Art: Degas, Sickert and Lautrec

    Earlier in the year, the Turner Whistler Monet trilogy found a sneaky way to force Monet into a British show by uniting a Frenchman, an American and an Englishman. Now the Tate’s latest three-in-a-bedder, devoted to Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec, does away with the Englishman altogether and gives us two Frenchmen and an Anglo-Irish Dane born and raised in Germany. It’s a clever international wheeze. But should we welcome it? Of course, foreign artists have always nourished British art. As a free-trade island with a gigantic colonial past, Britain has relied on foreign top-ups more fully than most. From the arrival of Holbein in the 16th century to the coming of Gilbert, of Gilbert & George, foreign presences have played key roles here. But there comes a point where celebrating imported fertility rather than looking carefully at the home-grown variety becomes an act of avoidance. If I were an underrated British painter — if I were William Dobson, who gave Charles I a face, or Robert Streeter, who gave Charles II a face — I would wonder why it is that Frenchmen, Americans and Germans find it so easy to earn displays at Tate Britain while the natives find it so hard.

    Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec are good top-of-the-bill draws: lots of people have heard of them. But the problem with an exhibition strategy as partial as this to international star turns is not the sheer unfairness of it all — British artists have five centuries of experience of being looked down on by Frenchmen — but the confusion that inevitably results when you attempt to build a single exhibition out of three different exhibitors.

    In all honesty, having examined this unknowable show on two separate occasions, I remain unclear as to what it is actually about. I enjoyed some of it fiercely; but can its dots really be joined up? Obviously, there are Degas paintings in it, Sickerts and Toulouse-Lautrecs — though the first and the third are less abundantly represented than the title leads us to expect. Obviously, the show seeks to illuminate the relationship between French art of the period and British art. But only now and then is the focus button pressed.

    The first gallery presents a legible enough story line of a clutch of polite English city painters attempting, in the 1880s, to capture what a new generation of realists over in Paris was already capturing: pretty women with parasols, railway stations, bustle, bustles and assignations. Being British, these native painters of modern life — George Clausen, Sidney Starr — cannot help but drop huge dollops of misery and sentiment into the realist mix. Our Victorians were incapable of looking at a pretty young woman on the town without imagining her to be in need of rescuing. Clausen is often a fine painter, but his view of a sad mother buying flowers in a London street that morose workmen are digging up is undermined by the sheer obviousness of the artist’s projections. See how glum the children are, how pointless the flowers seem, how battered the road- diggers appear. Life’s a ditch, and then you die. That’s progress for you.

    The real difficulty, however, with this opening gallery is not that the English painters are so sallow, but that Degas is so good. Three Degas paintings of ballet dancers face you as you enter, and immediately show up everyone else. At once, you know yourself to be in the presence not of a weary and melodramatic Victorian storyteller, but of a real painter, with vitamins in his veins and magic in his hands. Degas pokes about at the back of the ballet as the girls are changing and practising, but it isn’t the naughty glimpses of transgressive adolescent flesh that rivet him: indeed, his interest seems sex-free. It’s the shimmer of satin, the rustle of silk, the spangle of lights, the startling flashes of pink, blue and yellow, that relentless sense of visual fidgeting. To have successfully captured all this is an awesome painterly achievement.

    Degas remains the most impressive painter on show, by a street. There’s nothing to regret about the opportunity to witness him in action provided by various stretches of the exhibition ahead. But there is something to regret about the stretches being so damned varied. Having set a reasonably legible agenda for itself in its opening display — Paris teaches London — the show proceeds to jump about crazily from topic to topic, space to space. Sickert is introduced. Toulouse-Lautrec is introduced. A single gallery is devoted to Degas’ stupendous L’Absinthe. British painters who painted dandies are featured. Nudes arrive in numbers. And at the end, somewhat surprisingly, Bonnard and Vuillard are inveigled in as Sickert’s fellow intimistes. In themselves, none of these phases of the show is to be regretted. That they do not add up to a cogent story line is a shortcoming.

    Sickert is introduced as a rather clumsy painter of the music hall. It is as unfortunate for him as it is for everyone else in the queue that hanging your work next to Degas can never be encouraging. Degas’ mag- nificently intricate scene of the audience joining the actors in a performance of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable is a tour de force of simultaneous visual and psycho-logical insight. The two bleak Sickert inte-riors that flank it, of lumpy London music-hall stars looking tiny on big stages, seem, in comparison, to be the work of a folk artist. What a poor grasp of anatomy Sickert displays. How blobby are his blobs. What a blunt and graceless full-on vision he has.

    Sickert improves, but then so, amazingly, does Degas, who discovers colour and, with that thrilling orange painting owned by the National Gallery, of Miss La La hanging from a rope by her teeth while suspended high above the audience at the Cirque Fernando, finds a way to transfer the performer’s vertigo to you. Look at the special skill with which Miss La La’s spotlit bottom is observed, spinning above the spectators like a disco ball. Pure genius.

    Confined to a gallery of his own, like a bad influence excluded from school, Toulouse-Lautrec is this event’s most cursory presence. His preference for working on cardboard with quick-fire liquid paints, and for leaving large expanses of this cardboard untouched, adds to the sense of incompleteness. Here’s the preface: where’s the story? A funny-looking guy himself, Lautrec had an excellent eye for the comedy of others, and the dandies, doctors and dancers he spied on are recorded in agitated drawings that never quite settle. The biggest exhibition he had in his life was in London, in 1898. But his most impactful display here must surely have been the unofficial exhibition that took place in the London streets when his cheeky posters for touring troupes of French cancan dancers were pasted up. The idea of Lautrec’s gorgeous posters popping up across Victorian London is startling, and worth a more detailed and vivid examination than we get here.

    Sickert remains the most copiously represented of the three named artists. He comes into his own with a cluster of the dark bedroom nudes for which he is so notorious: twilit prostitutes, slumped on unmade beds, legs akimbo. These are the paintings that triggered the suspicion Sickert was Jack the Ripper, and they are certainly worrying. What a shame that anyone should ever find sex this depressing. I blame it on our weather. At least Bonnard, making a surprise appearance in the same stretch of the show, could actually see who he was lusting after.

    By the time it has wandered into its final room, this bitty exhibition has proved that Degas was a genius, British painters were absurdly doomy, Toulouse- Lautrec was a difficult talent to trap and Sickert had concrete wrists. It adds up to an interesting array of conclusions. But does it add up to a coherent exhibition? Not really.