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Mixed company

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

The visitor to the depressing subterranean galleries of Tate Britain might be forgiven for feeling a trifle bewildered in the first room of an exhibition unashamedly titled Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec. To the left is James Tissot and to the right a vast canvas of Paddington Station by the little-known Sidney Starr (1857–1925), who departed these shores for America in 1892, and perhaps made good. (Certainly, his dreary expanse of platform could profitably have been left undisturbed in Durban Art Gallery, rather than shipped over specially for this exhibition.) There’s even a large George Clausen in this first room, but where are the brand leaders? On the far wall a trio of smallish canvases of dancers by Degas is the only sign that this is a display devoted to three giants of the French (and English) art world.

Actually, the title of the exhibition is downright misleading, and, though there’s a fair bit by Degas and Sickert spread out through eight rooms, there’s hardly anything by Lautrec, but lots and lots of stuff by other painters who happened to be around at the time. Nothing by Frith or Holman Hunt or Augustus Egg, some will be sorry to learn — for what an interesting comparison could have been made with Degas — but good things by such varied talents as Charles Conder, Jules Dalou, William Rothenstein and William Tom Warrener. In the other half of that first gallery, there’s an exceedingly strange (but not wonderful) Fantin-Latour of a bearded cove and his wife that must have been lurking in the Tate’s cellars for decades, together with Whistler’s resonant ‘Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander’, and the sublime ‘Little Dancer’ in painted bronze with muslin and silk, by Degas. It’s a bizarre mix: neither William Quiller Orchardson nor even Tissot are anywhere near the same weight as Degas. Nor does their inclusion make subtle art-historical points. Thank God, then (and not for the last time), for Whistler.

The show’s true identity lies in its sub-title: it’s really about the cultural exchange that went on between Paris and London at the end of the 19th century, the traffic in ideas, compositional devices and subject-matter, the dialogue over what was now permitted. The problem for its curators lies in making that both visually intelligible and interesting to a general viewer. Much easier said than done. In the end, this assembly of more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures needs primarily to be a visual hit, not an original thesis.

But with Degas on your team, there’s every chance of success. It’s ‘the little rats’ of the ballet line which hold the attention in that first room, the girls of ‘The Dance Class’, ‘The Rehearsal’ and ‘Two Dancers on a Stage’; particularly ‘The Dance Class’, being the least familiar, on loan from Washington DC. In the second room, we are met by another superb Degas painting: ‘Jockeys Before the Start’, a wilfully odd composition, with its unavoidable vertical division and radical ‘snapshot’ cropping. Next to it is another out-of-the-ordinary image: three women leaning on the rail of a boat, seen from behind. Degas makes something arresting of their hats and figures, a viewpoint original and beguiling. This ability, to which Sickert was quick to respond, is one of the things about Degas we most prize today.

The juxtapositions continue: rather a fine little painting of ‘CMS Reading by Gaslight’ by William Stott of Oldham (haven’t seen much of him recently, though a favourite of the late Carel Weight), and a truly horrendous pastel daub of firelight by the Scotsman James Guthrie. Is this included as a cautionary ‘how not to do it’? By contrast, on the opposite wall there’s the most striking piece of hanging — Degas’ ‘The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera “Robert le Diable”’ (1876) flanked by two dark music-hall subjects by Sickert borrowed from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and both painted a dozen or more years later. There’s a useful and piquant comparison. Sickert, who called Degas ‘this truly great man’, and who first encountered him in Paris when still a student of Whistler, was deeply inspired by his example. Some of the best passages in this large exhibition are from their intimate artistic dialogue.

Also in the second room is a cabinet of Degas’ lithographs, another of designs for fans, and a pastel by Philip Wilson Steer of a lady with flowing tresses in a challenging green sprigged frock. The conjunction of Degas’ famous ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’ with Sickert’s ‘Gallery at the Old Bedford’ is another felicitous alignment; more than can be said for the inclusion of an awful pastel by Elizabeth Forbes, just because she ‘must have’ been aware of Degas. Advancing into Room 3, the first things to catch the eye are two remarkable near-abstract watercolours of dancers at the Moulin Rouge by Arthur Melville — just the sort of revelation that makes this kind of catch-all exhibition so valuable. And here is Toulouse-Lautrec at last, though not looking terribly exciting. The dry, chalky surfaces of his paintings are thin and uncompelling, the most impressive image being of the Clowness Cha-U-Kao. The lithographs work best, despite the fact that cheap reproduction posters of his work have long since familiarised his once-radical images almost to the point of nausea.

Pause for a moment in Room 4, where Degas’ ‘L’Absinthe’ is hung. This image, hugely controversial when first exhibited in London, has the grandeur arising from simplicity of subject married to depth of understanding. It can be said of Degas that he successfully united the classical clarity of Ingres with the Romantic colour of Delacroix, and made of this potent amalgam a basis for Modernism. No such great claim can be made for Lautrec despite his immense graphic skills. In fact, he might even have been included here simply for his ‘box-office’ attractions — the myth of the ugly dwarfish alcoholic cripple who lived and loved in the brothels of Paris, and who continues to live in the popular imagination. Even so sensitive a critic as the poet John Ashbery has written that Lautrec’s work depends for its effect and appeal not so much on its formal qualities as on its subject-matter — fin-de-siècle Montmartre nightlife. Sickert, interestingly, dismissed Lautrec as ‘unimportant’.

Sickert features heavily in the second half of the show. Despite some inspired hanging, for instance the convergence of Whistler’s ‘Self-Portrait’, Sickert’s portrait of Beardsley and William Rothenstein’s of Charles Conder, Sickertian gloom begins to pervade the soul. The room of Sickert’s bedroom scenes thankfully contains the light touch of Whistler — a study of rose drapery and a couple of reclining figures. Bonnard and Vuillard are brought on to lighten the load further (the former seen to better advantage).

Usually, I am an admirer of Sickert, and although there are some wonderful things by him here, I found myself underwhelmed by his presence in this prodigally mixed company. A far more interesting trio to my mind would have been Sickert, Bonnard and Vuillard. Of course, I might have been less than impressed by Sickert even in this putative company — which may mean that he is less of an artist than I have always supposed — but such a grouping would certainly make some interesting stylistic and art-historical comparisons. There is something inherently unconvincing about Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec, especially when Lautrec is so poorly served and could so easily be omitted altogether. An exhibition focusing intently on Degas and Sickert could not fail to be fascinating, but we don&
#8217;t have that either. Instead, we are offered a much wider range of British art over a 40-year period with a sample of cross-Channel interventions, which actually makes for a fascinating exhibition. It’s just got the wrong title. The Tate should be above so obvious a marketing ruse.

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