Monday, August 1, 2011

Chinamania: Whistler and the Victorian Craze for Blue and White

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through August 7, 2011

This show is downstairs at the Freer, so waste no time walking around the main floor as I did. It's a small show, featuring both examples of blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain and Whistler drawings of same.

Just as Homer Simpson described Germany as the "land of chocolate," so the Victorians viewed China as the "land of porcelain." Whistler viewed the exotic East as far more interesting than the mundane life he was living in London. He became quite enthralled with blue-and-white china, and his efforts to popularize it resulted in such increases in price, that he could no longer afford to purchase it himself.

Apparently Whistler used to have friends over to look at his acquisitions, and his mother is quoted as saying that he thought it was the most beautiful art in the world. Art critics didn't agree with him, but the Victorian public certainly did. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying that people felt they had to "live up to" their porcelain. I thought about my own collection of china at home, but didn't think any of it required any great moral effort on my part.

Whistler took a commission to paint pictures of a collector's blue-and-white in order to make some money, but he found that it was more artistically valuable than he had anticipated. This sentiment resonated, as I often find myself heading off to shows only because they are on my list, and I find I enjoy them much more than I thought I would. I guess you just never can tell.

Verdict: This show is easily manageable in a lunch hour; in fact you'd have time to look in on the Peacock Room, which is mentioned throughout. There are several lovely pieces of porcelain, and lots of interesting history to accompany them.

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