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Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group Camden Town Group

Group of English painters formed in 1911. The artists met weekly in the studio of Walter Sickert (1860–1942), the group's prime inspiration, in a working-class area of London.
Tate Britain, London SW1; until 4 May

Tate Britain is promoting the Camden Town Group: Spencer Gore, Robert Bevan, Charles Ginner and others even less famous than the group's one and only star, Walter Sickert. You could say it makes a certain kind of sense. For promotion was the group's main aim, the only reason these painters got together in a Regent Street restaurant in 1911 in the first place. If you can't make it as a solo artist - and how few of them could - then form a movement with a handle and the press, as always, will follow.

What did the group stand for? Camden Town, obviously, where Sickert had his lodgings, but pretty much anywhere gaslit gas·lit  
Illuminated by gaslight.
 and glum that wasn't south of the river and could be made to look modern and French. Swiss Cottage via Impressionism, St James's Park

    For the football stadium in Newcastle upon Tyne, see St James' Park; for the football stadium in Exeter, see St James Park.

    St James's Park
     out of Seurat, Mornington Crescent after Gauguin and Monet. London in the rain, crowded, in dirty snow and silent fog: it's that stoic, miserabilist, fin de siècle aesthetic that loves the truth of sickly streets and steamed-up cafes, of landladies at the sink and working men on their way for a pint, of the last horse sales and the first underground trains. But all depicted à la Continental.

    The members of the group had quite different backgrounds - Charles Ginner, born in France, favoured Fauvism fauvism (fō`vĭzəm) [Fr. fauve=wild beast], name derisively hurled at and cheerfully adopted by a group of French painters, including Matisse, Rouault, Derain, Vlaminck, Friesz, Marquet, van Dongen, Braque, and Dufy. ; Sickert was half-Danish, a friend of Degas and student of Whistler; Spencer Gore had to conceal his high-hued nudes from his uncle, the Bishop of Oxford - but they all aspired to European modernism; aspired and generally fell short. For no matter how broken the brushwork brush·work  
    1. Work done with a brush.

    2. The manner in which a painter applies paint with a brush.

    , how fractured the angles, solid the air or brilliant the colour, a certain English conservatism is always resurgent.

    Leicester Square, before the pulsing lights, looks as rural as a cathedral close in Ginner's densely worked view. You imagine him breathing hard with the effort. At Harold Gilman's corner caff, the people are less important than the wallpaper and the nasty, lacquered booths. In Belsize Park, blinds halfmast, scarcely a vehicle in sight, sky a great white blank, the pedestrians appear stalled and even dead. If only the scene had been painted by Edward Hopper.

    What is admirable about this show is that it makes no exalted claims for the art. It treats the paintings, perforce, as social history by other means - a series of images in which one may witness the period scene. The number 19 bus trundles towards Clapham Junction like a gypsy caravan on diesel; workers watch a western in Drury Lane as early as 1906. In the patriotic ballet Rule Britannia, the prima ballerina wears a Union Jack tutu tutu


    Secondhand style, laboriously applied, unfree: because the borrowings are so obvious, you can't help but notice the aesthetic shortfall. Robert Bevan's horse markets in the Barbican BARBICAN. An ancient word to signify a watch-tower. Barbicanage was money given for the support of a barbican.  have nothing on Degas, still less Jack Yeats; nobody can rise to the discreet charms of Bonnard and Ginner's hideous Embankment, featuring an unrecognisable Big Ben, is the most obtuse misreading of van Gogh you'll ever see.

    Sometimes, the exhibits look like toy paintings, versions of great works reduced and simplified for children. Sometimes, they look wary, as if trying to shut out the human realities. But at their worst - claggy Clag´gy

    a. 1. Adhesive; - said of a roof in a mine to which coal clings.
    , inert, emotionless e·mo·tion·less  
    Devoid of emotion; impassive.

    e·motion·less·ness n.

    Adj. 1.
    , over-coloured - they can't even rise to the level of data compressed in the photographs shown alongside.

    But the saving grace of this show is Sickert, that barbed and sarcastic observer of the London scene and one of the most advanced painters ever to reside in the capital. Sickert might have learned from Degas, but his brown world of rented rooms and tenants at stalemate is all his own. His most famous interior, and the show's centrepiece, is Ennui - that great snapshot of suicidal boredom, in which the vacant-eyed man sits over his half-empty glass while the woman stares at the imprisoning walls, next to a collection of stuffed birds trapped in a belljar of their own.

    Instead of Degas's French cafes, Sickert painted English music halls, tiers of balconies rearing up from the stage like vertiginous ver·tig·i·nous
    1. Affected by vertigo; dizzy.

    2. Tending to produce vertigo.

    vertiginous adjective Related to vertigo, dizzy
     cliffs. In the gods, the workers press precariously through the railings like caged creatures, their faces barely lit by the limelight, the blackness in which they dangle a Goyaesque void. In the footlights footlights

    Row of lights set across the front of a stage floor to light the scene. The oil lamps and candles in use in the 17th century eventually gave way to gas and electricity.
    , Minnie Cunningham turns into a neon ghost.

    Sickert's melancholia MELANCHOLIA, med. jur. A name given by the ancients to a species of partial intellectual mania, now more generally known by the name of monomania. (q.v.) It bore this name because it was supposed to be always attended by dejection of mind and gloomy ideas. Vide Mania.,  is shot through with wildness - an aura of submerged excitement, imminent outrage or violence. Tate Britain has many of his Camden Town nudes, in which the relationship between the naked woman and the clothed man in the bedsit bedsit or bedsitter

    a furnished sitting room with a bed

    Noun 1. bedsit - a furnished sitting room with sleeping accommodations (and some plumbing)
    bedsitter, bedsitting room
     ranges, often simultaneously, between documentary, emotional narrative and outright horror-movie thrill. We often take them as CSI CSI Crime Scene Investigator
    CSI CompuServe, Inc.
    CSI Commodity Systems, Inc.
    CSI Commodity Systems Inc. (Boca Raton, FL)
    CSI Crime Scene Investigation (CBS TV show)
    CSI Christian Schools International
     scenes, the body on the bed a corpse, but he gave them alternative titles from time to time - not just The Camden Town Murder, but What Shall We Do for the Rent?

    In 1915, Sickert painted the Brighton pierrots performing at dusk to an audience of empty deckchairs. The performance is wretchedly insecure, yet each figure is rouged by the glowing sun as it dies over their brave, little, end-of-pier show. The war had come, the group had broken up after barely two years, most of the artists had drifted out to the suburbs and Sickert had already started to mock them in print. He was and remains the group's one survivor, his pierrots an epitaph for the movement and for this show.
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    Date:Feb 17, 2008
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