Studying Whistler's work

Artist: Exhibit offers glimpse of man who was rebel of sorts when it came to his pictures.

January 22, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN ARTS WRITER

ANNAPOLIS -- The juicy biographical stuff can easily take over when you talk about James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the 19th-century artist who fits easily into contemporary celebrity culture. Picture some combination of Sean Penn's volatility, Geraldo Rivera's showboating, Tom Wolfe's dandyish brilliance and Rush Limbaugh's needling, and you get the idea.

Then there's Whistler's work, which endures in the absence of the artist's bombastic voice. The Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis is presenting not only a selection of Whistler's lithographs, but also an incarnation of Whistler himself. The two speak very different languages.

In musical terms, which Whistler often used in naming his pictures, it's a contrast between pianissimo and fortissimo. The man who wrote The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and was famous for his public feuds with British art critic John Ruskin and writer Oscar Wilde, also struck powerfully resonant chords in early modernism with subtle work.

That famous picture Whistler's Mother (actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Painter's Mother) reveals his thinking in 1871. The oil painting -- an elegant, understated composition -- was a likeness second, a matter of formal artistic concern first. The revolution that would beget 20th-century abstraction was already under way.

It was Whistler's understatement, not his flamboyant personality, that attracted Washington art collector Steven Block, who owns the lithographs on exhibit at the Mitchell Gallery through Feb. 27. In his catalog notes, Block says the lithographs grabbed him for their subtlety and experimental spirit, and for the light they throw on Whistler's life: "The lithographs are more than surface arrangements. Thinly disguised beneath the veil, half-hidden by the shadow and the firelight, are revelations -- glimpses of a world in which Whistler delighted."

The 87 lithographs drawn from Block's collection are modest things, none larger than a sheet of notebook paper. Faces, storefronts, city parks and streetscapes of Whistler's surroundings in England and Europe (where he lived most of his adult life) take shape in spare terms. The scene is often left unfinished, the quick, energetic central image floating in a pool of blank white paper.

Whistler had grander ambitions for these lithographs than the modest form suggests. According to catalog notes by Nesta R. Spink, Whistler hoped the pieces would be "collected and cherished like `the most delicate drawings out of a Museum.'"

He was to be disappointed. The critical and public response did not meet his expectations of his first lithographic efforts in the late 1870s, nor when he returned to the medium 10 years later.

The disconnect between Whistler's expectations and the critical response became a life motif, cresting in his 1877 libel suit against the influential critic and lecturer Ruskin. Like the French Impressionists, Whistler was resisting traditional definitions of art, pursuing the work as pure form. Composition and color relationships were to be understood on their own terms, not as depictions of a scene or story.

In response to the atmospheric 1875 painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." In the same sentence he referred to Whistler as a "coxcomb," or a ridiculous fop.

Always poised for a good fight (the story goes that Whistler once pushed his brother-in-law and mentor, Francis Seymour Haden, through a plate glass window), Whistler sued for libel. He won, a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

The trial in 1878 did give Whistler the opportunity to defend some of his art theories. Ruskin did resign his Oxford professorship in fine art and saw his reputation for infallibility marred. For damages, Whistler was awarded the princely sum of one farthing, a quarter of a penny, a sum so insignificant that the British discontinued the bronze coin in 1961. For Whistler, however, the legal cost was ruinous, and by spring of 1879, at the age of 44, he had been declared bankrupt.

This and other colorful tales will be told in the Mitchell Gallery during the run of the exhibit by an actor portraying Whistler. In black morning coat, vest, gray trousers, curly wig and mustache, actor Tim King will hold forth at 7 p.m. Feb. 22.

King will embody the Whistler hauteur, talking about his life, reveling in the public stir created by his famous "10 o'clock lectures" in London, and lambasting his favorite target: art critics:

"While art critics offend me as a class, there is one who offends me more ... by the sheer audacity of his ignorance," King as Whistler says of Ruskin.

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