Monday, November 11, 2002

Killer Art?

The above sketch is a study for one of my favorite paintings, a painting whose title, "Ennui," perfectly sums up its subject. It is the perfect picture of idleness and boredom. The couple are waiting for the day to end so they will have something to do: go to bed. There is an afternoon quality to the painting (which I unfortunately can't track down), a sense of things being over, of having passed, in the smaller and larger sense of the word. Life has no meaning, no purpose, beyond taking comfort in whatever you can to tolerate it. It's a sad picture; one thinks of Sonia speaking to Uncle Vanya in the last moments of Chekhov's great play:

What can we do? We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile--and--we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith... We shall rest ... We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall rest...

I'm no historian of the painter, Walter Sickert, or Jack the Ripper, but my long-held affection for this tender work is the only personal reason I resist Patricia Cornwell's assertion that both are one and the same; I have other reasons, but that's because her theory doesn't even get past a basic threshold of skepticism. Based on today's Times article, I'd say it's pretty damned shaky. First of all, it's based on what might be mitochondrial DNA gathered from the Ripper's stamp and Sickert's correspondence; Cornwell herself tells us that her own experts say "the Sickert letters were contaminated with DNA from several donors who touched them," although some DNA sequences matched those on the Ripper's letter. This, as Ripper expert Stephen P. Ryder points out, only narrows the suspect down to one of several hundred thousand people.

And Ms. Cornwell's other evidence? She writes that watermarks on three Ripper and eight Sickert letters are identical, from the A. Pirie & Sons paper company. Still, the stationery may have been widely distributed.

She also cites five Ripper letters that were signed "Nemo," Latin for "Nobody." Sickert's stage name when he was a young actor was "Mr. Nemo" or "Mr. Nobody." Another was signed "R. St. W." Sickert signed letters "W," or "R" or "St.," an abbreviation for Sickert. Sometimes he signed them "W. St."

I'll admit the last part is interesting, but no more. After that, her story sounds like pure speculation, and even her speculations look a bit tattered. Cornwell seems convinced that Sickert had an operation for fistula which damaged his sex organs, although it may just as well have been bothering his anus.

Such is my first impression; I'll say more after scrutinizing the book.

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