Whistler – Elegant Simplicity

This past week I visited the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian. Anyone who has been there will know it is primarily a gallery of Asian art and particularly, Japanese paintings. But it also houses the famous “Peacock Room” by James McNeill Whistler. There is also an adjoining gallery of Whistler paintings. In this gallery there were about 30 pieces. Some of his well known portraits- large, formal, tonal- were exhibited as well as a nocturne which he is famous for. But there were several studies that were less well known and from his late period. I am always fascinated with an artist’s last works when they no longer care about success and all of its trappings; when they are confident to paint what is calling forth to be painted from within. There is usually less formality and more heart and soul. Whistler’s work was comprised of all of these things.

This late work was beautifully refined and elegant and contained an utter simplicity that was exceptional. The “Peacock Room” contained all those aspects of Japanese art that was popular at the time- richly gilded walls with magnificent peacocks in gold and turquoise, hand carved shelves and decorative work, a formal painting of a woman in a kimono- refined and elegant but hardly simple. The late work takes all of these characteristics and refines it in a crucible of simplicity that speaks of a beauty that is born within- a flower in bud moments from opening. A seminal Japanese aesthetic.

There was a series of female figures that were studies for a mural piece. I particularly like the “Venus” completed the year of his death. It depicts a female nude standing on the beach in a late light, with drapery blowing behind and gently caressing the figure. The flesh is beautifully cool amid a subtle warmness. It is grace itself.

This same grace he carries to two portraits of a girl. One titled “The Red Glove” and the other simply “A Girl”. The format for both was a narrow vertical canvas in which the girl easily slipped into, with space above her head- sensitive, thoughtful and utterly simple- extremely touching. It contained all the simplicity of Japanese painting- refined and elegant- but also very American- very Whistler.

In a lower gallery there was a series of drawings in which Whistler inventoried his own collection of Japanese vases with his signature butterfly icon. Within his personal collection of drawings were a group of female figures on toned paper in pastel. I had seen one of these drawings last year at the Met in a drawing show. Even though it was very small, 3″x 5″, it was very powerful and I took note of it. It was wonderful to see the rest of them in a group. A beautiful graceful outline of the figure with the utmost simplicity of modelling in two or three colors on a warm brown paper.

Whistler achieved a style which spoke of an “immensity” hidden within the simple. In this way he holds in his work a true Japanese aesthetic. The Japanese as well as the Chinese did not work directly from nature. But instead observed nature carefully and then absorbed all that they had observed and then attempted to describe all those characteristics within the image. This image was produced away from his subject and at a time when the artist felt that he had come to know his subject intimately. Whistler takes from Japanese painting the sense of  meticulous observation re-imagined with ease, containing within itself all the possibilities of that object- it’s beginning, it’s growth and dissolution- and abbreviates those things into a simple image. Looking around the museum, there were countless Chinese and Japanese images that spoke of the same sense of “immensity” manifest in the simple rendering of an object. By observing the small and specific character of a thing, one inherently sees the connection it has to “all” things and it becomes a reflection of “life” itself and to “living”. This is really Whistler’s contribution to western aesthetics, that one might feel the “immensity” that is life itself and take us beyond mere craftsmanship and bless us with a beauty that is sublime.

 

A Glimpse

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Sometimes I only have a vague notion of my next image. It comes to me sometimes in the middle of the night or driving in the car. But it keeps coming to me again and again slowly taking shape and becoming clearer in my mind. These images are just as important as the ones that appear like a bolt of lightning in all their dynamic quality and clarity. Sometimes these more subtle images speak more about an unconscious aspect of ourselves or sometimes it is something that is so common place that we fail to notice it right before our eyes.

I find it is helpful to keep notes of these things. Slowly and imperceptibly images form upon these thoughts. It is perhaps like making soup. You begin with a base and you keep adding to it until it starts to carry the aroma that you have been savoring, yearning to taste. This aspect of my creative process is why I named my blog attentive equations- the equation being the multi-faceted assortment of material that becomes the basis of an image and to a greater degree a lineage of one’s artistic vision.

I have been musing over a design for a lithograph, one that has the character of a spontaneous observed moment. If one knows anything about lithography it is not what I would call a spontaneous process. It takes a lot of planning. A sketch directly on the stone takes a skill that I have only seen by say Whistler or Anders Zorn. There is no room for error. A mistake is permanent and can only be corrected by starting over and regrinding the stone. But there is something pure about the free print and Whistler was truly able to capture it. One of his images at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a sketch of the artist’s sister with a friend having an intimate conversation in a parlor. It was briefly sketched but contained in its brevity a touching moment of intimacy between both the friends and the artist- they feeling free to express themselves in his company. It is this quality of authenticity that intrigues me- a common place yet genuine moment.

These common yet alluring moments of discovery are what was calling to me in the middle of the night. My daughter has really become a generator of inspiration for me. A child’s intense interest in all things no matter how common place they are has captured my imagination. It is not too often that there is something right before one’s eyes that holds a key to unlocking the inherent intensity of life itself. The child contains in his or her being an intense love of life and experience. And this, itself, seeks expression.

My image for the lithograph went through many stages before I could actually pinpoint this as the quality and expression I was after. And as it appears now, it may continue to develop further and emerge as a different type of image in the future. But I have to allow it to change and reach its eventual fruition within myself as well as within the image.

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