Blackpaint 701 – Whistler and Mac: Compare and Contrast

Another pathetic joke to start with: very difficult to find my customary strange affinities between these two – but you never know, some spurious links might occur to me as we go along.

First, Whistler – or rather Whistler and other contemporaneous or nearly so White Lady merchants. It’s not just me then, the RA does it too. Compares and contrasts, I mean.

This White Lady is by Karpeles

The attentive viewer will notice that she differs from the other white ladies in at least one respect – she’s smiling, cocquettishly, as it used to be described by old misogynistic commentators. Her neckline is somewhat lower than the others too…

I’m afraid I’ve lost the booklet and can’t remember the name of the artist here; it’s not Whistler, anyway. Nor can I identify what she’s holding.

The interest for me here is that the booklet refers to the background as “abstract” – which it clearly isn’t. There’s a chair and a curtain and a doorway. This “abstract” background apparently caused some excitement and comment at the time – why? I’ll try to answer this in a moment.

Bessie, by Walker

I’ve included this because it’s a beautiful painting of a beautiful girl with the same name as my granddaughter. She holds a lily and is sitting on a dead polar bear. If it wasn’t for the white dress, you might think she was in mourning (the lily, the pensive, melancholy expression); but why are the lily, the bearskin and the grey backdrop – surely a screen, like old photographers used in their studios – not abstract, when a chair, a curtain and a doorway are? The bear skin and the lily are by way of hommage to Whistler’s first White Lady, painted earlier, I learned from a wall plaque that I bothered to read on a later visit.

Woman in White, by James Whistler

This first of Whistler’s portraits of Judith Hiffernan, his model and lover, was rejected by the Paris Salon because – yes, it was too “abstract”! It appears that the problem was the lack of narrative. It’s just a portrait of a woman in a white dress – she’s standing on a patterned carpet with a brocade curtain or drape behind her, but that’s not enough story (actually, she too is on a bear skin, and carrying a small flower, so my point about the Bessie picture below isn’t valid. Bessie is later, however, so maybe the narrative thing less of an issue by then). Karpeles’ woman might have come from her lover’s bed or be on the way there; the smile and the exposed breast direct the viewer’s imagination, they provide narrative. So, maybe, do the lily and the bear in the Walker picture – and actually, Bessie looks to me to be in some Victorian undergarment, rather than a white dress – aren’t they bloomers? This narrative stuff is probably old news to those who have studied art history formally – I’d never grasped before how shocking it might have been for a culture trained to read a painting like a story. Props, that was what were needed.

Woman in White, Whistler

And plenty of props here – the mirror to gaze into, the Japanese (?) pot, the fan, the fireplace – make up your own story.

Whistler again

They’re bored, it’s Sunday afternoon, dressed up for visitors but not looking forward to them….

What’s going on here? Whistler is ignoring his elegant female companions – they’re having a dangling conversation – “Can analysis be worthwhile?” “Is the theater really dead?” Sorry, slipped a couple of decades or so there, into Prufrock land (actually, slippage much further, into the 60s, for these lyrics are borrowed from Simon and Garfunkel – hence the US spelling of theatre – although Simon was clearly channeling TS Eliot). And Whistler looks to be channeling Velasquez in Las Meninas, to me, anyway. Another point that was made on a wall plaque I didn’t read on first visit….

And here is Courbet’s portrait, the best one of three versions in the show, of Hiffernan, making the most of the luxurious red hair that the artists were mad for. She actually looks like a totally different woman to the one in Whistler’s pictures – apart from the hair.

It’s a good exhibition, if you like beautiful, pensive, elegant women in swishing white dresses, admiring themselves in mirrors, surrounded by examples of Whistler’s collection of Japanese pots with tasteful backgrounds of silver, grey and pink…

None of this explains, however, why the presenters of “Portrait/Landscape Artist of the Year will keep referring to the slightest departure from photographic realism as “almost abstract”! Arm’s a bit too long, say, or sea’s got some orange in it that isn’t a sunset reflection, and you get “Yes, I like the way she’s gone almost abstract here…” No, she hasn’t….

Jock Mcfadyen at the RA

I know some of Mcfadyen’s work from a booklet of his pictures that I can no longer locate (must do a spot of clearing up); but I do remember the sort of pictures in it. Dark back streets, cartoonish, bald thugs with bull terriers, graffiti, drinking, East End pleasure palaces, dereliction, and – one very specific picture – Harry Diamond the photographer, jazz dancing on his own in the front room of a flat or prefab. Diamond was the man in a raincoat painted by Lucian Freud, standing on a landing next to a big pot plant, that may or may not have been an aspidistra. That is to say Diamond, not Freud, was on the landing… Why do I remember this? Because I once spent an afternoon with Harry and Bob Glass, drinking in a Wetherspoon’s on Balham High Road. He spoke really quietly, and I had to keep saying “Sorry, Harry?” – very embarrassing.

Anyway, this is all irrelevant. The point is to find links and contrasts with Whistler’s work. In the first picture below, I’m guessing we are in a nightclub; the lady in blue appears to be addressing the drinking man – he seems indifferent to her. There we are – parallels to the dangling conversation picture above; Whistler ignores his female guests – the anonymous drinker (who closely resembles Whistler) ignores the blonde with the Eraserhead cut. Contrast? In Whistler’s picture the women also ignore the artist. Not the case in the Mcfadyen picture.

We appear to be in the same nightclub. I have no explanation for the stony faced gargoyle in close up, but one of the two women far down the receding bar could well be the same woman as in the picture above.

A couple of great old musicals on TV recently:

Easter Parade (1948, Charles Waters)

Fred Astaire stars with an obviously much younger Judy Garland in this picture from date? and falls in love with him, which is a bit – incongruous. But it includes a brilliant drum sequence in a toy shop (above), in which Astaire does a leap onto a table, during a dance of course, that is really impressive in its execution. The songs, by Irving Berlin, I don’t find equally impressive – perhaps with the exception of “We’re a Couple of Swells” and the great “Steppin’ Out”. Another song is “The Fella with the Umbrella”, which is about as good as my “standing on a landing” (see Harry Diamond, above).

Calamity Jane (1953, David Butler)

Full of brilliant songs – “Whip crack away”, “Just Blew in from the Windy City”, “Take me back to the Black Hills” – and Doris Day’s energetic – no, wrong word, “explosive” is more like it -performance. And she looks great in those buckskins and the cavalry cap. Not greatly historically accurate; Calamity Jane did not marry Wild Bill Hickok,+ who did not kill as many as twenty – seven men – and was she really referred to as “Calam” by the Deadwood residents?

Spurious connection; I’m reading “Chaos” by Tom O’Neill, a book that purports to find a CIA connection to the Manson murders (unconvincingly, I have to say) and to undermine the standard account by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, “Helter Skelter”. On the journey, O’Neill records his feeling that Terry Melcher was much more familiar with Manson and his “Family” than he admitted – and that Bugliosi was aware of this and concealed it. Who is Terry Melcher, apart from a successful record producer? Doris Day’s son.

OK, even more full of irrelevancies and outlandish comparisons than usual, here’s a new one of mine to finish. The title is that of an old jazz standard…

Ghost of a Chance



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