she bends in a doorway we can not see her head, only her naked body.

Sickerts The Juvenile Lead, 1908.
Consumed with guilt? Sickerts The Juvenile Lead, 1908. Photo: Southampton City Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

L’Affaire de Camden Town takes it to another level. In this painting from 1909, a man stands over an inert female form on a bed. But it’s worse than that. She is not so much a cohesive figure as a collection of ruddy, moist forms like meat in a butcher window. The male spectator could be a killer considering his craft – which is exactly what Sickert’s title suggests. For this is one of a series of paintings alluding to the murder of Emily Elizabeth Dimmock in Camden, London, in 1907. Sickert was fascinated by this murder. If he is really responsible for sketches of a man with a knife over a woman’s body in the Ripper letters of 1888, his Camden Town Murder paintings eerily reproduce them.

I The Camden Town Murder, or What Shall We Do for the Rent? the man sits despairing while the naked on the iron bed has his face turned away from us. She may be crying or he may have just throttled her. The stiffness of her arm and awkwardly placed hand suggest the latter. In a drawing called Persuasion, a bald, bearded man looks to suffocate a woman before our eyes.

These are truly shocking images, more than a century after. Yet they are connected to some of the greatest modern art that the exhibition shows. Sickert was heavily influenced by Degas and in turn influenced Lucian Freud – there are nude photos here of both for comparison.

The most horrible aspects of Sickert’s nude pictures are also their artistic strength. He rejects the false academic nudity for raw naked reality – he even wrote an essay explaining this aesthetic. That is why he portrays women, perhaps more literally than any artist, as objects: because the body is an object, it is flesh. Francis Bacon would agree with him.

Unless this is the art of a stone-cold psychopath. Whoever he was, Sickert liked to keep people guessing. A room of self-portraits occupies his ever-changing poses, sometimes a bluff comedian, others a haunted man. In a 1930s self-portrait, he copies a photograph of himself resembling a clapped music hall entertainer tapping the ground with a stick as he mingles down the street. Am I that clown? He asks.

The most violent and frightening images are in Sickert’s paintings of music halls. These canvases retain a lost form of popular entertainment, portraying its stars and architecture, audience and atmosphere – but one can hardly call them festive. In one of the earliest, Bonnet et Claque: Ada Lundberg in Marylebone Music Hall, painted around 1887, a singer opens her mouth in full throat. But she is crowded with some of the most horrible faces imaginable. A young man with bowler hats has empty black eyes and a mouth that hangs idiotic, animalistic, open. The most eerie has feeble-minded, bloodshot eyes, a nose collapsed into a skull-like opening, and a piece of a grinning mouth that appears to have been cut into his flesh with a razor.

PS Wings in the OP Mirror, c 1888–89.
PS Wings in the OP Mirror, c 1888–89. Photographer: Museum / Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen

If I had to examine Sickert’s sick mind, I would start here – what is this death carnival? Maybe it’s about syphilis. Sickert was not the only fine de siecle artist obsessed with this disease.

I can seem to judge Sickert. In fact, he seems to have handed down a cruel sentence against himself. If he fantasized, he was Jack the Ripper and Camden Town Murderer, suggesting he was engrossed in guilt. He was a man of his time, confused about sex, confused about women. In his music hall, all men are monsters. But the women on stage alone, trapped in the eerie light, admired by deer, are vulnerable and he wants to protect them. Maybe it was the male neck he wanted to cut across – and his own image that he mustered. In a late self-portrait as a modern Lazarus, he has, after being ill, obliterated his features with a splash of gray paint.

This brilliant exhibition of hell takes you to a place beyond simple moral or political truth. Whatever Sickert was, he was the only British artist of his time who could be as powerful as Munch, Van Gogh or Otto Dix. In the end, a young man who thought he was Jack the Ripper is someone you should feel sorry for. Unless he was, of course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *