Posts Tagged ‘Whistler’

Blackpaint 701 – Whistler and Mac: Compare and Contrast

March 20, 2022

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



Blackpaint 610 – French migrants, Polish exiles and the Hole in the Ceiling

November 20, 2017

The Impressionists in London (Tate Britain, until May 2018)

Strange exhibition, since a lot of these pictures – I’m not sure about the sculptures – don’t seem to be Impressionist at all.  The idea behind it is to showcase the French artists in exile in England after the fall of the Paris Commune and the massacres and oppression that followed it.  The booklet points out that there were no restrictions placed on these migrants and no quibbles over refugee or economic migrant status; apparently, there were no restrictions or limits on migration to Britain at the time – anyone could come.

There are a lot of pictures that are rather familiar from the Tate’s permanent collection; most of the Tissots and some Pissaros (Norwood, Sydenham) I’m sure have been moved downstairs.  The Tissots, for my money, are the most enjoyable but they are surely not “impressionist”, if that means passing effects of light and shade and all that; they look more like Millais, doing Singer Sargent subject matter.  The Whistler bridges and Monet’s series of Parliament in the last room, I think, are actually badly served by being all lumped together; great on their own, all together – too much.


Also of interest, the Fantin-Latour double portrait; again, not impressionistic, more like Clausen or maybe Repin.  There is  social realist picture by an Italian (didn’t get the name) of loafers on a bridge under an orange sky – and the roomful of Derains at the end is great.


Melancholia, a Sebald Variation (Inigo Rooms, Somerset House until 10th December)

The main piece in this exhibition is a 54 minute film by a Dutch artist, Guido Van der Werve.  It interweaves three elements: the first is the artist swimming, cycling and running the equivalent of three triathlons, being the distance between Chopin’s heart (in Poland) and the rest of him (in Paris).   he kicks off playing the piano in a Polish church, wearing a wet suit, while a choir sings a rather beautiful, melancholic piece.  Off he goes, into the river, and some rather beautiful but surely speeded-up film of him swimming.  He continues, at intervals, switching to bike and then running, leaving his wet suit and then bike with a waiting woman…

But I’m telling the story!  Enough.  The other elements are 1. Sites relating to Alexander the Great’s career, and 2. More musical interludes, in which orchestras are revealed playing in a house and by a canal.  Dada-ish things happen; a man walks past on fire and dives into the canal  and glass smashes, explosions happen…  It’s about exile (Chopin, Alexander) it seems; “a melancholy meditation on the theme of not being able to return home”, the booklet says.

The Dada stuff threw me for a while, since humour is not something I readily associate with WG Sebald.  And indeed, there is none elsewhere in the exhibition, which contains work by Durer (of course), George Shaw, Tess Jaray, Dexter Dalwood, Anselm Kiefer and others, as well as Sebald’s own darkened, enigmatic photograph collection.  The theme is melancholy and whether it is an “unproductive form of mourning” or a spur to creativity.

Kabakovs again (Tate Modern until 28th Jan 2018)


It occurs to me that there is a similarity between Sebald’s use of photographs etc. in his books and the Ilya Kabakov exhibit “Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album” in the current show at TM.  You walk through a series of dimly-lit rooms, with pages of a scrapbook pasted to the walls; blurry photos of pastoral scenes with memoirs of his mother in Russian and English.  At first, you try to read them but you soon give up – the light’s too dim.  It’s all about the nostalgia of the photos and the atmosphere.

Incidentally, the first time I visited this exhibition, I looked at “The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment” and completely missed the catapult and the hole in the ceiling.  It was pretty crowded in there, but still…


Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

I’ve more to say, but will save it for next time.  But I think that Leonardo is a Luini (as it was originally though to be).  It’s just not good enough for Leo.  Then again, great painters often do crap Christs; Veronese, for instance.  Maybe it’s some sort of cosmic dread, or maybe the Church stopped them being too human with Christ’s face.

Next time, Soviet posters, October (Eisenstein) and Walter Hopps.





Blackpaint 564 – Tootles, Sickert, Etel and Breakfast

August 2, 2016

Painting with Light, Tate Britain

Great exhibition of photographs and paintings from photographs; again, much of TB’s collection recycled (Sargent kids with lanterns, Clausen turnip choppers, Rosetti women), but justified on the whole.  Standouts for me were Coburn’s photos of the river and Regents Canal, clearly influencing Whistler:



His portrait of the beautiful Elsie “Tootles” Thomas:

tootles thomas

Tiny, but fabulous…

And Jane Morris, the model for Rosetti’s “Proserpine”:

jane morris

Proserpine 1874 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1940

He’s glammed her up, hasn’t he?  Especially the lips…

Big exhibition, loads of interest, highly recommended.

