Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Indeterminate Stillness, Whistler at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Rotherhithe (Originally published as Wapping). 1860. Etching.

Last week I braved the rain to get over to to the Berkeley Art Museum to get a better look at two shows, the one on abstract art and the exhibit of Whistler etchings. 

click on the link to pay the writer (c'est moi)

Indeterminate Stillness looks at Whistler through the panoramic range of his prints, which he made throughout his career, creating nearly five hundred etchings in addition to lithographs, linotints, and engravings. This exhibition also celebrates an extraordinary gift by Sharon and Barclay Simpson, avid collectors of Whistler’s graphic work and longtime patrons and supporters of the University of California and particularly of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The Simpsons’ generous gift of sixty-two prints by Whistler spans the thirty-year arc of his career and includes works from Whistler’s most important print series, such as The Thames Set and both major series of Venetian prints

I've always liked Whistler's work and felt that it was unfortunate that his cantankerous personality and vitriolic wit has obscured his very real achievements as a painter. One would like to think that Whistler the artist flies clear of Whistler the celebrity, the "character."

What can you say about a man who titled his autobiography, "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies?" His invention of self, his public persona as a work as art remains as fiercely impressive as Oscar Wilde's. Whistler was one of those artists whose legend continued after his death and became a barrier to proper appraisal of his work.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler was the son of a railway engineer, in fact, the first son of a second marriage which saw more than its share of childhood deaths. But throughout his life he pretended to be a Southern gentleman and gave himself a completely invented pedigree, complete with fake military adventures and honors. He spent his early years in Russia where his father was designing the St. Petersburg-Moscow railway for Czar Nicholas I. From the very beginning he was a difficult, unruly child, impossible to discipline and rebellious. 

When Whistler was 15, his father died, leaving the family penniless. His mother insisted that he have a "regular" career instead of the artistic career which he desperately wanted. She arranged for him to enter West Point, which he hated from the very beginning. He eventually flunked out. "Had silicon been a gas," he would say later, "I would have been a major general." He left for Paris the next year, aged twenty-one and never returned.

It's unfortunate that his most famous painting, Whistler's Mother, or "Arrangement in Black and Grey" was the one painting of his up at the recent show of Impressionist work at the De Young. For the painting that made his reputation, a portrait of Jo Hiffernan, his Irish mistress and model, was done earlier and is much more representative of his virtuoso subtlety. (I believe that it's in the National Gallery).

His art unlike his public persona, was evocative and subtle. But his artistic creed was bold and revolutionary. He believed in "art for art's sake," which went against the Victorian view that art should convey some sort of moral lesson.

 `Art should be independent of all claptrap-- should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works "arrangements" and "harmonies".'

In 1877 the critic John Ruskin denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875; Detroit Institute of Arts), accusing him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Ruskin was the Lord High Chamberlain of British art and although already showing signs of the madness that would haunt his later years, still retained his power as a critic. 

Whistler's impressionistic and evocative style was, of course, the very thing that Ruskin hated most. He thundered from his bully pulpit, "The ill-educated conceit of the artist ... approached the aspect of willful imposture," and "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The national press quoted and requoted this at once, and there was no way around the fact that such a widely circulated opinion from a critic regarded as the supreme English authority on art would do grave damage to an artist's career.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Nocturne in Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge. 1872-75. Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London, UK. (aka the pot of paint..)

Whistler sued him for libel the following year. He won the action, but was only awarded a farthing's with no costs.  In effect, it was a justification for Ruskin. Potential patrons were repelled by the negative publicity surrounding the case, and the expense of the trial led to Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879. His house was sold and he proceeded to Italy with a commission from the Fine Arts Society to make twelve etchings of Venice.

He spent a year in Venice (1879-80), concentrating on the etchings-- among the masterpieces of 19th-century graphic art-- that helped to restore his fortunes when he returned to London. The etchings that Whistler produced were unlike most during his time. The manner in which he etched seemed more like painting, as he avoided deep dark lines but rather took advantage of hashing and shading.  He also avoided the picaresque scenes of Venice that were so popular at the time, eliminating humans from his etchings as much as possible, creating masterpieces with the barest suggestion of shapes. He sought out the non-tourist Venice, half-hidden courtyards, shadowed doorways, architectural elements or shimmering light on the watery highways and byways of the canals. 

"If Whistler had been content with pieces of studio exotica and Japonaiserie, he would not have his place in art history. He wanted to go further, integrating the "Japanese aesthetic" into the texture of late-nineteenth-century European experience. Whistler was enrapture by the half-seen, the evanescent, the image that vanishes almost before it can be named. " (Robert Hughes, Nothing if Not Critical). 

 The Traghetto, No. 2. 1879-1880. Etching and drypoint. Kennedy 191, between iv and v. 9 1/4 x 12. Series: “Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings”

Oscar Wilde acknowledged in 1889:

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps.... To whom, if not to [Whistler], do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art."

Unfortunately, the BAM does not many images on their website so these images of his etchings are captured from all over the web.



No comments: