Monday, May 5, 2014

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through August 17, 2014

One doesn't usually think of the Sackler as a destination for an exhibit of Whistler works, but think again!  It's currently the site of an international show of etchings, drawings, oils and water colors, all on the theme of the Thames.  I'm guessing that the Freer didn't have a space large enough to host this show, so their Whistlers and many other, visiting works are on display at the Sackler.  This is the first time since the Freer opened in 1923 that its Whistlers (the most comprehensive collection in the world) have been shown with works from other museums.

Lest you think that Asian art is unrepresented in this show, one of the sections is entitled "Japonisme" and focuses on the Japanese influence in Whistler's later pieces.  To demonstrate the similarities, there are several Hiroshige and Hokusai works - regular readers of this blog can easily imagine my delight in seeing my old friend Hokusai in an unexpected setting.  The man on the boat in the piece pictured here could easily have come from a Japanese artist, and the bridges that played such a large part in Whistler's repertoire were common features in Asian art as well.

This piece is particularly fine, in my opinion, along with the moodiness of the nocturne, you have the exuberance of the fireworks dimly visible in the background.  As some in London go about their work, others are at play - true of all cities, I suppose.

Whistler lived in sight of the Thames for the many years he was resident in London, and he documented the changes that industrialization wrought on the river, the bridges crossing the river and those who made their living on the water.  In this way, he's like Marville and Kioychika, chronicling the end of an era in London the way those artists did in Paris and Tokyo.

One of the etchings, "Black Lion's Wharf" is notable both for the fact that it's the only one to have been reversed on the etching plate, so that the resulting print is an accurate portrayal of the scene, but was also depicted in Whistler's most famous painting, "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1" - better known as Whistler's Mother.  That piece is not among those in this show, as it doesn't depict the Thames, but I've been fortunate enough to see it at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Just in case you follow the dictates of art critics closely in deciding what's good and what's not, keep in mind that Whistler's Nocturnes were thought very poor at the time he painted them.  Now, of course, they're considered some of his finest work.  Just goes to show, you can't trust the critics.  How someone could have disparaged the Nocturnes is beyond me.  Granted, they're quite different from his earlier, more realistic work, but they convey the mood of the Thames at night, with the fog enveloping the details of the buildings so effectively that they're quite realistic in their own way.

Verdict:  If you like Whistler, don't miss this show.  If you don't know much about him, this is a great way to make his acquaintance.

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