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

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Laura Cum­ming

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’.

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