Wednesday, 13 March 2019

English Echoes: The Haunted Image World of Walter Richard Sickert (part2)

I, who would wish to feel close over me the protective waves of the ordinary, catch with the tail of my eye some far horizon.
-        Virginia Woolf, The Waves

The real heir of the consciously ‘painterly-picturely’ Daumier, and the Sickert of the Echoes and the music halls, is Jack Butler Yeats (brother of the poet W.B.). 

Yeats was on friendly terms with Sickert (who admired the younger artists’ early pictures of worker’s pubs and boxing rings, but who also compared Yeats’ painting favourably with a novelist’s ability to fuse landscape/figure/action, pictorially and psychologically, going so far as to single him out as the leading example for young painters in a lecture of 1924) and with Samuel Beckett (who declared the only suitable response to Yeats’ painting to ‘bow, wonder-struck’). Commentary on Yeats’ mature painting rarely neglects the Beckett connection, sometimes making superficial or generalizing comparisons- the Two Travellers (17.) and Waiting for Godot- yet there are undeniable congruencies in their respective approaches to the self-conscious, self-dissolving treatment of subject and form.


For Yeats, the picture was always an ‘event’, a performance, which we watch perpetually come into being. We do not look at them so much as we watch them happening: activated by the roving eye, which moves to fill in the network of marks and blanks from which pictures of lonely characters and desolate landscapes emerge and dissolve, weather and space are conjured. 

The mature pictures are always somewhere between being depictions of places, people, rooms, occurrences, meetings, mirages etc., and theatrical enactments of paintings, of the very notion of paintings. They are paintings which act the part. 

Yeats’ preference was towards showing his work in ornate gilt frames, the more to resemble the theatre on the one hand, and, in a way, to emphasize their singular combination of traditionalism and radicalism, their emphatic ‘painted-image-ness’ and their sheer wildness (Daumier, Sickert and Yeats are ‘picture-motivated’ in the way that Beckett’s plays are ‘play-motivated’, the TV plays TV motivated etc.- and each draws attention to the frame, the stage, the TV set, the conditions of their own staging. In the extremely strange Good Evening Men (18.), the figure seems on the verge of confronting the viewer, his face sketchy, as if a curious, half-formed background figure has wandered off from his position. He seems to have stumbled upon an aperture in his constructed world as much as he's stumbled on an abandoned house or a stall front). 


There are Daumier-esque clowns and performers throughout Yeat’s oeuvre, yet his explorations of figures carrying out actions in settings, and how to frame these scenes, and how our activities and experience of place are in turn ‘framed’ and performed, go much deeper than explicit allusions to acting, staging and performance (Daumier, Sickert and Yeats emerge as the great actor-directors of painting- painting’s Chaplin, Keaton, Welles).  
They range from the big heads in close-up of The Gay Moon (19.), to mid-sized figures that fill the frame (Singing Horseman (20.)), to small figures in the landscape, or the frequent window paintings, which often recall Daumier’s train travellers, staring out at the passing world (a subject Yeats explicitly treats in Man in a Train Thinking (21.)), musing on the various ‘compartments’ of the image, relative ‘speeds’ and sizes of image, stillness and motion, embodiednes and disembodiedness. There’s also the striking The Old Walls (22.), the figure standing in the middle of what could be a stage, a cell, or merely the bare canvas (harkening back to Daumier’s ‘trapped’ artist), his mocking shadow, the cheapest of illusions, taking on corporeality against the flat surface.





Indeed, Yeats’ pictures range between those that come across as extrapolations from memory, experience, and and those which come across more as displaced allegories- particularly his depictions of figures singing (He Sings Alone (23.), The Traditional Singer  (24.)) , in which the singer almost seems to disperse into the air, to take on the condition of the song, or to plug into the tradition they are carrying/being carried along by (Yeats often seems to position himself as a kind of balladeer, a wandering minstrel, a modernist folk singer or troubadour). The two modes slide into one another, the Joycean overlap of the everyday and the mythic which also goes back to Daumier- though unlike Sickert, Yeats is unembarrassed about slipping into an epic register. Consciously cosmopolitan, city sophisticate Sickert is far more taciturn than the- equally consciously- ‘earthy’ Yeats. Similarly, Yeats tends to obscure details of dress and period (except to explicitly historicize an image), while Sickert is much more invested in the peculiarities and particulars of dress, self-presentation, contemporaneity, even in the Echoes (much more like a Katz, say, then his peers).



