UNREAL REALISM OF WHISTLER
by Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
What is so special about it? Women wearing long dresses stand on the grass. What is so unreal about it? The sense, the feeling... The feeling of anotherplanetness - of both the women and the grass. As if women from a different planet have put on beautiful 19th c. dresses and hover over the grass of an Unknown World.
That is Whistler. That is the core of Whistler. And this unreal feeling from real people, landscapes and interiors is the most important thing in his creativity. Otherwise he would have been just one more very good 19th c. realistic artist - exquisitely technical and with a superb sense of color. But how did he achieve that effect of unreality or a different reality? Hard to say. One thing is clear, though, - this sensation is part of his mind, which he managed to express on canvas. For every artist paints his own mind giving an insight into himself... to those who are capable of reading it.
In the Freer's collection, which is part of the Smithonian Museum in Washington D.C., among Vietnamese Ceramics, Japanese screens, Korean, Chinese, Buddhist art, art of the Islamic world, Chinese metal and clay and Ancient Near Eastern art as well as Freer's ideal of feminine beauty the American art is represented purely by James McNail Whistler. In fact, Freer's collection of Whistler is the greatest in the Western world.
Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit industrialist, became enamored of Asian art during a trip to London. While there Freer was strongly influenced by Whistler and his art. A self-taught connoisseur, Freer began collecting Asian art and organizing his collection at home in Detroit. In 1906, he donated the collection to the Smithonian, along with funds to endow it. Today the collection has some 24, 000 works. The Freer Gallery and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, with which it is connected underground, together form the National Museum of Asian art.
James McNail Whistler is the artist whose works bring many visitors to the Freer. Born in Massachusetts in 1934, he studied art in Paris from 1855 to 1859, and spent most of the rest of his life in London.
In 1986 a wealthy ship owner, Frederick R. Leyland, asked James Whistler to advise his architect, Thomas Jeckyll, on a color for his dining room's shutters and doors. Jeckyl had designed the room around a portrait by Whistler and the china that Leyland had collected. Whistler had painted The Princess of the Land of Porcelain earlier. Embossed and gilded antique leather covered the walls. On the floor was an Oriental rug with a red border. To Whistler, these elements did not go with the colors of the large portrait, so he requested permission from Leyland to make 'minor alterations'. In his patron's absence, Whistler was inspired to make bolder revisions. He covered the ceiling with Dutch metal, or imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He then gilded Jeckyll's walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peackocks. 'Minor alterations', indeed. Now you can see all this in Peacock's Room in the Freer Gallery.
The collection of Whistler's works in the USA is amazing. Amazing is also the display. When Whistler was exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow last Autumn I realized that anything and everything can be played down, toned down. The Whistler I saw at the Tretyakov was not the Whistler that I had discovered for myself in America the previous spring. Just glimpses of Eternity...
But even though... A woman again. A long dress. Not a decolleter, but a closed one this time. The colors - white and black, no, not black, grey rather. Almost monochrome. The work has come from London. Why did I never notice it in London? A real woman in a real interior. What is so unreal about it? Only the feeling, the sensation. How did the artist achieve that? Hard to say. But it's Whistler. The unreal realist Whistler. A man of Another Planet, a Different World. A well-known Americn artist who lived in Europe. Does it matter? His mind was always elsewhere - wherever his body was on the Earth. And one can see his Planet, Planet Whistler, if one tries to get an insight into his mind, into his inner world through his great art.
July 9, 2007
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