September 10, 2012
The summer of 1858 was a bad time for London. Known as the Great Stink, the season’s warm temperatures worked a foul magic on the overflowing sewage situation. Thanks to the untenable stench, a bill rushed through Parliament in just 18 days funded a massive public works project known as the Thames Embankment.
The waterways improvement system forever reshaped the neighborhoods along the river, including Chelsea. The poor neighborhood subject to constant flooding was also a magnet for artists, including Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. Whistler’s moody Nocturne paintings of the waterfront are well-known, but the Freer Gallery is offering fans of the ex-pat artist a chance to see the artist’s intimate neighborhood etchings of his daily wanderings and observations in the new exhibition, “Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London.”
The continuing effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the Embankment project meant Whistler worked at the edge of modernity and watched not just a neighborhood transform, but an entire society. Gone are the days of the Great Stink and the rag shops in Chelsea. But through thoughtful curation, viewers can once again walk the streets of Whistler’s neighborhood.
“He would walk around his neighborhood and carry these small copper plates in his pocket,” explains the show’s curator Maya Foo. “These are really just quick impressions of street scenes. Many of the streets in this neighborhood were some of the poorest in all of London.”
The show includes 14 etchings, two water colors which will be shown separately for six months at a time and two oil paintings, all drawn from the streets of Chelsea around the 1880s. Completed in 1874, the embankment increased the value of property along the Thames and began a wave of transformation that Londoners were acutely aware of, fearing the loss of the city’s unique character. Without intending to, says Foo, Whistler captured transient moments in a changing landscape.
Fish shops, rag stores and fruit vendors populate his images, along with handfuls of untended young children. “He became a sort of unintentional recorder of a lot of these social issues that were going on at the time, such as overcrowding,” Foo says.
Through the addition of a detailed historical map and modern photographs of the streets, Foo hopes to show viewers that these storefronts were simply snippets of Whistler’s daily life. “I have loved figuring out where these places actually were on the map,” Foo says, citing foundational research done by Margaret MacDonald for the catalogue, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a Catalogue Raisonné. Viewers are invited to do the same on a large map at the center of the exhibit space or online with a fascinating interactive feature.
The etchings were likely never intended to be displayed. Many were only reproduced three or four times. They are instead, says Foo, studies in geometry and form. “You’ll notice a lot of repetitions of dark doorways, glass windowpanes that kind of create a grid and, in a lot of these, he leaves the foreground empty so you get a sense of recession.”
The brisk, staccato lines of the etchings contrast with the almost abstracted paintings of the Thames, some of which are on view upstairs in the Freer. Foo says, within the etchings, “There’s so much energy, it kind of relates to the modern city life that he was capturing as well.”
“I think fans of Whistler will find these to be a breath of fresh air because most of these etchings have never before been exhibited,” says Foo. “Usually when you think of Whistler, you think of the scenes down by the wharfs in Chelsea, the ships with their masts. But with these, this shows how he turned his back to the Thames and looked more at his neighborhood.”
“Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London” runs September 8, 2012 to September 8, 2013.
August 2, 2011
With temperatures in the hundreds here in Washington, D.C., August is a fine time to seek out the glorious air conditioning of a museum. If you’re in town, take a moment to catch some of these great exhibits while you still can. The Around the Mall team alerts you to the upcoming final days of the following exhibitions. Hurry In.
Closing Sunday, August 7:
By the 1870s, Chinese blue and white porcelain had moved “from palace to parlor,” as one historian put it. The commodity, highly sought after by the Victorian middle classes, was a symbol of high culture and refined taste. Satirically labeled “Chinamania” by media of the time, the china craze was powered in large part the London-based American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who became infatuated with blue and white Chinese porcelain in the early 1860s. Whistler’s work from this period is the subject of the Freer Gallery’s new exhibit “Chinamania,” which opened last summer and closes this Sunday. Don’t miss the collection of Whistler ink drawings and paintings inspired by Chinese porcelain.
