Mother dear­est

The ex­tra­or­di­nary cul­tural ex­change bring­ing Whistler’s mas­ter­piece to Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

‘The Whistlers smile se­cretly in their cor­ner ... that is all part of the sub­tle mal­ice with which they win you.’ — Bri­tish poet and editor Arthur Sy­mons,

Stud­ies in Seven Arts, 1906 ‘The less I be­have like Whistler’s Mother the night be­fore, the more I look like her the morn­ing af­ter.’

— Amer­i­can ac­tor Tal­lu­lah Bankhead

The old lady in black stares ahead, look­ing at noth­ing. Her face is pinched, as if she’s suck­ing qui­etly on a lemon drop or bat­tling a toothache. Her pro­file is raw, bony and se­vere. It re­calls en­graved Ro­man coins or carved idols or waxen ef­fi­gies.

Out of the gloom swim her white widow’s coif and thin hands in a nest of lace. There is a strange, time­less air of im­mo­bil­ity about her, as if she were a Gre­cian statue on a plinth.

Ar­range­ment in Grey and Black No. 1 — bet­ter known as Whistler’s Mother — hangs qui­etly in Salle Lux­em­bourg 13 on the ground floor of the Musee d’Or­say in Paris, five lev­els below the mu­seum’s su­per­star im­pres­sion­ist gallery of Renoir, De­gas and Matisse mas­ter­pieces.

It’s a big paint­ing, mea­sur­ing 144.3cm by 162.4cm, and sits in a thick wooden frame, pro­tected only by a flimsy white string bar­rier. When Re­view vis­its, it’s a few weeks away from be­ing packed in a be­spoke wooden crate and ac­com­pa­nied by an of­fi­cial Or­say courier un­der tight se­cu­rity for the long flight down un­der, where it will make its Aus­tralian de­but at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria.

As part of an art ex­change with the Or­say, the fa­mous paint­ing will form the cen­tre­piece of a sprawl­ing mul­ti­me­dia ex­hi­bi­tion that NGV di­rec­tor Tony Ell­wood de­scribes as a huge coup for the gallery. The Mel­bourne in­sti­tu­tion, in turn, will loan the Or­say its beau­ti­ful 1900 Pierre Bon­nard nude Siesta (La Si­este), to be ex­hib­ited this year at a show mark­ing the mu­seum’s 30th an­niver­sary.

Here, in the dim light of the Or­say, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler — the stern New Eng­land ma­tron im­mor­talised in an ac­ci­den­tal mas­ter­piece by art’s bad boy in 1871 — seems to float a few inches above the ground, re­ced­ing like a mi­rage away from the viewer.

You peer in, search­ing for her un­der that coarse weave (con­tro­ver­sially, Whistler painted her on the re­verse of an un­primed can­vas) and rad­i­cally thin, al­most translu­cent lay­ers of oil paint, past the ac­cre­tions of thick var­nish, the rect­an­gles and squares of dark and light, the ghostly brush­strokes, past the fa­mous but­ter­fly sig­na­ture in one cor­ner.

But she re­treats from us and her near neigh­bour — the wild, bo­som-clutch­ing young woman of Hugues Merle’s 1861 paint­ing Une Men­di­ante, who raises an im­plor­ing arm to the rigidly upright Anna across the room. The ef­fect is de­lib­er­ate. When early ob­servers later com­plained the por­trait was too flat and its colours too mea­gre, Whistler re­torted that “I did not wish to rep­re­sent my dear mother as jump­ing upon the be­holder”.

This small cham­ber in the mu­seum seems a pe­cu­liarly hum­ble set­ting for one of the world’s most fa­mous paint­ings, a work that at­tracts the in­stant recog­ni­tion af­forded the Mona Lisa and The Scream and Andy Warhol’s soup cans.

