Though his paintings may not look radical to us today, in his time, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) often faced incomprehension — both through interpretations of his art and his own uncompromising stance toward it. Museumgoers in Japan now have a rare opportunity to decide for themselves the merits of his work, as the “James McNeill Whistler Retrospective” at the Yokohama Museum of Art is the first of its kind to be held in 20 years.
The museum has brought together more than 120 items, including not only Whistler’s works but also objects that he once owned or that had an influence on his art. The exhibition is arranged in three simple sections: portraits, landscapes and, in closing, a spotlight on the artist’s influence on Japonisme, the late-19th-century boom in all things Japanese and Japan-inspired.
Whistler was born in Massachusetts and raised for a time in Russia and England. When he left for Europe at the age of 21 with the dream of becoming an artist, however, he was never to return to the United States. In Paris during the mid-1800s he was befriended by Gustave Courbet, and for a while came under the spell of his peer’s realist paintings of peasants and agricultural workers. But Whistler’s art was to take a different course.
He relocated to London and began painting the portraits of members of the affluent class, such as “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (1872-3),” his likeness of the leading Scottish intellectual of the day. While Whistler strove for a faithful representation of his sitter, the title he gave the painting also reflected his interest in the poetic and lyrical potential of color and tone — something that went beyond the kind of moral truth that art was considered obliged to convey. He famously maintained that, “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or color.”
This philosophy lies behind “Symphony in White No. 3” (1865-67), one of Whistler’s most celebrated works. Here, he depicts his mistress and another woman, but perhaps only as a pretext to explore a range of hues of white, which are complemented by soft greens and dashes of pink and red. As the title suggests, it is the third in a series of paintings, two of which are in the exhibition, that explore a fascination with the representation of white.
Still running with the music analogy, Whistler titled his many representations of the fog-shrouded River Thames and other nighttime views his “Nocturnes,” and like the musical compositions of that name, they were intended to give an evocative impression of the late hours.
Though his portraits were relatively well received — he found a measure of official acceptance when his portrait of Carlyle was purchased by the City of Glasgow — the public and the critics had a hard time getting their head around the nightscapes. Whistler was even impelled to sue the esteemed art authority John Ruskin for libel over derogatory remarks made about “Nocturnes” (a depiction of a fireworks display, not included in this exhibition), a move that left him temporarily bankrupt and with the reputation, at least partially self-cultivated, of a misunderstood outsider.
The exhibition also highlights how Whistler was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints not only for washes of color, such as the blue in “Nocturnes,” but also in his compositions, placing the edge of a boat or other visual elements in the immediate foreground for dramatic effect. Placed near Whistler’s “Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge” (1872-5) is a print of Tokyo’s Kyobashi bridge by Utagawa Hiroshige, a reference to the likely inspiration behind Whistler’s cinematic zooming in on a section of a sight as commonplace as a bridge.
Like many ukiyo-e prints, Whistler’s images could be seen as social documents of the time. “The Last of Old Westminster” (1862), for example, details the building of a new Westminster Bridge in iron, replacing the old stone structure. A large portion of his works were etchings or lithographs — sometimes sketches that led to finished paintings, but still works in their own right. Included here is a series of etchings from 1859-61, informally known as “The Thames Set,” attesting to the artist’s fascination with the London river’s various wharfs and piers and the everyday lives of those who used them to carry out their work.
Also featured in the exhibition is a recreation, through video projection, of the artist’s celebrated “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room,” a space housing a patron’s collection of Asian ceramics, which Whistler redesigned in 1876-7, bringing his Asian-inspired aesthetic into three dimensions.
“James McNeill Whistler Retrospective” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till March 1; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Thu. yokohama.art.museum