At times provocative and at times moving, these works run the gamut from a blanket sewn out of thrift store fabrics to a photographic spoof of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait to a video installation projected on a screen of white turkey feathers. the museum’s acquisitions during the past several years. When the National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors on the National Mall in 2004, the museum had already begun to amass a rich collection of contemporary art by Native Americans. The museum’s exhibit, “Vantage Point,” a survey of 25 contemporary artists, opened last September and also closes this Sunday.
Closing Sunday, August 14:
You never knew Alexander Calder (1898-1976) in this way. The acclaimed painter and sculptor is best known for his avant-garde mobiles and stabiles and his colorful, geometric sculptures. Few of which are in this show. Instead, introduce yourself to an often overlooked side of Alexander Calder —that of the prolific portraitist. In March, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Calder’s drawings, sculptures and caricatures of celebrities like Josephine Baker, Jimmy Durante, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh surprised and delighted visitors. You have less than two weeks to see it all; the show closes on Sunday, August 14.
Closing Sunday August 28:
“Fragments in Time and Space” at Hirshhorn
In a blink of the eye, this show is over before it can even get started. The Hirshhorn’s summer exhibition, on view for just two months, is a terrific presentation of works from the museum’s permanent collection. Thematically the curators have chosen pieces that focus on the interpretation of time and space since the beginning of modernism. Included are works from such artists as Thomas Eakins, Hamish Fulton, Douglas Gordon, Ed Ruscha and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sunday, August 28, is the last day to see it.
*Image credits: 1) “Arthur Miller 1915-2005″ by Calder, @2010 Calder Foundation, NY/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; 2) “Blanket” by James Lavadour (Walla Walla), Museum purchase with funds donated by Robert Jon Grover, 2007; 3) Incense burner, late 17th century, Qing dynasty; 4) “Five Past Eleven” by Ed Ruscha, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
April 26, 2011
When a British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland asked the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler to redecorate his dining room in 1876 and 1877, a dispute arose between the artist and his patron. Whistler had promised “minor alterations” but lavishly painted the room with plumed peacocks and feather patterns on the ceiling and shutters. Leyland refused to the pay the artist his fee. Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, later bought the room and shipped it to his mansion in Detroit, before donating it to the Smithsonian.
The Freer Gallery has now restored the famous Peacock Room to its 1908 glory. “The Peacock Room Comes to America,” the first special exhibition in the room since 1993, opened April 9. The Freer’s Curator of American Art Lee Glazer discusses the lavish room and the artist who created it.
Whistler was inspired by images of peacocks in Japanese art, and they also appealed to him as emblems of pure beauty.
Can you see evidence in the room of Whistler’s anger?
The mural over the sideboard, pointedly titled “Art and Money, or, the story of the room,” depicts Whistler’s quarrel with Leyland over the price of the room. Whistler is the poor peacock on the left, the silver crest feather a reference to the artist’s famous white forelock; the bird on the right, with coins around his feet and embellishing his breast, represents Leyland. If you know the references, it’s pretty nasty. But the evidence is all in the anecdote. The image itself fits harmoniously enough into the overall blue and gold decoration of rest of the room.
What did Freer see in this room? It must have cost him dearly to have it shipped from London?
Freer was actually ambivalent about the Peacock Room. He favored artistic subtlety, and the Peacock Room seemed embarrassingly gorgeous. But he bought it, as he said, “out of a sense of duty” to his friend Whistler. Once he reassembled the room in Detroit and filled it with his own collections of Asian pottery, however, he made his peace with it.
Why did you decide to take out the blue and white porcelain and reinstall it with Freer’s rough-textured, iridescent stoneware and pottery?
The Peacock Room has had this incredibly dynamic, cosmopolitan history, but visitors to the museum have experienced it as a static icon. By changing the pots, we’ve made it possible for people to tap into a lesser-known chapter in the room’s history and given it a very different look and feel that will encourage a new appreciation of the room’s infinite variety—of surface, color, pattern and light.
