Friday, October 19, 2012

Whistler on Art

Originally I had planned to look at various posters selling the latest Hollywood wares, but after 10 minutes of this exercise I came away so despondent that I opted for something a little more interesting.  Look for our take on film advertising at a future date.

On my night table is Whistler on Art, a compilation of selected letters and writings edited by Nigel Thorp.  It makes for interesting reading.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of art – and his work and influence remain polarizing to this day.  Whistler’s work is perhaps best seen as the bridge between the Academic tradition and Modernism.  Though the Impressionists presented a radical break from established artistic tradition, Whistler was never really a member of their order, nor did he always approve of the excesses of the Impressionists.  Whistler’s influence was long-lasting and deeply felt by painters as diverse as Henry Ossawa Tanner, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent.

But more than his technique and coloration, perhaps his longest-lasting contribution was to the philosophy of art.  Whistler devoutly believed that a picture should always be removed from its narrative, and be seen purely as an arrangement of color, line and mood.  He thought painting should aspire to the quality of music – just as we know music is sad when we hear a funeral dirge without knowing that it is a funeral dirge, and pictures should inspire certain moods and impressions without the viewer knowing any ‘backstory.’  It is no surprise that he used musical terms for many of his pictures, including Nocturne, Arrangement and Symphony
This, I believe, is all well and good in the latter years of the Victorian era when Enlightenment values and a Humanist tradition prevailed.  However it was Whistler’s views, I think, that opened the door to the excesses of Modernism and the eventual degradation of art.  Surely, the thinking goes, if a picture is any arrangement of color, then mere squares, dots or smears of color are art, as well?  Without Whistler there could be no Damien Hirst, or Tracey Emin.  As Whistler wrote, Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and 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.”

And that, I believe, was the beginning of the end.  I’m sure if Whistler – a conscientious and industrious if sometimes technique-challenged painter – could resurrect himself from eternity, he would be appalled at how his ideas have been applied to sharks in formaldehyde, urinals, cow effluvia and floor sweepings.  In fact, the great man may have had to rethink his entire philosophy.

Like many who believed in Art for Art’s Sake, what Whistler really argued was that beauty was paramount, more so than moralizing or instruction.  Beauty is at the core of Art for Art’s Sake.  Later painters and philosophers, however, have taken the Art of Art’s Sake credo to mean that art is anything we wish it to be.  It is not.

Reading Whistler on Art is an at-times heart breaking experience.  Letters from his earliest youth show a sweet boy, in love with art and devoted to his family.  Even through his mid-twenties, Whistler seems like a gentle-minded man.  But something happened to his temperament, and the once-youthful sweetness drowned in bile, bellicosity and bitterness.  He became an argumentative, blustery and sometimes clownish figure, always in some kind of contretemps with whatever ‘establishment’ he felt slighted him at that moment.  Perhaps Whistler’s greatest failing is that he never left his emotional adolescence.  It was a template that would be slavishly copied by many Twentieth Century artists.

Here are some pearls to be found in Whistler on Art:  Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an Arrangement in Grey and Black.  Now that is what it is.  To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?

The imitator is a poor kind of creature.  If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer.  It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model.

This is now understood indifferently well – at least by dressmakers.  In every costume you see attention is paid to the key-note of colour which runs through the composition, as the chant of the Anabaptists through the Prophete, or the Huguenots’ hymn in the opera of that name.

Equally fine, though I disagree with the sentiment, is: The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter – perfect in its bud as in its bloom – with no reason to explain its presence – no mission to fulfill – a joy to the artist – a delusion to the philanthropist – a puzzle to the botanist – an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man.

Interested readers can find some truly champion Whistlers in the Frick Collection in New York, as well as the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

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