Like the Mona Lisa, it is one of the most re­pro­duced, iconic and satirised im­ages in Western cul­ture, pop­ping up on ev­ery­thing from Dis­ney an­i­ma­tions and Mr Bean episodes to the cov­ers of Newsweek and Mad mag­a­zine.

It shocked art­go­ers in Lon­don on its de­but in 1872, only to be re­branded as an Amer­i­can holy idol on a two-year US tour in the 1930s. There it at­tracted its own postage stamp, fed­eral troop es­cort, elec­tric bar­ri­ers, armed guards, pres­i­den­tial ad­dress, two-mil­lion-strong crowds and “even a spe­cial train just for the paint­ing,” says a be­mused Guy Co­geval, pres­i­dent of the Or­say. “It was like a head of state.”

A late 19th-cen­tury mas­ter­piece said to have pre­saged modernism, the Mother, as it’s pop­u­larly known, has since achieved a kind of cu­ri­ous im­mor­tal­ity through its other life as a rich source of in­ter­net memes and re­pro­duc­tions on post­cards and greet­ing cards, mag­a­zine cov­ers and car­toons, films and books.

But in this small room its out­sized leg­end seems muf­fled. All morn­ing, peo­ple wan­der in and out, trail­ing cam­eras, guide­books and a poly­glot bab­ble. Af­ter a while, a pat­tern emerges. Most of the Euro­peans give the Mother a quick glance and wan­der on. The English­s­peak­ers — Cana­di­ans, Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians and the Bri­tish — stop and stare.

“Oh my gawd, it’s Whistler’s Mother,” ex­claims one rev­er­en­tial tourist from Toledo be­fore whip­ping out a cam­era for the oblig­a­tory selfie.

Later, in a crowded back room, Co­geval re­flects on th­ese starkly di­verg­ing na­tional re­ac­tions. French chil­dren don’t study the paint­ing at school, so it flies un­der the cul­tural radar, he says. “I would say 99 per cent of the French don’t even know if we have it at the Or­say or not, but for the An­glo-Sax­ons it is huge, yes.”

This wasn’t the case, how­ever, at the start of its life. In fact, in a cu­ri­ous re­ver­sal of the cur­rent pic­ture Co­geval paints, the Mother was al­most uni­formly sav­aged when it was un­veiled at the Royal Academy in Lon­don in 1872, only to be de­i­fied later by the ador­ing French.

At a time when English art was all about the or­nate and colour­ful, and im­pres­sion­ism, with its cel­e­bra­tion of light, was gain­ing pace, Whistler’s dour paint­ing — an alien feast of darks — posed an al­most nasty shock to the Lon­don art es­tab­lish­ment. It was branded the “ex­per­i­ment of an ec­cen­tric” and a work of “in­cor­ri­gi­ble per­ver­sity”. Crit­ics sav­aged ev­ery­thing from its un­usual ti­tle, the un­con­ven­tional seated pos­ture of its sub­ject, its un-Vic­to­rian lack of sen­ti­men­tal­ity and its vir­tu­ally monochro­matic pal­ette to its un­con­ven­tional geo­met­ric ar­range­ment. The kind­est crit­i­cism came from the critic who claimed “the head lacked so­lid­ity”.

It was be­rated, too, for the puz­zling empti­ness of its bare stu­dio set­ting. A critic wrote in The Times that “an artist who could deal with large masses so grandly might have shown a lit­tle less sever­ity, and thrown in a few de­tails of in­ter­est with­out of­fence”. (An an­noyed Whistler quipped that per­haps he should have added “a glass of sherry and the Bi­ble”.)

Then there was Whistler’s mother her­self, with her cheer­less vis­age; what was ail­ing her, the mys­ti­fied pub­lic won­dered: bad teeth, her son’s play­boy rep­u­ta­tion, an un­com­fort­able chair or an ill­ness (her pal­lor led many to quip that Whistler painted her af­ter she had died)?

