Saturday, 4 June 2011

Jimmy Whistler, the orneriest aesthete West of the Pecos

I visited the V&A exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: 1860 – 1900, yesterday, and what a treat it turned out to be: crammed with unexpected treasures and intelligently laid out. 
As with any exhibition featuring his work, James Abbot McNeill Whistler was the stand-out artist. 

The three Symphony in White paintings, all featuring young women dressed in, er... white, are stunning seen together, and it’s always a pleasure to see his side-view depiction of Thomas Carlyle (Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2) and his Nocturne in Blue and Gold, featuring the old Battersea Bridge with a subtle dusting of fireworks in the background. But the most exciting items, for me, are the three sets of etchings, featuring trilogies of views of Venice, Wapping and Amsterdam. They display astonishing technical virtuosity (they were etched right there on the spot with the scene in front of him) and an aesthetic sensibility second to none. In their way, they are as glorious as Turner’s watercolours of Venice. The Docklands scenes are particularly impressive: a triumphant example  of finding beauty in ugliness.
For years, I’ve owned a lavishly illustrated book of Whistler’s Venetian etchings and pastels, which I’ve always found rather disappointing. Recently, I decided to have another go. As this was just before I received a brace of new specs, I could barely make anything out, so I ended up peering at the illustrations through a magnifying glass – and suddenly, the beauty of Whistler’s creations was revealed. The etchings, in particular, are small and exquisitely detailed: unlike most works of art, they actually improve as you get closer. So, yesterday, in the gallery, I knew what to do - about six inches seemed to be the optimum viewing distance. (I would have gone even closer, but the attendant was getting antsy.)

I’ve loved Whistler since encountering his paintings in the Tate as a teenager. At college, the book I turned to most often wasn’t Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (although I probably should have) - it was Whistler’s 1890 selection of his own letters to enemies, critics, journals and newspapers, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. “Waspish” doesn’t sum it up, really – he was positively ballistic. 

William Merritt Chase’s famous 1885 portrait of the artist, which adorns the cover of the paperback edition of The Gentle Art, makes Whistler look like a willowy aesthete – Lytton Strachey without the beard and dressed like a dandy. In reality – as the book itself and Whistler’s notorious court case against Ruskin (“...flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”) testifies – he was as combative as a prize-fighter, never knowingly allowing a slight, an insult, and even the occasional bit of praise, to pass without a viciously wounding riposte (“You will, Oscar, you will.”). His pals called him Jimmy, and that seems right – he looked more like a Mississippi riverboat gambler with a derringer stuck in each boot just in case it all it all turned ugly, which, given Jimmy’s temperament, it often did. You can imagine him drawling, “Keep your hands where I can see ‘em, you sonofabitch!” 

Tough as old boots and ever ready for a scrap. It’s no accident he eventually added a long stinger to the butterfly motif which he drew on all his works.

I have absolutely no idea where Whistler’s critical reputation currently stands, but I’ve always considered him the greatest painter America has ever produced, and I imagine the fact that he chose London as his base of operations had a considerable effect on British art. He’s buried at St. Nicholas’s Church here in Chiswick, which feels like an honour.

And, in case there’s any confusion, he never actually said “Your Majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss”.

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