I wasn’t being maudlin (any more than my steady-state of 24-7 mawkish treacle homeostasis dictates) when I snapped the photo of LFG’s overnight bag at my feet the other weekend. There wasn't too much of a heart string twinge or tug as I recollected the years of every other weekend visits. It was just a visual symbol of logistical recollection. Shut up.
The weekend ended up being a great one…as usual. But the weekends are a-changing as LFG gets older. It’s more of a transportation-finance-logistics commitment what with her various dance classes and birthday parties etc. Gone are the days of a clean slate awaiting my inputs for fun and frolic with a three year old. Her Highness did allow a brief foray into Cactus Cantina. I think I’m gonna buy the place.
But last weekend did avail a four-hour window on Sunday that offered, at LFG’s suggestion, visits to the Hirshorn and the Freer. LFG knew about the Warhol shadows exhibit so our first stop landed us at the Hirshorn to see the massive Warhol expanse. We’ve always loved our local museums and thanks…again...for your Federal tax dollars that avail these local aesthetics playgrounds to us. As LFG inches more towards the predictably reticent grunts and uh-huhs of early adolescent communication with me, museums seem to give us more to talk about.
And post Hirshorn and Warhol saw us with some time remaining so we tucked into the Freer for a bit of fellowship with Whistler. The Freer is my local home-church for art and aesthetic recharge. My visits are so frequent and the Whistler stuff is so rarely rotated, that a thirty minute flurry resets me just right. I've been known, in the midst of a frustrating work day, to hop the Metro to the Freer and wallow in the aesthetic salve between conference calls with corporate blowhards.
I came to know and revere Whistler the same way I became acquainted with all art. Vanity Fair caricatures. I can’t think of another gateway that would have been as intriguing as Vanity Fair prints. I’m satiated now but for years there was more to learn about them. I probably made the Vanity Fair collecting journey as erudite as anyone could ever hope for... too much so I suspect…for most people.
And the Whistler caricature by Leslie Ward (Spy) was and remains one of my favorites. Even Jimmy Whistler liked it and told Leslie Ward so. He kept extra copies of it and would give signed images to friends and patrons. So of course, I had learn more about this fella who until I acquired the Vanity Fair image of him, I knew only as the “Whistler’s Mother” guy. Oh, and that his mother was originally from the Wilmington North Carolina area.
So Vanity Fair led me to Whistler and then Sickert and … Tissot, Menpes, Degas, Sargent, Steer, Lavery, and of course, my runner-up to Whistler in my contrived “London Based Artists Liked by ADG” set, William Nicholson. Nicholson by the way, did the excellent woodcut of Whistler that adorns my hall.
And Whistler led me to etchings and drypoints. I love the art that emerges from scratching needles on copper plates but I’m equally intrigued with the technical processes and nuances involved in inking-wiping and pulling paper from plates.
Most artists will “proof” an etching or three…essentially giving their blessing to the ensuing run of an agreed upon numbers of prints…printed by the owner of the press. Whistler was an outlier in innumerable ways but he was an outlier and then some when it came to tinkering with the printing process.
He played around with various degrees of ink saturation on the etching plate. He wiped them loosely sometimes and other times he would spread the ink with a small feather to create even more nuanced conveyances when printed. He added a needle strike here and there to deepen the ominous presence of an early evening sky or a Thames cataract. Or he would work the plate with his little hammer…beating out a line or two if it fancied him. And as often as possible, he would pull the prints himself.
Oh, and he was crazy about different types of paper. Mortimer Menpes tells the story of Whistler leaving London for Holland in search of, based on rumor, a cache of 18th century fine wove paper. I think Whistler’s toying around with materials and processes was nothing short of genius. And so of course, I began to accumulate a few etchings and drypoints as well.
LFG and I headed straight downstairs last Sunday when we rolled into the Freer. Why? I might have shared it before in a story or two but on the lower level there’s always a minor (major to me) little Whistler collateral exhibition on the hallway walls. It’s usually a niche cull from the turgid repository of Whistler goods en perpetu at the Freer. And for me it’s always a refreshing little splash of genius.
I love that Whistler worked in pastel, watercolour, drypoint and oil. And currently downstairs at the Freer, you’ll see a well curated flurry of each. It's... Sweet Silent Thought: Whistler's Interiors.
But what about Whistler as the subject of portraiture and caricature? Eric Denker wrote what I think became his Ph.D. dissertation, In Pursuit of the Butterfly. The National Portrait Gallery in tandem with Denker’s publication had an exhibition of the same title and it was Whistlerian nirvana.
The fodder for Whistler images was just too seductive for anyone during his time to pass up. To say that Whistler was pugnacious is an understatement so he was always creating some kind of Chelsea based shit- storm in the art and social realms of London. That’s fancy talk for being an easy target. So Denker’s book is loaded with evidence that Whistler in his prime was as much a subject of art as he was a creator of it.
I visited the Whistler exhibit probably a half dozen times, including one tour that Denker narrated. But kinda like the first of many times I saw the Allman Brothers; my maiden trip to the exhibition was more riveting than anything subsequent. You entered the gallery and Whistler, courtesy of Giovanni Boldini, greeted you. Boldini’s portrait is almost six feet tall and it captures, larger than life, the essence of what one sharp elbowed critic called Whistler… “a pocket Mephistopheles.” If I was limited to one image of Whistler to illustrate his whateverishness, it would be the Boldini portrait. Those closest to Whistler, including Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell, declared the Boldini image of Whistler to be a remarkably accurate capture of the man. Whistler predictably, cared nothing for it.
Being the sucker for a collateral or back-story, I enjoyed learning about Boldini’s sneaky little drypoint of Whistler. The story goes that Whistler, while posing for the Boldini painting, would tire of posing and insist on a nap. So Boldini grabbed an etching plate and needle during one of these little snoozers and dashed off the image. Here’s a better characterization of it from our friends at Childs Gallery inBoston... “Gary A. Reynolds notes the incident surrounding the creation of this drypoint, in his catalogue "Giovanni Boldini and Society Portraiture": "In 1897 Boldini painted a seated portrait of Whistler, the most famous monument to their friendship. Edward G. Kennedy [Whistler's American dealer]...remembered that 'Whistler frequently got tired of doing what he had made other people do all his life - pose - and that he used to take little naps. During one of these, Boldini made a drypoint of him on a zinc plate." This incident is also noted in Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell's biography, "The Life of James McNeill Whistler" (1911), fifth edition, on page 346. Other impressions are in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.”
I have a fairly decent collection of Whistler images but the Boldini drypoint, an edition of less than fifty, has always been out of my financial reach. No worries. One can’t nor should have everything.
And besides; the drypoint of Whistler by Paul Helleu was one I coveted even more than the Boldini and at about ten to fifteen thousand pounds, I was never gonna own that one.
I've not acquired much in the way of art in the last several years. If anything, I've divested my walls of various treasures here and there. But the art market is hurting. Hell, almost every market is hurting right now. And the Boldini image came up at auction last week. I placed a low bid that surely wasn't enough but even so, I culled the necessary possessions to sell if indeed I did win it and needed the dosh to pay-up. I've done the deal on dosh raising and probably by this time next week, the Boldini image will be here, in fellowship with me, at CasaMinimus.
Onward. Boldly. Avec Whistler and Boldini. Sans LFG...till Friday