Part of Yeats’ distinct achievement is how the extent of illusionism/realism ebbs and flows across the paintings, sometimes within paintings. The interiors and windows are perhaps the most eloquent expression of this- June Night (25.), for example, the walls made up of apparently arbitrary marks and colours, yet the light pours in totally convincingly, the eerie brightness of the midsummer evening. Inside-outside, stage, frame, structure are constantly measured against time, motion, light, (what Yeats called the ‘living ginger of life’). In A Fern in the Area (26.), we see the windows from the outside- the subject becoming fugitive, the windows at first appearing like monolithic standing stones against an open sky, a perfect inversion of the interior/exterior relationships he sets up, while in The Mountain Window (27.) what appears to be hanging ivy acts as a kind of frame or bridge between the two worlds as much as a barrier- though the walls seem barely there, the light exterior rather than indoors. We feel in a Yeats interior that the roof might blow off, or that we are already in a roofless ruin, sky for ceiling- or that we are in a lidless stage set, a wind whipped tent (he finds a corollary within these interiors of painting's three-walled space).





Again, it’s a recapitulation of Daumier’s frames, windows, stages, but also perhaps Sickert's shop fronts and their obscured interiors (28., 29.)- a recurring motif throughout his life, with self-reflexive notions of picture hanging, setting up stall, but also of framing and decoration, the mystery and allure of containers, internal and external illumination, the frustrated desire to enter the frame, to see more- the picture itself a kind of closed shop front.



Aside from the more obvious clowns, Yeats also made much more subtle or complex references to theatricality and performance. In Memory of Boucicault and Bianconi (30.) from the late ‘30s is an embellished, phantasmagorical homage to the melodramas of his youth, the first plays he saw. The picture both acknowledges its own period costume and artificiality while giving the scene a more believably ‘outdoorsy’ light- yet with an impossibly flat waterfall and shallow forest space, playing on the naturally theatrical conceit of a wooded clearing as well as the conventions of his own pictorial language. Its’ not an illusionistic painting so much as a memory of having been captivated and wilfully convinced by an illusion, about the wilful belief in illusion, giving oneself to it (it perhaps also distantly recalls the sudden materialisation of the supernatural pageant in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne- in Yeats’ hands the arriving lady becomes a kind of Faerie Queen, or Queen Maeve, a waking dream). 


The figures/characters make a grand entrance- but due to the action taking place in a clearing, the carriage soon to continue, the stagey frieze of the composition, the entrance is already tinged by the feeling of exit, by an anticipated change of scenery, by the collapse of the moment. As with Sickert, the pictures are caught between arrival and departure. 
Similarly, Entrance of a Lady with Attendants (31.) is acknowledged as being one of Yeats’ last paintings, if not the last- in any case, it is as much a painting of a grand exeunt.  


It’s wonderfully over-the-top: the Lady in question seemingly camply emerging from a blasted wasteland as if attending a social function (perhaps it carries with it a ghost of Daumier’s Quixote, the characters still maintaining an illusion of master/servant normality and quaint/ridiculous gentility, or perhaps anticipates the co-dependence of Endgame’s Clov and Ham, or Beckett’s late series of grandly dishevelled female leads, stoically oblivious to the bleakness of their surroundings or situations). 
In Yeats the landscape is always at once deeply felt, powerfully emotive, yet also easily cast aside, a collapsible backdrop of blue sky and green plain- and in Lady it is similarly flattened and brushed away. The figures and landscape are one, are of equal substance and presence, and yet are also as permeable, blown away by a strong wind. Present, yet always in the process of becoming absent. It’s painting/theatre as a series of entrances and exits, of the constructed world in passing- a self-conscious subject at least as old as The Tempest’s sinking magic-island-as-play/theatre, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’. 
Yeats also plays on stock figure vs. distinct character (the lady could almost have stepped out of a Watteau or a Boucher), stock image vs. distinct image, which puts him in the Daumier/Sickert tradition (all three artists bear a possible reminiscence of Alessandro Magnasco, with his dissolving figures (32.), spaces and brushwork- certainly the 17th C artist had become a cult figure in the 1920’s and Sickert at least was affiliated with a Magnasco Society. Magnasco’s Christ at the Sea of Galilee (33.) also resembles both Delacroix’s Demosthenes in Dublin’s National Gallery (34.), and the Yeats picture Defiance (35.)which may have been partly inspired by it- the images playing on themes of matter and meaning, painting and ideas, eloquence from confusion, order and chaos). 





 Ultimately though, Sickert’s Echoes end up being more ‘difficult’ pictures, partly because the characters they incorporate are more quintessentially ‘quaint’ than Yeats’, partly because they have much less physical authority in their painting. Most of the Echoes are much less immediately compelling- yet they reward prolonged engagement, their picture-book world becoming weirder and weirder the longer one looks. The thinness of their facture, the kitschy brightness of their decorative palette, their sense of frivolity and wilful vacuity, their status as ‘found images’, all in fact add to their sense of disquiet and push them much further into our own century (while it should never be forgotten they exist within the same huge body of work that includes the dingy Camden nudes, the music-halls, the dark-candied Venetian views and the late, de-saturated ‘photographic’ portraits- to which they provide a fascinatingly weird chorus-line commentary. Indeed many of them read as almost comical allegories of 'proper' Sickert paintings, slapstick interludes).


