Walter Sickert

Ennui, 1914
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.

1914 Ennui 152x112.jpg

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.


[1]Woolf, Virginia quoted inWalter Sickert: the Human Canvas 2004 Abbot Hall Gallery Kendal 62

©blackdog 2010

Dexter Dalwood

Dexter Dalwood
Double Portrait Camden Town, 2013
Oil on Canvas 150 x 220cm
Simon Lee Gallery, London
20 November 2014

I have been looking forward to seeing new work by Dexter Dalwood for some time and my visit to his current show at the Simon Lee Gallery (until 24 January 2015) in London didn’t disappoint.  I was keen to see how his work has changed since his exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2010.  He still uses the collage technique in a similar way, not only using photographic sources, but also fragments or allusions to paintings by other artists.   This collage of ideas generates an image from which he paints an imaginary 'space', but the place in this exhibition is confined to London and the subjects are more strictly personal rather than historical moments of earlier works.

The paintings seem to be about personal memories and associations of past life and times in London.  But as Jorge Luis Borges [1] points out, memories are created in the present and meanings alter slightly with things added and taken away through each recall.  I read the paintings as referencing how this process of retrieval of memory involves thinking about a memory in a new way – rather than just being a faithful record of the past.  They are an assembly of scraps of information that reconstruct Dalwood’s memories morphed through experience rather than images of a static point in time. 

    Double Portrait Camden Town, 2013   Oil on Canvas 150 x 220cm

 

Double Portrait Camden Town, 2013Oil on Canvas 150 x 220cm

Dalwood has often said that you don’t need to get the references to enjoy the work and in a recent interview for Time Out [2] challenged anyone to try.  Whilst that may be the case, I feel that knowing the references helps both understanding and enjoyment of the work and as I like nothing better than a challenge, I thought I would make the attempt for "Double Portrait Camden Town".

Looking at the painting I see two possible references immediately.  The first is that the copper coloured background with the verdigris coloured blobs is a reference to the ‘piss paintings’ of Andy Warhol.  In these works Warhol was paraphrasing Abstract Expressionism in an ironic way by randomly spraying his screen prints with urine such that the copper sulphate paint oxidised.  The painting Dalwood has used is a 1982 portrait of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who had an obsession with Warhol and later collaborated with him. His use of a double image of the portrait is suggestive of a Rorschach ink blot used by psychologists to determine underlying personality and emotional functioning. 

Basquiat,  1982 Black photo-silkscreen over oxidized copper

Basquiat, 1982 Black photo-silkscreen over oxidized copper

The second, if I am correct, has a clearer connection to Camden Town.  The chest of drawers at the bottom of the painting reminded me of the cheap yellow-brown dresser in Walter Sickert’s painting Ennui, 1917.  I initially thought that his Camden Town Murder paintings may be the reference but the only similar dresser I could find in this orientation was in Sickert’s Mornington Crescent Nude, Contre-Jour of 1907.  However, the connection may simply be that the location of Ennui is Sickert’s studio in Granby Street, Camden Town.

Ennui , 1914 Oil on Canvas 152x112cm

Ennui, 1914 Oil on Canvas 152x112cm

In his Time Out interview, Dalwood tells us that the painting is partly “about where Verlaine and Rimbaud lived up in Royal College Street in Camden” [3] so Ennui may well be linked to this intention.  Ennui was a recurring theme running through French literature and poetry of the nineteenth century, both as a subject and a symptom.  It is linked with melancholia; a state of emptiness that the ‘soul’ feels when it is deprived of interest in action, life and the world and featured in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), first published in 1857, 16 years before Verlaine and Rimbaud moved to Camden.

Un Coin de Tabl e, 1872 Oil on Canvas160x225cm

Un Coin de Table, 1872 Oil on Canvas160x225cm

Les Fleurs du mal marked the beginning of Symbolism, where symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet's soul, as a movement in France and was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s.  The use of Symbolism in turn leads us to the two vases of flowers on the dresser.  I cannot place the source of the images for the flowers but the reference to their use may be to the painting Un coin de table, 1872 by Henri Fantin-Latour. It is a portrait of the Parnassus poetry group and shows the men are gathered around the far end of a table after a meal. Those present include: Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, but two figures are missing: Charles Baudelaire, to whom the painting was initially to have been a tribute, who died in 1867 and Albert Mérat who did not want to be painted in the company of the diabolic poets Verlaine and Rimbaud and was reputedly replaced by a bunch of flowers.

Dalwood says he “wanted to make a painting about the younger protagonist and the elder, the idea that someone is mentoring someone else” and I think that the pairings are evoked perfectly albeit differently.  He also draws parallels with the hedonistic openly provocative lifestyle of the two younger men but the connection of Warhol and Basquiat to Camden is more opaque and is probably personal the portrait of Basquiat coinciding with Dalwood’s time at St. Martin’s School of Art in London.  

So the titles provides the clue and the cool treatment leaves room for the viewer’s imagination and interpretation, but I still maintain that the experience of the work will be much richer for those viewers who can make the associations between the subject and the quotations from painting’s history - I just wish I could spot them all.

©blackdog 2014


[1] “Memory changes things. Every time we remember something, after the first time, we’re not remembering the event, but the first memory of the event. Then the experience of the second memory and so on.”

Jorge Luis Borges

[2] “There's no way any one viewer will get all the references. It's not a checklist.”

Dexter Dalwood

[3]They stayed at 8 Great College Street  (now Royal College Street), where a little plaque commemorates their stay between May and July 1873. 

James Cambell