The extraordinary cultural exchange bringing Whistler’s masterpiece to Australia
‘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