Damp with autumnness,
On a dusty mantlepiece,
A porcelain hen.
                                 -Richard Wright, Haiku 759

 If anything, the figures in the Echoes resemble Jack Yeats’ cut-out designs for puppet theatres, yet with ‘real’ light occasionally filtering into their miniature 2-D world. And again, it’s perhaps Summer Lightning which most closely resembles Yeats’ dazzled, phantasmagoria- the meeting of strangers on a lonely path, squinting into the low sun on a high point, the queasy sense of being tied to the planet while being unberthed from it, the weather conditioning the image. 

White Shower (36.), an early picture in Yeats’ mature modernist period from 1928, seems similarly drawn from an anachronistic, melodramatic tradition. Yet it also pulls its own power from the elemental qualities of sunlight and rain, and from a certain queasy, ornamental constructedness in contradistinction, figures and branches forming a kind of wreath around a white mirror-like void, giving the sense that they can all be picked up, like a china figure, by the ‘handle’ of the tree. They’ve essentially fused together as a ‘subject’. 

In fact, they have fused together almost like an ornamental object: there is a rare Sickert still life from 1909 of chintzy ornaments on a mantelpiece, one of which has the very same kind of ‘branch-handle’ device as the Yeats (Reflected Ornaments (37.)). 



The painting is almost a thematic bridge between the Camden nudes and his late-career Echoes- a conscious depiction of a pretend past, yet painted in the thick impasto style of his emphatically contemporary ‘realist’ nudes (even down to the inclusion of a mirror), with the embracing porcelain figures perhaps providing an antithetical commentary upon such 'sordid' scenes, with their overtones of vice and violence. Or perhaps the figures are silent observers of these carnal comings and goings, faintly ridiculous talismans of clean, rural living in the squalor of the rented city rooms. A related painting from 1907 (The Mantelpiece (38.)) similarly measures painted against mirrored against modelled worlds, lolling ennui and daydreaming. 


Paintings of ornaments are a kind of sub-genre, practiced by painters as diverse as William Nicholson (the cow in Lillies of the Valley (39.), the folksy figures in Fuchsias in a Wedgewood Jug, the glazed design on Cyclamen (40.)) and Paul Housely (with his portraits of toy soldiers, cowboys and Indians, plastic animals), who play with the ‘made-ness’ of the objects, with their scale, surface and so on (or even using them to explore discredited genres such as the farmyard, folk art, animal combat, military or traditional dress etc., at a ‘safe’ remove. There is a consciousness also that painting itself is another decorative object among the knick-knacks and collectibles, perhaps bringing us back again to Daumier’s shabby print collectors). Sickert does a similar thing in the Echoes, but with drawing and illustration rather than 3-demensional objects- investigating painting’s relative relationship to realism, playing games with taste and representation, vulgarity and sincerity- taking a further step back from the real world, while taking another towards it, the paintings echoes of echoes of echoes.   



Indeed, these artists are all constantly alive to the images in the image box, the life and times of pictures, forms. Nicholson’s A Nobleman Surveys the City (41.) and Yeats’ This Village Cannot Hold Him Back (42.) are the same kind of off to see the world, make my fortune, walking stick and knapsack image, Rake’s Progress, Candide and so on, speaking of freedom and constriction, chasing an ideal (the figure in the Yeats practically bursting from the frame while the Nicholson is practically held within a display cabinet, the artist perhaps dryly commenting on the constructed nobleman’s equally fanciful, idealized notion of the city, which stands flat in front of him as a faded print, his own blank reflection, and that of the artist, staring back at him, the world an unattainable series of images). The appropriated, 18th century red white and blue, commemorative mug or figurine palette of these images is further incorporated into Sickert's Echo A Young Englishman (43.), with the figure similarly wigged and stockinged.




Yeats and Nicholson would be shown together in a duo-retrospective at the National Gallery in 1942, a significant show which, like the big Sickert retrospective it was a knowing sequel to, did much to critically rehabilitate the artists' waning reputations and visibility. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly for the time, the catalogue reveals the two artists were each shown in their own discreet rooms, missing the opportunity to hang the wild Yeats next to the relatively sober Nicholsons, however it did shrewdly show the two painters' graphic works together in the last room, uniting their interest in character and type- Nicholson's Alphabet, Characters of Romance, Yeats' Broadside lyric sheets.

It’s no coincidence that we should find recurring subject matter among Daumier, Sickert, Yeats, or that they should continually re-process their own subjects, exploring them from new angles. We’ve seen Sickert’s Summer Lightning and its thematic counterpart The Front at Hove- and can add to this sequence a Yeats from the next decade, The Novelist (1944) (44.). 


