Thursday, August 2, 2012
Whistler & Rebellion in the Art World Opens August 4, 2012
Only an artist as talented as James Abbot McNeill Whistler could get away with his rebellious persona. Deliberately provocative and controversy-seeking, Whistler maintained a contentious stance toward other artists, critics, academics, viewers, and patrons. His legacy, on the other hand, speaks for his immense ability to create exquisite works of art. Carnegie Museum of Art engaged Whistler shortly after its foundation in 1895; he served on several advisory boards for Carnegie International exhibitions between 1897 and 1903. Between 1896 and 1907 (posthumously), Whistler exhibited 12 works of art at Carnegie Internationals. The museum holds a substantial collection of Whistler's prints, which have not been on view since 1998. Organized by associate curator of fine arts Amanda Zehnder, Whistler & Rebellion in the Art World draws upon the museum's collection to explore Whistler's flamboyant defiance of artistic conventions, and his insistence on the importance of "art for art's sake."
At the core of his disputes with critics was Whistler's assertion of a pure aesthetic experience, removed from moral lessons and context. To Whistler, only beauty, form, tone, color, and line mattered. According to Zehnder, "This exhibition showcases Whistler's beautiful etchings, lithographs, and paintings as he intended them to be seen-as aesthetic objects to be appreciated solely for their visual qualities, and not primarily for their subject matter." His most radical works approached abstraction, and his critical voice and philosophies about the function of art paved the way for later abstract art movements. His book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, allows a peek at his forceful debates with and jabs at critics and other intellectuals, which surprise museum-goers today given what we've come to view as the graceful, delicate appearance of his art. Whistler's standoff with the art world of his day came to a head in 1878 when he sued academic artist John Ruskin over a scathing critical review of one of Whistler's paintings.
"Art should be independent of all clap-trap - should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it and that is why I insist on calling my works 'arrangements' and 'harmonies.'"
-Whistler (The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890)
Whistler & Rebellion in the Art World includes a Ruskin watercolor to demonstrate the striking similarities in the aesthetic sensibilities of both artists, despite the very different foundations from which they arose. The Ruskin row boiled down to a philosophical, rather than aesthetic conflict: for Ruskin, art exists to uplift and morally influence the viewer; for Whistler, art must be beautiful, nothing more. The weight of Whistler's radical ideas would shape later artists dramatically, even though, to modern eyes, his artworks no longer seem controversial. With around 90 prints on view, the exhibition displays Whistler's immense ability in both etching and lithography.
The exhibition will also include the museum's important full-length painted portrait Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (1884). And, it will be augmented by excerpted quotations chosen by Zehnder to reveal Whistler's motivations, philosophies, and disputes. "Whistler's personality was towering," Zehnder remarks. "He was one of the most famously witty aesthetes and simultaneously difficult artists of his era. Understanding his elegant and often delicate art work in relation to his contentious personality will be part of the fun of this exhibition."
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834–1903; Nocturne, the River at Battersea, 1878, lithotint with scraping on laid paper, mounted on wove paper; Carnegie Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834–1903; Nocturne, 1879–1880, from the series Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings (the “First Venice Set”), etching and drypoint on laid paper; Carnegie Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834–1903; The Dyer, 1879–1880, etching and drypoint on laid paper; Carnegie Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834–1903; The Thames, 1896, lithotint with scraping on wove paper mounted on wove paper; Carnegie Museum of Art, Purchase