- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

The Phillips Collection’s “Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870-1910” doesn’t live up to its title’s promise. We know French impressionist Edgar Degas’ ballet dancers and French postimpressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s provocateurs — but the English painter Walter Richard Sickert?

Although mystery writer Patricia Cornwell fingered the English artist as Jack the Ripper in her book “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed” in 2002, giving the artist a certain notorious cache, Sickert, who was born in 1860 and lived to be 81, drew only limited attention around the turn of the 20th century.

Moreover, the show’s organizers, Washington’s Phillips Collection and London’s Tate Britain, have placed him smack dab between two modernist art titans who clearly outpainted him.

Why did these two respected art institutions push Sickert in this way? Granted, they had a fairly good and original idea as they aimed to demonstrate how Paris’ decline as a major art market drove French artists to London for sales and English artists to Paris for ideas.

While Paris suffered from the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and 1871 socialist Paris Commune, London had burgeoned as a world industrial capital and profitable art market. Talented French artists, acting often as flamboyant showmen for themselves, frequently crossed the Atlantic to sell art to London’s wealthy art buyers and galleries.

Englishmen first snapped up Degas’ work during the 1880s, while Frenchman James Tissot, one of the most refreshing of the Phillips exhibit’s artists, remained in London for 11 years. Political activist and sculptor Jules Dalou fled Paris for London after the Commune’s fall and sold his works there.

But back to Sickert (1860-1942). While delivering a James Abbot McNeill Whistler painting to the 1883 Paris Salon, the former actor met Edgar Degas (1834-1917), became friendly with him and began acting as Degas’ promoter in England. As a painter himself, Sickert quickly absorbed the innovative older artist’s cropped compositions, often plebeian subjects and unconventional viewpoints.

As we see this in the exhibit’s “Figures in Interiors and Nudes” galleries, the English artist liked to fling undressed women across unmade beds — as in his “La Maigre Adeline” — after Degas’ penchant for the awkward.

Sickert also exploited Degas’ asymmetrical diagonals and bird’s-eye views, which the French artist, in turn, had appropriated from the 19th-century Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai, as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s retrospective across the Mall fortuitously proves.

The Britisher went on to appropriate not only Degas’ style, but also Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s flamboyant approach to Paris’ dance halls. While Parisians flocked to dance halls such as the popular Moulin Rouge, Sickert showed Englishmen flocking to London’s music halls — the Moulin Rouge’s equivalents.

Yet, despite Sickert’s personal closeness to Degas, his work can be so bad, it’s embarrassing — especially in the “Figures” room. The museums juxtaposed Sickert’s often roughly brushed nudes with first-rate works by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Their deeply felt, luminous nudes overwhelm Sickert’s mostly second-rate efforts.

The museums also present what they call images of decadence in the “Dandies” room, filled with Sickert’s portrait of “Aubrey Beardsley,” William Rothenstein’s “The Painter Charles Condor,” Giovanni Boldoni’s portrait of Whistler and Whistler’s “Self-Portrait,” among others. Elegant greatcoats such as the ones worn here by Condor and Whistler were all the rage and the mark of London’s dandies.

The Phillips, however, chooses to tiptoe around what “decadence” really meant and its possible asexual and homosexual overtones. Unfortunately, the museum lost the opportunity to insert a serious note into an exhibit that’s essentially fluff.

Fortunately, there are other artists as well. Tissot’s sensational, very large “The Ball on Shipboard” leads us into the show, pushing us to the three beauties of his “The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth).” George Clausen painted another winner, “A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill,” with its attractive upper-class mother and winsome child walking toward us.

There also are two rooms full of impressive Toulouse-Lautrecs, though the catalog tells us his much-ballyhooed London show flopped.

The show’s last gallery, “Criticism of ‘L’Absinthe’ in London, 1893,” has a text panel quoting a Spectator magazine critique from that year, which says that despite the “‘repulsive subject,’ two rather sodden people drinking in a cafe,” Degas, a “master of character, of form, of colour” made the subject “his own.”

They’re pathetic creatures, and Degas painted them as such. So, too, did Rothenstein render his gut-wrenching chalk, pastel and bronze-paint portrait of a pitiful young woman, “Parting at Morning.” According to the exhibit catalog, in describing the woman, Rothenstein quoted Henry James: “The wanton was not without a certain cadaverous beauty.”

But she’s real, and genuine — a refreshing change from the show’s overall superficiality.

WHAT: “Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays (noon to 5 p.m. June through September), closed Mondays. Exhibit ends May 14.

TICKETS: $12 for adults; $10 for students and visitors older than 62; and free for members and visitors younger than 18.

PHONE: 202/387-2436 or 800/551-SEAT

ONLINE: www.phillipscollection.org

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