The writer looks out to sea, wrapped up in his imagination, while up on the cliff tiny figures in period dress act out a scene that could pretty much be from the same scenario as Summer Lightning. Another lone figure down below perhaps acts out en earlier part of the narrative, or an alternate sequence of events. None of the spatial relationships make any real sense- the scale of figures and landscape in relation to one another refuse to convincingly cohere- and perhaps we should then conclude that either the additional figures or the entire scene are inventions of the novelist, everything but the bench he sits on part of his make-believe. Between these three pictures we have story, reader and writer- all exploring similar territory yet from different angles, different vantage points. Indeed, such artists reveal painting to be a territory, a terrain as much as a field of activity, an image-world one can wander around in, explore. 

Certainly, there is also the feeling of Sickert in a sense ‘letting loose’ in the Echoes- going places he wouldn’t normally go, treating subjects he couldn’t possibly address or present as ‘himself’, whether unabashedly romantic or sentimental (The Great Wave (47.)), or even epic, grand history or biblical painting (Her Majesty (45.), The Flight From Egypt (46.)). Conversely, these kinds of subject would re-emerge post-Echoes in the ‘photographic’ portraits and theatre paintings- ostensibly ‘realist’ images always mediated by their own artificiality.  





Jack Yeats is said to have pinned an artificial, paper or fabric rose to his easel. Whether this is totally apocryphal or not, the ornamental flower is a fitting memento (perhaps depicted in A Dusty Rose (48.) and other pictures). 

This image might be anecdotal, half-remembered, or plain fiction, and it is absolutely irrelevant critically, yet it is far too right a token to ignore: a consciously poetic, hand-made boutonnière of nature, the emblem, badge and coat-of-arms of his painting. 



We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.
-        Vriginia Woolf, The Waves

From his modernist phase beginning in the 1920’s and to his death in the 1950’s, Yeats is one of the few painters who really takes Sickert’s path of representational, figurative alt-modernism in his own direction (and with crossovers in subject matter, though he is more emphatically involved in nature while Sickert was an urban artist through and through). 
But if Sickert’s paintings pause, either to savour or merely to register a passing world of passing moments, then Yeats’ flap and flicker even more rapidly as they phase in and out of existence: if Sickert explores the Echo, Yeats and Beckett explore the echo’s decay (Sickert wrote to Yeats praising his dynamic figures with 'water, sky, houses ruffling like flags in support of them'). 
 ‘Just below the town hall lay the quays, and so the theatre and the sea were close together in my imagination’, Yeats recalled – and indeed the dynamism of theatre/sea constantly recurs throughout his oeuvre, as does the erosion of meaning, the shifting of appearances. 
Completing the circle with Daumier, Yeats (who had a successful parallel career as a novelist and dramatist during his lifetime, but whose literary works have been largely forgotten in recent years) dramatized the very act of looking at a painting in his short play The Green Wave, in which two characters discuss an unseen marine picture. One could imagine the Daumier lithograph of the (proto-Beckett) exchange-

2nd Elderly Man: What is it?
1st Elderly Man: It is a wave.
2nd Elderly Man: I know that, but what sort of a wave?
1st Elderly Man: A green wave- well- a rather green wave.
2nd Elderly Man: What does it mean?
1st Elderly Man: I think it means to be a wave.

 The audience and dialogue contrive to conjure the apparition of a painting, which materializes and shifts appearance throughout, depending on the characters’ reading (they also turn to look out the window, which takes on the condition of a picture- which, onstage, it is).
A wave is ‘provisional’, is a dynamic, temporary component of the sea; here it is both framed, limited, captured, and yet also remains free, elusive. The physical matter shifts, shimmers, defies graspable form and appearance. The sea itself is a shimmering ‘object’ that hovers between its mass, its cultural associations, and its individual waves, flowing yet remaining whole, evaporating yet remaining intact. Within the play, the dynamic ocean functions as both motif and character, as a metaphor for viewing and understanding art, of attention and embodiedness even. It muses on the relationship of marks and characters within frames, parts to wholes, types and particulars; on composition and inferred meaning, continuities of meaning, viewer complicity, the unknowable interior lives of others and the shifting limits between self and other, self and world, solid one moment and porous the next (in which it is very close to Woolf), etc. 

Paradoxically, Sickert would pursue provisionality to his most extreme extent in the late pictures based on the concrete, static material of photographs. In the last years of his life, the painter would explore his own adorations and ambivalences in equal measure, throwing himself into an intensive relationship with the camera’s elisions and ambiguities, its subjects always so close and yet so maddeningly absent, its images so telling and yet so taciturn.  
If the Echoes are where Sickert pushed the credulity of his re-constructed painted world to its farthest point, they are also a stepping stone to his constructed ‘photographic’ world, in which mass and detail are removed, in which substance is subtracted from the silent world of appearances.

-concluded in part 3