Saturday, January 05, 2008

Dark Nudes

I often pop in The Courtauld and wander around the permanent collection if I have a spare hour in the West End. They have some great pictures and you can go to the Admiralty bar afterwards for a champagne cocktail. What's not to like? Great art AND a sympathetic bar! They also do some stonking small shows, like last year's Wyndham Lewis and, at the moment, Sickert's 'Camden Town Nudes'.

The show comprises probably less than 20 pictures and a handful of supporting drawings. He painted the nudes on his return to dreary old London Town in 1905, having been abroad for a time no doubt sampling continental delights.

He was excited by getting up close and personal with some cockney ladies and they are painted in a lively, broken, sketchy way. The annonymous models set on crumpled beds in dark airless north London rooms, a sliver of light falling over voluptuous curves from a slit in the heavy drapes. The nudes are utterly mixed. Some are sexy, some delicate and tender, some with more personality than others. Some are death-like with hollow eyes and gashes for mouths, like the autopsy photos of Jack the Ripper's clip-clopping victims. But the backdrops are the same: mouldy rooms in boarding houses. London damp, Rembrandtian gloom.

The paintings remind you how much the London school held Sickert in high esteem in their developing years. The second nude in the show is tied to the bed by Auerbach's signature zig-zags (describing atmosphere). Kossoff and Freud are all over, and Kitaj's chalky lines. There is a surprise in the three paintings Nude on a Bed, Nuit d'ete and La Hollandaise, hung together. Mentally trace the three nudes in their abandoned attitudes on their single beds, fenced in with wrought iron bedsteads, surrounded by suggestive bordering and walls in sickly colour demarked by window shapes... Well, we're pretty much looking at a Bacon triptych. Or what Bacon could have been if he hadn't chanced on a happy accident and used the same template for forty years. I'm entranced by these three. I think they are the centrepiece of the show, not the so-called 'Camden Town Murder' paintings, which barely figured for me.

In addition to reminding me of good painting, and the London school, the show reminds me of the power of oil paint in particular, and also how effective domestic sized pictures can me. Human scale. All such painterly thoughts are bolstering me for my new paintings.

Sickert's Camden Town Nudes is on until 20th Jan.