April 18, 2011
Monday, April 18 Peacock Room Comes to America: A new view of Whistler’s Peacock Room
The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery is recently restored to its appearance in 1908, when the museum’s founder Charles Lang Freer filled its shelves with ceramics he had collected throughout Asia. For those of you who skipped DC to spend your spring break in the Bahamas, you can check out the room, in all its splendor in 360 degrees, thanks to the Google Art Project and the Freer Gallery. James McNeill Whistler’s chamber, once the dining room of a wealthy British merchant who had hired the artist to make a few touch ups to the decor, becomes now a work of art that according to critic Peter Schjeldah, is a “synesthetic fusion of dazzling spectacle and intimate touch.” The room will be available in its new incarnation through the Spring of 2013.
Tuesday, April 19 How healthy is the Gulf of Mexico now?
As the world’s media attention is largely focused on the more recent environmental disasters unfolding at Japan’s Fukishima power plant, today’s anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, brings the dialogue back home. A panel of scientists will discuss the present state of the Gulf and its future at the National Museum of Natural History. Speakers include: David Hollander, University of South Florida; Judilee Marrow, National Zoo; John Stein, NOAA; James Bonner, Clarkson University. Free. 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. National Museum of Natural History. ASL interpretation will be provided.
Wednesday, April 20 Junkyard Pirates
Pirate puppets made of trash? It must be Earth Day at the Smithsonian! Did you know that a pirate’s favorite exclamation, “Aargh” or “RRRR!” stands for Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle? Full of songs and fun for ages 3 to 10. Tickets are required. Rates are $4 child member; $4 member; $5 child nonmember; $3 child under 2; $6 general admission. Tickets may be purchased online or at the Resident Associate Program box office located in the Ripley Center on the National Mall. Showtimes are 10:15 and 11:30 AM through Friday.
Thursday, April 21 Grazia Toderi Artist Talk
As the Hirshhorn’s exhibition, “Directions: Grazia Toderi” opens, the artist herself kicks things off in an evening lecture at the museum, when she’ll share her recent projections and drawings. According to the museum, her works “transform the artifacts of a culture obsessed with technology and surveillance into celestial meditations both poetic and chilling.” Free. First come, first served. 6:45 PM. Hirshhorn Gallery and Sculpture Garden.
Friday, April 22 Party for the Planet!
Celebrate Earth Day at the National Zoo. Family-friendly event. RECYCLE: bring small electronics to be recycled. REDUCE: learn how you can use fewer resources at home and at work. REUSE & REPLENISH: make a newspaper planter, fill with seeds and plant in your yard. Free. 10:00 AM to noon. National Zoo
February 1, 2011
You’ve never seen a Whistler this way before.
As a part of the newly announced Google Art Project, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art is giving art lovers an up close and personal look at James McNeill Whistler’s “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain” along with 16 other works of art from museums around the world, including Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Each is comprised of over 7 billion pixels, allowing visitors to the project to view each brushstroke and even see what sort of canvas was used.
In addition to these “gigapixel” paintings, the project uses the Google Street View technology to provide a tour of the inside of some of the world’s most famous museums. As for the Freer Gallery, the museum contributed additional works for browsing, from more Whistlers to Japanese prints to ancient Buddhas. Now, on frigid days like today, you can hole up in your home and tour the collections of the Freer (not to mention the Ufizzi, MoMA, the Met, Tate Modern and more) from the comforts of your sofa.
“I think they were keen to have one of the Smithsonian museums involved and I was extremely keen because it seems to me that at least some aspects of this are a game-changer for the way that museums approach the Web,” said Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. “The gigapixel allows you to see elements that you would really never ever see, certainly in traditional means of reproduction. You might see the crackle in the oil of a painting, you can sense the brushstroke in the artist’s hand and energy, you can see narrative details you would never see otherwise.”
Raby is convinced that endeavors such as the Google Art Project will increase interest in visiting art museums. “The traditional thing has been to say that any form of surrogate photograph, video, film will mean that people won’t come to the museums; actually, the experience is quite the opposite. In this particular case, I think it will create a sense of fascination that will engage completely new audiences.”
–additional reporting done by Arcynta Ali Childs