Laura Cumming on Whistler and Nature at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
For the American artist James McNeill Whistler, nature was merely a pretext for painting, which makes Whistler and Nature an uneasy affair
Whistler and Nature Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; until 17 March
It would be hard to think of a more perverse subject for a show than Whistler and Nature. The American painter (1834-1903) famously despised nature’s rampant chaos. He hated the way nature kept cropping up all over the place without any thought of harmony, structure or aesthetic restraint, all of which had to be imposed upon it by artists such as himself. “Nature is very rarely right,” runs one of Whistler’s typical barbs, “to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong.”
Of course the natural world is present in his art, if deeply veiled in mist or moonlight. Every one of Whistler’s Nocturnes is an outdoor scene, after all, showing the Thames and other great rivers dissolving in atmospheric fog. A gathering of Nocturnes would have been magnificent to behold (there is only one here); likewise an exhibition of his black and white visions of Venice, adrift on its mystic lagoon. Whistler and Water: that would have been a spectacular show. But instead, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has 90 works that wander so far from the theme of nature, on the whole, as to make a mockery of the show’s title.
Two nude models recline on a bed in the studio, one holding a Japanese fan. Another poses in diaphanous robes against an ornamental balcony, an oil study repeated several times. In a sequence of drawings, a slender girl stands tall in Grecian robes, light igniting the rippling edge of the cloth, which is the point of the picture; the girl herself is faceless.
At 62 Sloane Street, in 1859, Whistler’s brother-in-law sits reading in the lamplit interior. In Paris, where Whistler lived for many years, ant-sized figures are depicted moving around in the dusk from the windows of his apartment. There may be the semblance of a tree or two, occasionally a bush, but on the whole nature is a blank in the picture space. Rivers have their potent abstract force in his art, but river banks don’t: lost in the diffusion of Whistler’s fog.
The Nocturnes of the 1870s are prefigured, somewhat, in a group of rapt and liquid paintings made on the beach at Trouville the previous decade. A single translucent brushstroke breezes across a canvas to indicate wind skittering the sand and sea air. The brushstroke is more beautiful than the scene itself; that’s the declaration. And later, in The Bathing Posts, Brittany, from 1893, the sea is elegantly measured and balanced in wide blue swaths between the posts in question. Nature as perfect decor.
That nature was a pretext for painting, and for Whistler’s adventures in pre-impressionism, is most fully apparent in one of the disappointingly small number of oil paintings in this show. In this work, a group of female figures with Japanese parasols stare out into a pale continuum of vaporous water and sky as if viewing the glories of Mount Fuji. One girl is even dressed in a kimono. In fact we are in Battersea and this is the filthy old Thames. But Japonisme was the latest fashion and Whistler collected Japanese prints. He never abandoned western perspective, but he was a close student of the flattened space of ukiyo-e; this is his floating world.
The inclusion of some of Whistler’s own Japanese prints, on the other hand, drags him down. Indeed the whole show feels ill considered. Whistler and Nature is organised by the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, which rejoices in a world-class Whistler collection, so you might expect stronger and more pertinent exhibits, not least a few more paintings. Almost all the works here are drawings, lithographs or etchings, displayed entirely without flair and accompanied by extravagant captions comparing Whistler with Rembrandt as a printmaker. Ninety works, and still this exhibition feels puny. It is astonishing that neither the Hunterian nor the Fitzwilliam could have managed to borrow more than one Nocturne.
But there is an alternative way to look at this show, which is to ignore its vaunted theme altogether. Forget nature, and its false focus, and observe instead a more intimate narrative of Whistler’s life. Here he is at 25, already got up in one of his dandy hats; with his new young wife, Beatrice, with his relatives in Paris, or back in Greenwich depicting a pensioner. Notice the way he has scribbled right over that etching, the way his signature changes, the arrival of the trademark butterfly or the quaint, curlicued inscriptions on certain prints, advertising a forthcoming London exhibition.
The Venice etchings are outlandish, shadowy, bizarre. He went there in 1879 after losing all his money during the famous libel suit against Ruskin, for the latter’s claim that Whistler had “flung a pot of paint in the public’s face”. In one deeply mysterious print, almost entirely composed of fine vertical lines, Whistler brilliantly conjures the effect of light glancing upon stone, glass and water, redoubled in endless reflections behind which the city disappears.
The last works are small, melancholy, precise: observations of the Thames and Waterloo Bridge in the 1890s viewed from his room at the Savoy, where Beatrice now lay dying of cancer. The London landscape has turned to gloaming and smoke. And in Nocturne, the one unqualified masterpiece of this show, out of the blue-green fog that lies on the river loom two strange forms that might be vessels, and might be mirages in the dusk – a vision of the material world vanishing into the last moment between light and darkness.
He hated the way nature kept cropping up all over the place without any thought of harmony
Nocturne, 1875-7 by James McNeill Whistler: ‘the one unqualified masterpiece of this show’.