Art: Music Halls, Murder and Tabloid Pix

Well ahead of his time, British painter Walter Sickert took popular culture, even the mass media, as his theme

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Some artists drop through the cracks, and for a long time, it looked as though Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) was one of them. His retrospective at London's Royal Academy of Arts, curated by Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (until mid-February, then at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), is the first deep look at Sickert the British have had in almost 30 years. In America, he is virtually unknown. No museum has ever acknowledged him, and if you dip for his work into the big public collections, let alone the private ones, you will come up empty. Ditto in France, where he spent a lot of his working life.

Only in Britain is this Danish-British painter known, and only there is his influence felt. As a modern Realist, he energized younger British Modernists in the 1900s like Spencer Frederick Gore and Harold Gilman. You can still see his mark today, on the work of figurative artists like Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and even Francis Bacon. Sickert's "brown world" of rented rooms in Camden Town, with their plump, sweaty nudes, sprawled on iron bedsteads, dense and claustrophobic, runs into the younger painters', its solidly constructed Realism forming a bridge across the light turbulence of derivative avant- gardism in so much British art.

An unspectacular painter, you might think -- but take care. For it was also Sickert who in his old age, during the 1930s, became obsessed with mass-media images. Decades before American Pop, and to the consternation of most critics, he made signery into scenery, recycling theater publicity photos, news shots (of the King with his horse trainer or Amelia Earhart being mobbed at the London airport) and even a gangster-movie poster of Edward G. Robinson. No American or European artist at the time used such sources with as much aplomb. Scorning British good taste and the Edwardian artist's role as the groom of new aristocrats -- a task he left to what he called the "wriggle and chiffon" school of portraiture, led by the American expatriate John Singer Sargent -- Sickert went down a few class notches, looking for a virile, demotic way of painting that did something more with popular culture than peer at it from above.

As Shone writes in the catalog, Sickert's career ran parallel to all the great Modernist movements from the 1880s to the 1930s but belonged to none of them. He was "a passionately self-isolating figure . . . highly individual, combining expected elements of the European mainstream with personal tastes that can appear willful or mandatory." He was also a witty and truthful art critic, whose essays and journalism, collected in 1947 by Osbert Sitwell under the title A Free House!, are never dull and often possess a Shavian energy. Courageous to the point of eccentricity, Sickert always followed his own nose.

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