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Event Item: 00068
Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes
Exhibition: 25th Oct 2007 to 20th Jan 2008
The paintings of the female nude produced by Walter Sickert (1860-1942) in and around Camden Town between 1905 and 1912 are among the artist's most significant contributions to 20th century British art. This exhibition brings together a selection of over twenty-five of his finest canvases and related drawings from public and private collections to provide the first major account of his reinvention of the nude as a subject for modern painting. It is the first of three exhibitions which celebrate the Courtauld Institute of Art's 75th anniversary. The exhibition will explore the ways in which Sickert developed an uncompromisingly realist approach to the nude in order to address major social and artistic concerns of the early 20th century. His four famously enigmatic Camden Town Murder paintings will be brought together for the first time as the most powerful expression of his fascination with the darker aspects of urban life in Edwardian London. In his 1910 essay, 'The naked and the nude', Sickert claimed that the subject of the nude had become so idealised in contemporary art as to have lost all basis in reality. He argued that "the modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of the Nude, represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy". Sickert described the nudes typically shown at the Royal Academy and Paris Salon as "obscene monsters".

The exhibition begins with examples of Sickert's earliest treatments of the nude, such as The Rose Shoe, c.1902-05, probably produced whilst living in Neuville in Normandy, and the remarkable pastel, Le Lit de Fer (The Iron Bed), c.1905, one of the first nudes he exhibited publicly. These works show his early concern for integrating the nude figure within a grittily real interior, sparsely furnished with an iron bedstead. Following his return from France in 1905 to settle in London, Sickert set up various studios in the cheap lodging houses of Camden Town which would form the settings for his most adventurous nudes, such as La Hollandaise and The Iron Bedstead. The uncompromising poses and the raw quality of Sickert's brushwork imbue these figures with an insistent sense of reality that many critics found disquieting. Rather than the familiar treatment of the unclothed figure as an abstracted ideal of beauty, Sickert's nudes appeared to be naked women in real contemporary settings. These scenes were also charged with uncomfortable social meanings. Sickert's shabby interiors were unmistakable to contemporary viewers as the dark realms of London's poorest working classes. His nudes played unflinchingly to middle class fears of such 'dens of iniquity', known as the notorious haunts of prostitutes, slum landlords and petty criminals. But Sickert also stimulated middle class fascination with such subjects, his 'keyhole' vantage points implicating the viewer as a voyeuristic spectator. Although he staged these scenes in his various studios in the area, the effect of Sickert's treatment of the subject was to blur the boundaries of artifice and reality.

Walter Sickert (1860-1942) is considered one of Britain's greatest modern painters. He established his reputation during the 1880s and 1890s as one of a group of artists who pioneered the Impressionist movement in England. He was an assistant of Whistler's and later worked in France where he was a friend of Degas, sharing with the latter a realist's commitment to painting unconventional subjects drawn from modern life. Sickert was encouraged to return to London in 1905 by a younger generation of progressive artists with whom he would later found The Camden Town Group, England's first 20th century avant-garde. The group's name reflected Sickert's fascination with this seedy and sometimes dangerous area of North London where he lived and worked. It was in Camden Town that Sickert believed the artist could experience real life and find authentic modern subjects which engaged the painter's powers of observation and expression.

Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN
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