Just off the main hall is a group of paintings from photographs by Walter Sickert.  This goes nicely with the main exhibition as regards subject matter; Sickert seems to have used a pink grounding and a lot of scraping.  One or two of these pictures are almost like Luc Tuymans or Gerhard Richter.

Claude Phillip Martin 1935 Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942 Presented by Sir Alec Martin KBE through the Art Fund 1958



Variation on Peggy 1934-5 Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942 Bequeathed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft 1992


Etel Adnan, Sackler Gallery

Over by the Serpentine, the third great exhibition, that of the Israeli artist, whose earlier paintings of the 60s and 70s are far superior to those more figurative and simplified that are more recent.  The early ones have great texture and colour and are strongly reminiscent of Nicholas de Stael and also Victor Pasmore (one or two):



Last blog, I made a facetious remark about Jeremy often being surrounded in photos by adoring young women in long summer dresses – like Manson Family members, I “joked”;  Hadley Freeman in Saturday’s Guardian made a similar, but NOT facetious link, linking the apparent “cult of personality” to violence and anti-semitism in the Momentum camp.  That will teach me…


Sorry, pathetically short blog this week; running out of steam in many ways.


all day breakfast

All Day Breakfast








Blackpaint 452 – Folk Art, Song and Flowers of the Field

June 26, 2014

British Folk Art, at Tate Britain  

Now I have my membership card, I’m trying to make it pay for itself in a few weeks – so, back to Folk Art and Kenneth Clark again.  I didn’t mention Walter Greaves, the painter who Whistler discovered and apparently turned into a version of himself (see the result on display).  Before the Whistlerisation, Greaves had painted a picture of Hammersmith Bridge, with every precarious foot-or bum-hold occupied by a foot (or bum), watching the passage of the Boat Race crews on the river below.  Could it really be accurate?

Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day c.1862 by Walter Greaves 1846-1930


Then, there is a dark brownish landscape with distorted trees and maybe horses, that’s just like some of the Ben Nicholsons at Dulwich, that I covered a blog or two ago.  There’s a field full of angry bulls in another picture and immense pigs in yet another.  I see my memory played me tricks when I described a couple of other things: the man taking a crap behind the tree is being stalked by men with muskets, not a pack of dogs as I said – and the elegant figurehead is wearing a brown, not blue hat.

Other new stuff at Tate B

Not new of course, but newly out of storage – or new to me, anyway:

Two great, sombre Bombergs – “Bomb Store” I believe.  Reminded me of Rouault.

There’s a whole room of Alan Davie, who died a few weeks ago.  Best pictures are “Fish God” (see previous blog, “Shark Penis of the Fish God”) and “Sacrifice”, a rough, dirty tangle on a great blue ground.

alan davie

That “Fauvist” portrait of a woman is by Fergusson, one of the Scottish Colourists – get the little book of SC postcards.


There’s a beautiful bowl somewhere, by William Nicholson, Ben’s father.

And there’s that brilliantly coloured abstract in the same room as the Basil Beattie, which looks really crude close up – but absolutely beautiful from across the room.  Can’t remember the name – sounds North African to me – so can’t find a photo, but you will know what I mean when you see it.

Nineteen Eighty -Four

I’ve just got to the bit where Winston reads Goldstein’s book.  In it, Goldstein relates how the permanent state of war existing between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia has had the effect of stabilising their economies by burning off surplus capital that would otherwise lead to crises of overproduction.  this seems just a whisker away from the “permanent arms economy” described – not sure if its his original idea – by Michael Kidron, in his old Pelican(?) paperback, “Western Capitalism Since the War”.  He’s writing about the Cold War and the constant renewal of military hardware, but still, pretty close.  Years since I read the Kidron and I’ve lost my copy, so maybe he mentions Orwell.

Flowers of the Field (to 13th July)

A  play by Kevin Mandry at the White Bear pub theatre in Kennington; it fits nicely with the British Folk Art exhibition, where the DVD, made by the British film Institute, entitled “Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow” is on sale.  The play, set in 1916,  concerns the efforts of a war-damaged British officer to collect folk songs in rural Sussex; he inadvertently walks into a drama to do with the ownership of a farm and the efforts of a young girl to avoid  forced marriage to a rapacious landowner.  The difficulties faced by the officer in getting the locals to come up with the real goods, as opposed to hymns, old music hall songs and ballads, make for some very funny scenes and echo real problems faced by the early collectors, like Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger.

