In between the wondrous yet disorienting Ai Wei Wei and Warhol exhibition and the greatly anticipated Degas show, the National Gallery of Victoria had a moment of calm.
Ai Wei Wei’s towering vortex of bicycles, which was a dizzying delight to walk through, was somehow dismantled and the atrium returned to the vast quiet of an untilled field.
So quiescent was this mid-trimester weekend as the Gallery took an expectant intake of breath before the next invasion, that a cordoned off section of the atrium – which was bedded with a cloth to mop up drips from a recalcitrant ceiling – might reasonably have been mistaken by some wandering seeker of art as a Duchamp-esque effort to make the ordinary visible.
But no matter how the subservient cloth and the errant roof and the incursive water and the small corral against the public felt about their performance, there was no curator’s note or artistic hand on show and so the quartet was left to perform unregarded.
The weekend ushered in a reverence at last worthy of the Whistler exhibition – the perfect antidote to my earlier entanglement with Warhol et al. Alongside a clutch of fellow patrons we took to the great vacated spaces of the gallery with the zeal of a religious order on day release.
With nerves settled and senses reset we pilgrims were taken gently through a 360• view of the colourful life but ultimately into the subdued palette of Whistler’s world. From his detailed and dark etchings of local scenes of daily life to his mature years taking on the influence in aesthetics through Japonism and finally a reflection on the works of others who took reference from him – all was there to step us toward his seminal work.
Seeing John Longstaff’s work in relationship to Whistler’s showed the direct influence he had on the young Australian artist who painted Lady in Grey in 1890 (left) and Young Mother in 1891 (right). Although both soft and bright works with his young wife Topsy as the model – the side by side references could now be clearly seen in composition, palette and the eastern aestheticism, even in the title of Lady in Grey, which was selected for exhibition in the Paris Salon, referencing Whistler as a study in aestheticism.
Finally we were brought through to the dark salon for an audience with his work. We were schooled by the time we arrived not to see the subject of his mother as a portrait but the painting as an object of art in its own right, the exercise displayed in Black and Grey (No 1) and I did see and gasp at the balance and tonality and the pared back steadfastness of intent.
But the Gallery’s Assistant Director Isobel Crombie, who provided the curator’s narrative for the exhibition, suggests Whistler’s intent to place his mother in as mere component of the composition perhaps provided the very thing he needed to press him to address his craft with a greater dedication.
“In some ways, I think of this painting as being like mother’s revenge, or even a mother’s blessing: this is the one moment that she got him to really buckle down and focus and do the thing that she always believed in – that he was a great artist.”
By the time (we assume) Longstaff saw Whistler’s work on display in the Musée du Luxembourg in 1891 – the more senior artist may have been forgiven for affronting London society 20 years earlier with a work ‘so lacking in detail’ and decoration.
If Warhol and WeiWei gave us a grand parade of the external, the political, the exposed and commercial, it was Whistler’s prelude of purity and the aesthetic – his search for a liberation through art for its own sake – which set the path to modernism.
And for that we thank him.
James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in grey and black no. 1 (Portrait of the artist’s mother), (detail) 1871, oil on canvas, 144.3 x 162.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.