Art Here’s how I met Whistler’s mother. It’s Paris in 2001 (isn’t it always) and I’m visiting the Musee d’Orsay having entirely forgotten in the heat and having seen about a dozen other paintings of world importance that Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 is part of its collection too. Having completely destroyed my feet the day before doing the Doctor Who thing on the Eiffel Tower, I needed to rest my pins many times during that museum visit and having entered yet another small, packed room, noticed an empty seat and quickly sat down or as quickly as my feet would allow, sat down. After surreptitiously taking a drink of water, I glanced around and there she was, sitting, literally, on the wall to the side of me mirroring the position of the gallery bench, almost as though we were in audience.
The Musee d’Orsay in Paris is the kind of institution which has such an abundance of paintings of world importance that what would be put in the “average” position in a regional gallery is the sort of thing which would otherwise be given its own room in a regional gallery so here she was on a side wall, only really visible from this seat the visitor’s head cocked to the side. For minutes I sit scrutinising, dodging other tourists as they stand in the tiny space between the bench and the wall or almost in my lap trying to get the decent look which is only really possible from this position on this bench. Eventually my feet begin working again and I totter onward having become rather blasé about the occasion, which is just what happens when you’ve just recently seen about a dozen other paintings of world importance.
All of which makes it deeply unfair of me to say that the best artist I’ve seen so far at this Biennial is James McNeill Whistler because he’s James McNeill Whistler. But James McNeill Whistler is the best artist I’ve seen so far at this Biennial and it’s important to say at the outset that the existence of this exhibition is a blessing. As I have discussed and over-discussed at length elsewhere, Liverpool tends to be overwhelmed with exhibitions of post 1900 art, most often post-WWII art so the chance to see work which was created in the middle of the century before last outside of a permanent collection display, is, yes, a blessing. That in the unusual setting of the Bluecoat, which usually offers the most contemporary of contemporary art and exists due to the curatorial decision of Liverpool Biennial usually considered one of the most contemporary of festival is a brill curiosity.
But Whistler was a contemporary artist himself when the work was originally created and the big theme of the exhibition is justification. One room dedicates itself to the libel trial in which the painter sued the art critic (etc) John Ruskin, who’d taken umbrage at Whistler’s impressionistic artistic style and one painting in particular saying that he “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.” Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket is daring stuff and you can see that Ruskin, and Punch who also took a dislike to Whistler judging by the many cartoons included in the exhibition unable to cope with the idea that more than one artistic tradition could co-exist, that this cloudy blue surface could have the same emotional depth and poetry as the fine detail of a pre-Raphaelite scene.
Whistler (spoiler) won his trial due to Ruskin not being able to defend himself and so unable to provide the necessary defence, he did at least do art history the favour of putting the artist on the back foot and forcing him to justify his existence or at least the paintings that sustained his existence. In an exchange from the trial, he’s asked by his inquisitor exactly why as per Ruskin, The Falling Rocket, "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?" to which Whistler replies "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime” thereby explaining for that time onward the worth of painting and sculpture which are about thought rather than action or at least in which on balance the ratio tips more towards the former than the latter.
Anyone who visits as many exhibitions as I do will hopefully agree with me that we see a lot of crap art, utter, abject rubbish that not even a well worded explanatory label can morally justify. It’s a hazard of “culture” as defined by the section on The Guardian’s website that there’ll be a largish percentage of dreck, because there has to be, because “culture” thrives on mistakes. But, it could be argued, there might be less of it if artists were forced into a similar position as Whistler, of having to stand behind the work, of being able to not just explain what it means (assuming they can be bothered) but justifying what it’s doing in the world and how they hope it adds to human experience. In other words, why don’t artists (or indeed curators) have to face the same scrutiny and politicians and sports people?
The other theme of the exhibition is reproduction. Set designer Olivia de Monceau has been tasked with recreating Blue and Silver: Screen with Old Battersea Bridge (original at Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow) and a free-standing cross section of one wall of Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (original at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.). The painting featured in the Biennial booklet, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre appears in the form of a digital print on Foamex (because the notion of borrowing the original from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco with the connected insurance costs would presumably be prohibitive) and Ruta Staseviciute's recreation of Arrangement in Black (The Lady in the Yellow Buskin) (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The display also contains a number of good etchings including the atmospheric Two Doorways from his Venice set, with its mysterious figures in silhouette.
But arguably the best work in the exhibition is one of the smallest and a watercolour, one of the few occasions when the artist himself is directly present. Nocturne in Great and Gold – Piccadilly captures the metropolis at its most impressionistic, vehicles, buildings and people lost in the fog. Like Turner, like the Abstract Expressionists later, it’s a painting which initially appears indistinct but repays our time as the artist’s craft in suggesting details through apparently uncontrolled brush stokes, motioning towards emotional realism through the viewers memory of what it’s actually like to me in that kind of fog. Presumably the street scenes of Atkinson Grimshaw would have been more Ruskin’s sort of thing. But as I think we’ve somewhat forgotten ourselves now, it’s possible for both to co-exist.
Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock: 20 February 1885: Public Lecture (recording by Mr P Cock, 2014)
This is a lecture the artist gave at Prince's Hall, Piccadilly on as the title states, 20 February 1885. Here’s a transcript and here’s an essay by Oscar Wilde (who was in attendance) written in response. It’s featured in the exhibition in the form of an audio reading played through speakers in “The Vide” section of the Bluecoat, the concrete area just past the lockers and round the corner from the toilets and notice boards which is more often used for installation art. It’s not a video, of course, but I didn’t want to break format too much so I’m ushering this piece of audio into the project even though I’m not sure what’s primarily of the most importance, its existence as a thing or the content, Whistler’s words. There are also reproductions of those words on a coffee table in the space so I expect that’s the point.
Except I haven’t really had a chance to experience those words. When I arrived at 10:25, the recording hadn’t been turned on. I asked a volunteer about this and after I sat at the table, eventually someone arrived to go behind the scenes and begin the recording. The words played clearly from the wall mounted speakers, “It is with great hesitation and much misgiving that I appear before you, in the character of – The Preacher …” then a lift arrived with a friendly “doors opening”. A staff member walked out. Another lift. More people walking past. The other lift. Clatter. Folded up furniture being moved. Chatter. Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock: 20 February 1885: Public Lecture is being played in the second most trafficked area for humanity on the ground floor of the building besides the entrance hall.
Fairly quickly I picked up one of the transcriptions determined to read along and like the video pieces at other venues stick it out to the end. But Whistler is making an argument, essentially reading an essay, and that requires concentration, especially since the language is just slightly more arcane and alien to our ears, and it’s difficult to concentrate when life is happening all around. Of course this isn’t life’s fault. Life has every justification for doing whatever it is that it’s doing. But eventually I gave up not entirely sure what the point was and is in presenting the lecture in this manner. Headphones would limit the audience, but you could argue the audience for this is limited anyway, predicated as it is on a person sitting in a gallery space for half an hour, ad-hoc, listening to a lecture. Podcast?