Jack the Ripper: Artist?

Walter Sickert, The Camden Town Murder

Walter Sickert,
The Camden Town Murder

One of my favorite British painters is Walter Sickert, whose life spanned the period from the Impressionists to World War II.  The son and grandson of artists, as a young man he studied with James McNeill Whistler and learned to paint alla prima.  For the rest of his life he painted only what he could look at, or see in photos.  Later, one of his students was Lucian Freud.

Study for The Camden Town Affair

Study for The Camden Town Affair

I was a little surprised, ten years ago, when mystery writer Patricia Cornwell accused Sickert in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed.  After years of admiring his work in the British Art Center at Yale, it took me awhile to get my head around the idea.  Then out of the blue Steven Sheehan, one of my painting teachers, said that “artists have always known” that Sickert was the Ripper.

Rose Shoe

Rose Shoe

The evidence is circumstantial.  Sickert was one of the Camden Town Painters – Camden Town being the location of the Ripper’s murders.  As he travelled back and forth to France, murders seemed to follow in his wake.  And most importantly, he established a strong connection to the police so that he was often the first person they called when a Ripper victim was found.  He was allowed into the crime scenes to draw the victims before the scenes were examined or cleaned.

La Hollandaise

La Hollandaise

Whether or not Sickert was the actual Ripper or just obsessed with his crimes, he spent most of his life outside of conventional norms.  Would his paintings still be so well-known without the added frisson of murderous possibilities?  They are wonderful paintings, but most wonderful paintings are lost or forgotten 100 years later.

I have to admit that, based on nothing, I now think of Sickert as a murderer.  But does that indict all of us who are addicted to criminal trials, detective movies, and violent video games?  We may not be killers, but we enjoy the results of violent crime – perhaps too much.

Walter Sickert in 1911

Walter Sickert in 1911

I also have to admit that, when pushed, I try to access the blackest side of myself to put into my work.  We need light in order to see the dark, but it is the dark that fascinates us. So maybe Walter Sickert wasn’t a killer.  Maybe he was.  The possibility creates an edge of evil in paintings that might otherwise seem innocent.  Did having the soul of a killer improve his art?  If so, count me in.

I like happy books and happy music.  But I like brutal art.  And I’m working my way toward making my own art more sinister.

Light… Is the Revelation


James Turrell's Aten Reign in the Guggenheim Rotunda

James Turrell’s Aten Reigns in the Guggenheim Rotunda

“My art deals with light itself.  It’s not the bearer of the revelation – it is the revelation.”  James Turrell

Even people who have never visited the Guggenheim (we call them Muggles) know its trademark shape.  Frank Lloyd Wright changed art museums forever when he designed the center rotunda and surrounding ramps, which are reflected in the exterior shape of the building.  You can buy Lego Guggenheims, Guggenheim-shaped lamps, and kits to build tiny paper Guggenheims.  The Guggenheim even features in the video game Happy Street (free at the app store – highly recommended because it’s HAPPY).

James Turrell has altered everything you know about the Guggenheim.  His Aten Reigns installation walls off the ramps (which are shorn of their art anyway).  Sitting in the first floor rotunda, visitors stare straight up at the changing light show, or lie on the floor to see the ceiling oculus.  Is this a Pantheon?  It feels like a tribute to the gods – or maybe a gift from them.  Aten, after all, is the name the ancient Egyptians gave to the sun and to their first monotheistic god.

The huge crowd tries to photograph Aten Reigns, which defies capture.

There are also several smaller light installations, plus a collection of Turrell’s aquatints that  glow with light.  You may have to stand in line, but it moves quickly and is worth it.

Turrell Aquatints (photo by Youri Choi)

Turrell Aquatints
(photo by Youri Choi)

Wassily Kandinsky Courbe dominante, 1936 (Dominant Curve)

Wassily Kandinsky
Courbe dominante, 1936
(Dominant Curve)

While you’re at the museum, do yourself a favor and look at the excellent collection of Kandinskys from his Paris period.  I’m a big Kandinsky fan and especially enjoy tracing his travel from figurative to abstract work.  These paintings from the ’30s and ’40s fall on the abstract side, but just barely, which means that you can see space and identify shapes in them – just as in the best abstract art.  Kandinsky has a magical touch when it comes to combining the whimsical with the substantial.  I especially enjoy his Petits accents (below) in which small birds, other creatures, houses, and random shapes perch on what might be electrical lines, and just as well might be a musical score or lined paper.  Where do you think it belongs on the Kandinsky continuum between representational and abstract?  Does the label matter?  It is delightful.

Kandinsky's Petits accents, 1940(Small Accents)

Kandinsky’s Petits accents, 1940 (Small Accents)


Just Blue

I will throw pill bottles at the next person who tells me that artists have always been depressed outsiders.

Is it art if I hang something I found in the trash inside a frame that my studio-mate was throwing away?

Is it art if I hang something I found in the trash inside a frame that my studio-mate was throwing away?

That said, I’ve been feeling a little depressed and left out lately.  I should be painting.  Every day I tell myself to go to the studio and paint.  But I rarely do.  I go to the studio and clean.  I stay home and knit.  I crochet bowls and organize the tee-shirts I will need for typesetting class on Thursday (it is awesome!).  I make origami of a manageable size.  I get supplies for my sculpture (working title: self-portrait in the asylum) and wonder what colors I should paint my walls now that I’ve stripped the wallpaper.  I talk to my friend Rachel about starting a new religion; first step: magic wands.  What I don’t do is paint.

My current painting, entitled, It Should Have Been Finished Last Month

My current painting, entitled, It Should Have Been Finished Last Month

Am I not a painter any longer?  Or do I just need a break?  What do you sad, disenfranchised painters out there think?

Just a peek: Self-Portrait in the Asylum

Just a peek: Self-Portrait in the Asylum – underway