The painter of poetry

Whistler's paintings of the Thames are allusive and atmospheric, but they also show his skill in drawing

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

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. Hiffernan appears too in ‘Wapping’, but with her features curiously blurred, allowing the male figure next to her to become a focal point of this very different but equally impressive painting.

The tone becomes increasingly Japanese in the fourth room, with a group of pale oils, the most surprising of which is ‘Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf’, almost awkward in its vaulting imagery and heavily worked surface. Opposite is a rare pen and ink ‘Nocturne’, a network of swift lines hatching and crosshatching the scene. The fifth room is full of treasures, from a tiny monochrome watercolour of Battersea, all fluid and misty, to a major statement of indistinctness, the oil ‘Nocturne’ of 1875/7 from the University of Glasgow. Whistler here manages to evoke brilliantly that most testing of subjects: real darkness. It could be night over the Thames, or lots of other places. Actually it’s just a superb piece of paintwork, very thinly applied, but magical and mysterious in its ability to evoke.

For some reason the catalogue’s chronology puts Whistler’s death in 1902, but don’t let this deter you from acquiring this handsome and useful publication (£25 in paperback). The Thames pictures are among Whistler’s finest and it’s certainly worth owning a book about them, though do not expect all the listed exhibits to be on view at Dulwich. Some are not permitted to travel, such as a group of nocturnes in American collections. The exhibition tours to America next year: to the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy (1 February to 13 April) and then to the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution (2 May to 17 August). Will the subject or its treatment be of more interest to an American audience? Let us hope that both constituents of Whistler’s remarkable art receive equal attention.

A footnote to my Graham Sutherland review last week: Sutherland (1903–80) has been out of fashion for some time but now his posthumous career shows signs of revival. A new book has just been published, entitled Graham Sutherland: From Darkness into Light: Mining, Metal and Machines (Sansom & Co., paperback, £17.95), concentrating on his work as an Official War Artist. This splendidly illustrated volume chronicles the paintings and drawings Sutherland made in the Geevor tin mine in Cornwall in 1942, and in the iron and steel foundries of South Wales. His typically emotive bruised colours and convoluted twisting lines raise echoes through the converging tunnels and flaming moulds of these industrial sites, searching out and identifying the drama in extreme conditions. The artist described it as ‘a world of such beauty and such mystery that I shall never forget it’, a world you can catch at Penlee House Gallery in Penzance (until 23 November), where an exhibition of this aspect of Sutherland’s work will beguile you. A smaller version of this show will tour to the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea (7 December 2013 to 23 March 2014). Gradually Sutherland is being reassessed: about time.

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