The second half is darker, concerned as it is with the question of the farm and the marriage.  The song which the officer eventually succeeds in recording, is a southern version of “I Once Loved a Lass”.  This is a Scottish variation, recorded among others by Sandy Denny.  Words different, but similar; tune pretty much the same in both versions.

I saw my love to the church go,

With brides and brides’ maidens, she made a fine show,

And I followed on with a heart full of woe,

For she’s gone to be wed to another.

As for the DVD, the High Spens Sword Dance group and the Britannia Coconut Dancers (not blacked up here) have to be seen.

Il Bidone

Fellini’s great film about con men in 50’s Italy, starring the monumental Broderick Crawford (he looked almost the same throughout his career, give or take a few white hairs).  Apparently Fellini used him for his presence – he didn’t act much, just did himself, according to the commentary.  I think he was effective across a fair range though – menace, dignity, vulnerability, pathos, cynicism – and he could really wear a big, shapeless suit.  The music, inevitably by Nino Rota, is very reminiscent of “Blackadder”.



Lizard Reunion




Blackpaint 372 – It’s all about women, beaches and room 47

December 20, 2012

Tate Britain

They seem to be re-opening the galleries one or two at a time.  Went there a couple or three weeks ago and there were no 20th century rooms open; now several rooms have opened up – the Frank Bowlings are on view again and the early C20th room, with some new additions.  There is a Christopher Wood, “The Fisherman’s Farewell”, a nice little Alfred Wallis view of St.Ives and a beautiful, leaf green Dora Carrington of two tiny female figures in Edwardian white, gazing at a huge green hill which overhangs them.

There is  a Stanley Spencer Resurrection set in Cookham; in the middle of the graveyard, several African women – are they all women? – , one wearing a set of gold neck rings, are among those rising ; what’s the story there, I wonder?  Apparently, Spencer was unable to give a clear explanation, except that the picture was supposed to represent a sort of universality and some stuff about instinctiveness – also, he was interested in African art at the time.

In the same, or maybe the next room, several beautiful Gwen Johns, especially one called “the Invalid” or “The Convalescent”; it’s next to Harold Gilman’s “Mrs. Mounter”.  And there’s a great nude by Wilson Steer – I always thought he did landscapes.

wilson steer

I like to do that thing of standing in the middle of the room and scanning round with half-closed eyes – yes, you get curious glances – to see which paintings grab your attention.  Sometimes, of course, it’s the most garish ones, like the Francis Hodgkin one with the green faces; often, it works though, and you get the “best” pictures.  This time, it was the Whistler “Woman in White”, leaning on her mantlepiece, her head against the mirror (surely the reflection is a bit too low?)  and – maybe in an adjoining room – that Vanessa Bell from 1912, of the women on the beach with the sun hats and the bathing tent.  Simple but magic and very early.


vanessa bell


There is a whole roomful of mostly watercolour sketches, clouds, skies, beaches, that are so much more beautiful (to the modern eye) than the more conventional of his big, finished canvases.  One in particular, called “A Lay In”(?), like ripples across a sandy surface.  Among the bigger paintings, one should seek out the whaler boiling blubber – it has a much longer Turner title – and the Doge marrying the sea in Venice – where else?

Hidden and Inland Empire

Great Michael Haneke film with Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, in which the French media bourgeosie are threatened and made uneasy by guilt over their colonialist past, embodied by an impoverished North African and his son..  They deserve it for being very smug and irritating, completely unlike the British bourgeoisie, who, of course, are neither smug nor irritating and always behaved impeccably in the colonies.  

I happened to watch David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” immediately afterwards; there was an apparent coincidence.  In Hidden, a sudden suicide takes place in room 47 of an apartment block; in Empire, Laura Dern shoots someone and then runs into room 47.  In Empire, a leering face with blood pouring from mouth, appears straight after this; in Hidden, there are mystery drawings sent – of a face with blood pouring from mouth.  I thought I’d discovered something here – but no, someone in a Southern California university has already written a long piece on it.

La Regle du Jeu

Schumacher the gamekeeper was played by Gaston Modot, who, as I said last blog, was also “The Man” in “l’Age d’Or”; I should also have mentioned the beautiful Nora Gregor, the fatal femme Christine – a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Kristin Scott Thomas, I think.

Happy Christmas to my readers.  Log on to Paintlater’s blog to see some fantastic AbEx paintings.


Oceanic Orpheus