Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group

Went with Catriona to the private view. Have always avoided the Camden Town group wherever possible in the past, and the first room reminded me why! – they are all so reductively derivative; aping the concerns and style of French post-Impressionism. Yargh!

Luckily, the Tate peps things up a bit with contemporary documentary film footage of London. I enjoyed seeing a top-hatted gent descend the (open) rear staircase of a horse-drawn omnibus as it pulled up Whitehall into Trafalgar Square – all the buildings remain recognisably the same, but everything else is so different. I wonder how this stretch will appear in a hundred year’s time? A glowering, attitudinal bowler-hatted boy was clearly just waiting for hoodies and the onset of Catherine Tait. Chavtastic before his time.

Refreshed by the film footage, the following rooms were far more enjoyable. Especially, it was charming to see familiar London sights expressed Post-Impressionist stylee. Charles Ginner’s Piccadilly Circus (1912) depicts another London bus: the 19 to Clapham Junction!

The most distinguished Camden Groupie is, of course, Walter Sickert. Catriona was intrigued by Patricia Cornwall’s theory he was the real Jack the Ripper. Apparently, Cornwall spent $6 million of her own money investigating this theory – controversially, she even destroyed a Sickert painting she bought searching for forensic evidence!!

Sickert’s prostitute paintings and paintings of the Camden Town Murder can easily be explained by his French Post-Impressionist influences: Manet, Toulouse Lautrec and Degas all painted prostitutes and sometimes violent scenes of ‘real life’. Also, it is unclear why Sickert, if he really was Jack, would wait 20 years after the Ripper murders to start painting such scenes. Also, has anyone checked out Sickert's knowledge of the backstreets of Whitechapel? In justice to the unfairly accused Sickert, let us hope this exhibition causes his prices to rise and Cornwall to regret her misguided iconoclasm.

The exhibition ends with more newsreel footage. Be warned, though, that footage of the suffragette Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby horse race in 1913 is included, and is pretty shocking: think frog in a blender. I’m amazed such an event was caught on camera at the time. I don’t think she meant to kill herself, just interrupt the race. A glancing blow from the leading horse knocks her right in the path of the horse following and down she goes, in a welter of hooves and skirts. What this has to do with the Camden Group, who knows, but it is interesting.

Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group
Tate Britain

13 February – 5 May 2008

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