Oil on Canvas, 152 x 112 cm
Tate Britain, London 2008
The exhibition was of work by the Camden Town Group of painters, who “inspired by the work of van Gogh and Gauguin on the continent, introduced Post-Impressionism to Britain”. This may be the case but in my opinion the biggest influence on Sickert is Degas, using many of his themes such as the music hall and the domestic environment to justify a model’s nudity.
It is interesting that he made full use of titles to add drama to the paintings suggesting a narrative for the work that certainly engaged with life. Ennui is a good example of both his use of titles and domestic interiors as a setting for psychological tension. I have seen this painting several times now and still think it is one of his finest.
The canvas is one of his largest and is based on sketches of two models, Hubby and Marie, that he used for a number of his domestic interior scenes. The painting depicts the couple overlapped in a tight corner of a sitting room, their gazes are diametrically opposed. He looks out of the canvas to the right whereas she looks into the corner of the room on the left. Above her head a painting of a carefree woman ‘looks’ over a balcony into the room. They are both absorbed in themselves.
It can be no accident that there is a bell jar full of stuffed brightly coloured birds on the chest of drawers. The inference is that the woman is both bored and trapped and the title of the painting makes sure we don’t miss the point. It is a mood that has strong melancholic associations and one can imagine the despondent Marie as the protagonist in Alberto Moravia’s 1960’s novel La Noia who states in the prologue that “nothing that I did pleased me or seemed worth doing; furthermore, I was unable to imagine that anything could please me, or that could occupy me in a lasting manner”. This isn’t the melancholy beauty of the symbolists but a mourning of the loss of purpose (or perhaps freedom in this case) such that the melancholic person thus retreats into a state of inactivity, superbly shown by Marie staring into the corner with vacant mindlessness.
In front of her sits Hubby, leaning back in his chair smoking a cigar at a table with a glass of water, staring into what Virginia Woolf described as “the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him” . His body language is of one set in his ways and the viewer perceives that the accumulated weariness is such that the situation isn’t going to change.
The tight interior space and the arbitrary crop of the fireplace and yellow chest of drawers give an almost claustrophobic atmosphere to the room and remind me of a photographic snapshot. The painting is built up of several layers of thinly scumbled opaque paint giving a very lively surface but I don’t think it contributed to the atmosphere of melancholia as it does in his earlier sequence of pictures with the collective title ‘The Camden Town Murder’ where the brushwork is much coarser and totally in keeping with the subject matter.
Woolf, Virginia quoted inWalter Sickert: the Human Canvas 2004 Abbot Hall Gallery Kendal 62