Walter Sickert review – serial killer, fantasist or self-hater? This hellish, brilliant show only leaves questions

Was Walter Sickert the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper? This grimily realist painter has been fingered for the Whitechapel murders by Ripperologists including Patricia Cornwell. But I didn’t expect to find damning evidence in a serious survey of his work at Tate Britain. Not that they flaunt it. But when I got to the last essay in the handsome catalogue my jaw dropped.

In 1888, this actor and artist – who was born in Munich in 1860 and moved to Britain as a child – appears to have written a series of letters to the police, claiming to be the killer. He put his drawing skills to macabre use in these missives, drawing caricatures of brutal male faces, sketches of men with knives standing over women’s bodies.

It doesn’t mean he actually was the serial killer, says the startling essay by Anna Gruetzner Robins. There were a lot of such letters. But the letters with arty touches – including the use of a draughtman’s pen, even a woodcut – do really seem to be by Sickert. In 2002 Tate’s conservation department got the respected paper analyst Peter Bower to compare Sickert’s correspondence with some of the Ripper letters. His research “has conclusively shown that the paper of three letters written by Sickert in 1890 matches two Jack the Ripper letters of October 1888”.

Are you sitting comfortably? You won’t be. There is solid evidence that even if Sickert was not the killer, he may have believed or fantasised that he was. He even did a painting of his own flat and called it Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, recently shown at the Walker Art Gallery’s Sickert show.

And the centre of this exhibition is a no-holds-barred display of Sickert’s nudes. Against the dark walls of the gallery, in fierce yet subtle lighting, the women are laid out. Their bodies are spread, exhibited, arranged, “like a patient etherised upon a table”, to quote TS Eliot. One model lies with her legs hanging over the bed, her arms spread out. She could be the dead Christ. Another is washing, but as she bends in a doorway we can’t see her head, only her naked body.

L’Affaire de Camden Town takes it to another level. In this 1909 painting, a man stands over an inert female form on a bed. But it is worse than that. She is not so much a continuous figure as a collection of ruddy, moist forms like meat in a butcher’s window. The male onlooker could be a killer contemplating his handiwork – which is exactly what Sickert’s title implies. For this is one of a series of paintings that allude to the murder of Emily Elizabeth Dimmock in Camden, London, in 1907. Sickert became fascinated by this murder. If he really is responsible for sketches of a man with a knife over a woman’s body in the Ripper letters of 1888, his Camden Town Murder paintings eerily echo them.

In The Camden Town Murder, or What Shall We Do for the Rent?, the man sits in despair while the nude on the iron bed has her face turned from us. She may be crying or he may have just throttled her. The stiffness of her arm and awkwardly placed hand suggests the latter. In a drawing called Persuasion a bald, bearded man appears to strangle a woman before our eyes.

These are truly shocking images, more than a century on. Yet they have affinities with some of the greatest modern art, as the exhibition demonstrates. Sickert was strongly influenced by Degas, and in turn influenced Lucian Freud – there are nudes here by both for comparison.

The most appalling aspects of Sickert’s nudes are also their artistic strength. He rejects the phoney academic nude for raw naked reality – he even wrote an essay explaining this aesthetic. This is why he depicts women, more literally perhaps than any artist, as objects: because the body is an object, it is meat. Francis Bacon would agree with him.

Unless this is the art of a stone cold psychopath. Whoever he really was, Sickert liked to keep people guessing. A room of self-portraits takes in his ever-changing poses, sometimes a bluff comedian, at others a haunted man. In a 1930s self-portrait, he copies a photograph of himself looking like a clapped-out music hall entertainer tapping the ground with a stick as he shuffles down the street. Am I that clown? He asks.

The most violent and frightening images are in Sickert’s paintings of music halls. These canvases preserve a lost form of popular entertainment, portraying its stars and architecture, audiences and atmosphere – but you can hardly call them celebratory. In one of the earliest, Bonnet et Claque: Ada Lundberg at the Marylebone Music Hall, painted in about 1887, a singer opens her mouth in full-throated chanson. But she is crowded by some of the most horrible faces imaginable. One bowler-hatted young man has empty black eyes and a mouth hanging idiotically, bestially, open. The scariest has ghoulish, bloodshot eyes, a nose that has collapsed into a skull-like orifice, and a slash of a grinning mouth that seems to have been cut into his flesh with a razor.

If I was going to investigate Sickert’s sick mind I would start here – what is this carnival of death? Perhaps it is about syphilis. Sickert was not the only fin de siecle artist obsessed with this disease.

I may seem to be judging Sickert. In reality, he seems to have pronounced a cruel judgment on himself. If he did fantasise he was Jack the Ripper and the Camden Town Murderer, that suggests he was consumed with guilt. He was a man of his time, confused about sex, confused about women. In his music hall paintings all the men are monsters. But the women on stage alone, caught in the spooky light, ogled by brutes, are vulnerable and he wants to protect them. Maybe it was the male throat he wanted to slash – and his own image that he monsters. In a late self-portrait as a modern Lazarus, after he has been ill, he has obliterated his features with a splash of grey paint.

This hellishly brilliant exhibition takes you to a place beyond simple moral or political truth. Whatever Sickert was, he was the only British artist of his time who can be as powerful as Munch, Van Gogh or Otto Dix. In the end, a young man who thought he was Jack the Ripper is someone you have to feel sorry for. Unless he was, of course.

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