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1932 A Deathly Shroud

A deathly shroud haunted the 164th Royal Academy Exhibition. The biggest controversy of this year’s Exhibition was borne of a stark and enigmatic oil painting—Walter Sickert’s The Raising of Lazarus (Fig. 1). A notoriously controversial artist, with strong cultural capital before the war, Sickert had only become ARA at the age of sixty-four in the 1920s, and would be elected a Royal Academician in 1934 for only a year before resigning in protest—his contrarian persona, at once radical and conservative, leveraged his fringe status as a polarising “modern master” to transgressively perform on the high-profile stage of the Academy. With Lazarus, he would purposefully court controversy in order to reflect on the themes of death, the Academy, and the vitality of painting.

As one critic reported, the average size of oil paintings on display in 1932 was “a good deal smaller than usual”, making the 2.4 metre-tall biblical reinterpretation all the more imposing.1 Ominous and dazzling, this painting was scaled up from a composite photograph featuring Sickert as Christ at its apex, a lay-figure wrapped in funeral garb, and a close friend, and painter as onlooker (Fig. 2). The photographs themselves re-staged a tableau that Sickert had observed earlier, when a mannequin was delivered to his studio. This is a painting multiplied—doubled again and again. The product of montaged photographs, painted twice and featuring the figure of an uncanny mannequin corpse, this painting was excessive, spectacular, and coldly distant.

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It mobilised suggestions of “vitality” and “mystery” surrounding the problems of resurrecting a body in paint, prompting highly ambivalent commentary from its critics. The painting’s format was roughly the dimensions of a coffin, tipping its bodies into the viewer’s space. Saturated complimentary colours break out of the dramatic chiaroscuro, shimmering surfaces, and unintelligible space immersing and disorienting the onlooker in impasto: “as though they were revealed in one terrific flash of lightning.”2 It elicited both praise and condemnation, announced as “Picture of the Year” by The Daily Telegraph and The Herald. The Telegraph was so effusive in its praise that it published four dedicated articles in forty-eight hours. To be auctioned for the support of Sadler’s Wells theatre, this painting used the Academy as the stage for a grand publicity stunt, but the controversial corpse at its heart prompted reflection on the vitality of the institution itself: “a person who made the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition his sole artistic experience in 1932 would learn practically nothing about the contemporary spirit in English painting.”3 Or again:

The nearest thing to life in their exhibition is Sickert’s picture of raising Lazarus from the dead. Some one [sic] ought to set about raising the Academy selectors from the dead … The Royal Academy Exhibition is a mirror of dead art.4

Praise for the painting was sometimes manic and excessive: “[it is] arresting by the newness and boldness of its colour scheme and is a veritable Tour de Force in the way it defies all the laws of ordinary harmony”;5 “glorious colour harmony … vitality … exquisite design … I do not exaggerate when I say that no other European painter could have invented anything even to compare.”6 Conversely, negative critics seemed to behold a different painting—for them, it was problematically empty, obstinately all surface effect, and “gloomy” rather than dazzling: “there is neither inspiration nor pictorial interest”;7 “The gloom of Mr Sickert’s tall painting, which follows in shape the elongation of a swathed white corpse.”8

For its supporters, “colour” was the key term, holding a magnetic and affective power: “The marvellous phosphorescent effect of the green grave-clothes holds the eye and gives one a moving sense of mystery and awe … Here surely is power!”9 For detractors, however, this sense of mystery was an obstacle, that meant the painting could “justifiably be described as weird”, 10 unsettlingly so because its “indeterminate draughtsmanship”11 lacked definition. Indeed, one of the key problems critics found in Lazarus was the speed of Sickert’s hand—seemingly rapid, but in actuality slow and deliberate: “Sickert’s eerie painting, The Raising of Lazarus. This, I was told, took him the whole year”.12 There seemed to be a latency and ambiguity about the painting and the body its title claimed to unearth.

The identity of the woman in the foreground was unclear—in the biblical context, was she Mary or Martha? Even the identity of the self-portrait at the top left viewers “puzzled” when the artist appeared at the opening “clean shaven”.13 However, what provoked most critical anxiety was Sickert’s refusal to comment on the fact that this figure had too many digits: “The left hand of the Christ in the picture has six-fingers and the suggestion of a seventh.”14 Anatomy itself appeared to be doubled in this confusing image of excessive and mysterious resurrection. Rather than an expression of belonging, or of untroubled mastery, this work was a transgressive and ambiguous shroud that captivated and entangled the viewer.

Too ambiguous, too fast, too many fingers; “Lazarus” gave the Royal Academy more than it could contain and cast “everything else in the Academy into the shade” with its dazzling shadow.15 Sickert offers the body as a kind of paradoxical palimpsest. Lazarus’ body that persists, but as an inchoate material—both blazing and indeterminate, a dry painterly shroud that binds and expresses the body at the same time as hiding it. Sickert forces his viewers to remain at the surface, entangled with the painted body. If the Academy was read as a moribund institution, Sickert would offer a much more ambivalent picture of both the Annual Exhibition’s relationship to modern painting, and the capacity of paint to embody its subject. For all that, Lazarus compresses the vital and the deathly, Sickert affectively frustrates desire, refusing both a straightforward resurrection of Lazarus, and a clear-cut assimilation of the artist to that “mirror of dead art”, the Academy.

  1. Our Art Critic, “Royal Academy: A Consistent Exhibition”, The Times, 30 April 1932, 13. The Times Digital Archive (TDA), (accessed 16 June 2017).↩︎

  2. Anon, Evening News, 30 April 1932 in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection, 1915-1937, S/SFC/2/3/2/1/4, 1 Volume, Islington Local History Archives, Islington Local History Centre, Islington, London.↩︎

  3. Our Art Critic, “Royal Academy”.↩︎

  4. “Stone Dead”, The Sunday Express, 1 May 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  5. “Mr Sickert’s Puzzle”, The Daily Mail, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  6. R.R. Tatlock, “The Picture of the Year, Sickert’s Superb ‘Lazarus’”, The Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  7. “Sickert Disappoints”, Sunday Dispatch, 1 May 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  8. The Western Morning News & Mercury, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  9. Stewart Nicholson, “‘Lazarus’ Academy Sensation—Modernist Painting of the Miracle—Artist as Christ”, The Daily Dispatch, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  10. Tatlock, “The Picture of the Year”.↩︎

  11. “‘Picture of the Year’”, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  12. The Daily Herald, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  13. The Daily Dispatch, 30 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  14. The Daily Dispatch, 29 April 1932, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  15. Tatlock, “The Picture of the Year”.↩︎

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