Per­haps most rad­i­cally, the paint­ing told no story at all about its mys­te­ri­ous, slightly for­bid­ding sub­ject. But why should it, coun­tered the artist, a lead­ing pro­po­nent of aes­theti­cism’s “art for art’s sake” phi­los­o­phy who would later write in his 1890 book, The Gen­tle Art of Mak­ing En­e­mies, that the sub­ject of the sit­ter was sec­ondary to the key aes­thetic aim: to or­gan­ise line and shape and colour in a har­mo­nious, al­most mu­si­cal whole. This was re­flected in the ti­tles he gave many of his paint­ings, which bore mu­si­cal names such as “ar­range­ments”, “har­monies” and “noc­turnes” — Whistler’s Noc­turnes formed his big­gest con­tri­bu­tion to mod­ern art. “As mu­sic is the po­etry of sound,” he said, “so is paint­ing the po­etry of sight.”

The bad press must have stung. To the en­raged Whistler, who of­ten be­rated the “in­cur­able philis­tin­ism” of the Bri­tish, it was hugely grat­i­fy­ing, then, to dis­cover the French were largely en­tranced when the Mother was shown at the Paris Sa­lon in 1883. Friends such as De­gas and Henri Fantin-La­tour cel­e­brated its enig­matic, oth­er­worldly qual­ity; sym­bol­ist art critic and nov­el­ist Huys­mans said it was as if the Mother were “on the wing to­wards a dis­tant dreaminess”.

In 1891, the French state, af­ter lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tions led by poet Stephane Mal­larme and sup­ported by fu­ture prime min­is­ter Ge­orges Cle­menceau, paid 4000 francs for the work to hang in the Musee du Lux­em­bourg (it would pass to the Lou­vre in 1925 and then the Or­say in 1986).

Co­geval says: “It was an ex­tremely ex­pen­sive price but France de­cided to pay.”

But what did the French see that the English didn’t? Or­say cu­ra­tor Xavier Rey at­tributes it to ev­ery­thing from its ground­break­ing aes­thetic el­e­ments to the his­toric con­text in which it was painted and later pur­chased. The Mother rose out of a tur­bu­lent time in art, with Whistler mov­ing from the French re­al­ism he was in­tro­duced to by Gus­tave Courbet in 1850s Paris to early ex­per­i­ments in im­pres­sion­ism in Lon­don in the 1860s, to his dar­ing modernist touches with the Mother in 1871.

Rey says: “What’s so im­por­tant about Whistler’s Mother is the time he painted it. It’s one of the first big-scale paint­ings he made when he’s chang­ing from re­al­ism to sym­bol­ism.”

For­tu­itously for Whistler, the of­fi­cial mood in Paris for his un­ortho­dox paint­ing was wel­com­ing when it was of­fered for sale in 1891.

The French state, Rey says, had moved to a more en­light­ened “re­cep­tion and com­pre­hen­sion” of once-re­viled art move­ments such as im­pres­sion­ism, re­flected in its pur­chase of Manet’s scan­dalous Olympia a year be­fore the Mother, its com­mis­sion­ing of Renoir’s Two Young Girls at the Pi­ano, and its grudg­ing ac­cep­tance of works from the sem­i­nal Gus­tave Caille­botte be­quest.

So the Mother, of­fer­ing the shock of the new, found a sym­pa­thetic and ad­mir­ing au­di­ence. The 1890s, Rey says, were, af­ter all, the years of the “tri­umph of sym­bol­ism, and of course this work was very ahead at the cross­roads of all th­ese el­e­ments”.

Aes­thet­i­cally, a key part of its rad­i­cal­ism was the in­spi­ra­tion it drew from Ja­panese wood­block prints, seen in “its flat­ness — there is no depth, and that’s why it was so mod­ern at the

NGV di­rec­tor Tony Ell­wood with a re­pro­duc­tion of Whistler’s Mother; a self-por­trait of the artist from 1872, below

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.