Exhibitions Visual Poetry

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, November 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions Visual Poetry


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


An American in London:

Whistler and the Thames Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 12 January 2014 The famous court case in which Ruskin accused Whistler of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' continues to rumble through the public response to art in this country. The man in the street, the man on the Clapham Omnibus and most of the men who drive black cabs all like their art to be recognisable. (Perhaps women are less hidebound. ) Their definition of skill is the ability to paint with photographic fidelity, and they prefer art to tell a story. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), leading exponent of 'art for art's sake', painted pure visual poetry rather than the hard facts of detailed realism. His paintings are supremely atmospheric: subtle and allusive, they suggest rather than state, evoke rather than describe. However, this does not mean that he couldn't draw. In this new exhibition there is ample demonstration of his graphic abilities - perhaps indeed too much.

Many of the visitors to Dulwich will be drawn by the subject of this exhibition, expecting an interesting historical overview of London with lots of Thames scenes. And, to a certain extent, this is what they get.

My first impression was of a few intensely beautiful things surrounded by a plethora of less consequential images. There are a lot of prints in this show, and rather too many period photographs. It often irks me that gallery-goers spend more time reading the wall texts than looking at the pictures, but here they were clustered round the photos and the maps rather than the art. London and its river are evidently of more interest than the genius of an expatriate American painter . . .

The exhibition begins with the 'Thames set', a sequence of 16 etchings of river subjects published in 1871. Here is ample evidence of Whistler's skill as a draughtsman, particularly in the early images from 1859 or 1860. Notice the intricacy of the background buildings in 'Black Lion Wharf', or the riverside seen from The Angel pub at Bermondsey in an etching called 'Rotherhithe', featuring a couple of sailors smoking contemplatively. In the second room is a group of three oil paintings of Battersea and Westminster, one wonderfully minimal black chalk drawing, 'Two Men in a Boat' (pace Jerome K. Jerome), four etchings and/or drypoint, of which the boldly drawn 'Longshoremen' has a buttonholing directness, and six documentary photographs. Of the paintings, 'Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge' has the most entrancing light and the greatest sense of dynamic movement; also traces of the influence on Whistler of the French realist Gustave Courbet.

'Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach' is slightly more frenetic, its space less lucid, but the brushmarks are the most beautiful of the trio - lovely loose mark-making, speedy and evocative.

There are another three oils in the third room: 'The Artist's Studio' (1865), depicting Whistler and two models, a subfusc and slippy bit of painting but remarkably atmospheric for such an elusive image. Opposite are two major pictures: 'Symphony in White No. 2', from the Tate, and 'Wapping', a visual ballad of rigging and spars, done from the Angel's balcony looking across river.

'Symphony in White' is exquisitely familiar, depicting Whistler's mistress Joanna Hiffernan, in profile with three competing colour elements: a Japanese fan emblazoned with a Hiroshige woodcut, blue and white porcelain on the mantelpiece, and pink azaleas. …

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