Persona, Publicity and the Public Eye Whistler and the Commercial Art World

The author of this Blog is Hester Mauduit, a third year Honours student in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow.

Whistler was a polarizing figure: his notoriously flamboyant personality secured him both friends and enemies, admirers and critics. He seems to have carefully shaped his image in the public eye, cultivating an exclusive circle of friends, courting controversy – sometimes actively seeking it. While he undoubtedly must have had innate qualities and impulses that caused him to act, dress and speak out as he did, this cult of the self aided him in selling his work, and he must have been fully aware of this.  Did he not stage his most controversial (and newsworthy) solo exhibitions shortly after returning from Venice, penniless and out of public favour? For his 1883 show Arrangement in White and Yellow at the Fine Art Society, for example, he redoubled his efforts in pursuing, challenging and calling out the press. All publicity was good publicity. Though this was uncommon at the time, it does not seem so strange today. In fact, museums today must employ a variety of strategies to keep visitors coming and justify their existence, which include putting on controversial or cutting-edge shows. There are other ways in which Whistler’s exhibitions are reminiscent of contemporary practice however. Kenneth John Myers has suggested that his exhibition designs heralded the rise of the white cube, both in their aesthetics and in the way in which he changed the relationship between viewer and art work. [1]

In this post, I will explore Whistler’s theories on art and how to display it, and present some thoughts on the rise of the notion of the Aesthetic, the cult of Artist, and the White Cube, hopefully showing that in his clever marketing and packaging of his work, Whistler heralded the commercial climate of the contemporary art world.

In a sentence, the characteristics of a Whistlerian exhibition design were fewer artworks, hanging ‘on the line’, restrained interior design based on carefully coordinated colour schemes, and individual parts subjected to the whole.

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Honoré  Daumier, The Salon of 1859, lithograph from the series L’exposition de 1859 (1859)

It is likely that he conceived of a change in exhibition practices early on in his career, for example when he displayed his work at the Paris Salon of 1859 (see the illustration above), where it was drowned among the thousands of paintings hung floor-to-ceiling. [2]

Myers suggests that he abandoned the Academies when he started painting his ‘nocturnes’ in the early 1870s, because of their subdued tones, which made them hard to light and display advantageously in traditional Salon-style hanging. [3] Some of the highly modern techniques Whistler applied to exhibition design were indirect lighting, uniform framing, large promotional banners on the façade, and the sale of specially-made catalogues. [4] It is strange to think that these were not yet common practice at the time!

Perhaps his greatest innovation however, was to create a setting in which each work could be admired individually. While Whistler held complex theories of art, in essence he meant for his work to be shown beautifully.

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James McNeill Whistler, The Peacock Room, (1876-77) featuring La Princesse du Pays de Porcelaine, oil on canvas (1863-65), reconstruction at the Freer Gallery of Art Credit: https://www.si.edu/exhibitions/the-peacock-room-comes-to-america-6230

In his biography on Whistler, Daniel E. Sutherland describes the etchings as being ‘nearly lost in this surreal world’, and this wording is significant. [7] It indicates that the overall effect of the room might have had more of an impact on the viewer than the individual works, which seems counter-productive if he was trying to sell them. In fact, reviews in various newspapers and magazines mostly discussed the installation and catalogue, rather than the etchings. [8] This is not surprising if we think about how far he departed from exhibition practices of the time.

The sharpest contrast was formed with Whistler’s spacing of the works, as opposed to frame-to-frame hanging, rather than the use of interior decoration to present them. Some scholars have noted that a result of giving each work individual space, as well as a function within the overall design of the room, was that it encouraged the visitor to move around the space and shift their viewing position. Elizabeth Prettejohn points out the ‘rhythmic alternation’ of works at the Pall Mall exhibition of 1874 at the Flemish Gallery, and explains that visitors moved back and forth in order to alternately contemplate each work and the whole wall. [9] This seems to be the way modern visitors are expected to move about a room when visiting a gallery or museum, because curators carefully choose how to sequence the works to make them tell a story or have the desired aesthetic effect on the viewer. This spacing of the works had further implications, which brings me to my next point.

In his famous Ten O’clock Lecture, Whistler declared:

Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.” [10]

In this lecture Whistler presented a line of ideas parallel to those of the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century. It is important to note that neither Whistler, nor the Aesthetes, considered him a member of the Movement. We can however credit him as an important purveyor of the idea of the Aesthetic, which values art as pure aesthetic representation, not as a representation of something else, or as a channel of moral ideas.

White Cube

Niels Borsch Jensen Gallery and Editions, Deutsche Museen, (2005) Credit: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-white-cube-dominate-art

In his exhibitions this idea took another form, presenting works of art as self-contained aesthetic objects worthy of individual attention. Myers passionately argues this point, and claims that Whistler’s exhibitions of the 1880s marked the transition towards the rise of the White Cube (see illustration above) in the early twentieth century.  [11] This type of exhibition design was pioneered by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after it was remodelled in 1939 by Phillip S. Goodwin, who turned its interior into antiseptic laboratory-spaces in which the visitor was encouraged to view art as isolated specimens. [12] This separation of art from life is often seen as a typically Modernist phenomenon, but I think it is safe to say that it can be traced back half a century and found in Whistler’s ideas. The other aspect of White Cube spaces is a sense of calmness, which can also be found in Whistlerian exhibitions. Ruth E. Fine notes that some reviewers commented on the restfulness and comfort of Whistler’s spacious hang. [13] ‘Calmness’ has two effects: it creates an atmosphere of decorum and encourages according behaviour, which includes keeping your voice down and moving slowly, for the appreciation of Art. This is reminiscent of galleries or museums today, which are still spaces of high culture and of a certain social code for select audiences, who will behave appropriately.

I’d like to argue that Whistler’s exhibitions were modernist in yet another way: he made them into society events, selling works through his personality and the appeal of the controversy he created, in his dress, mannerism, interaction with the press, and social connections. This heralded the modern cult of the genius artist and the contemporary commercial art world, where the artist is revered as much as his art, and art relies heavily on social prestige to sell. Nigel Thorp explains: “Whistler attracted public attention irresistibly and inevitably. His witticisms, his dandyish presence, his colourful activities and his repeated lawsuits were guaranteed regular attention in the press. [..] No other artist conducted a personal campaign in this way.” [14] Deanna Marohn Bendix suggests that Whistler did this because of the nature of some of his work, such as his sketch-like etchings and pastels of Venice, which was small-scale and abstracted. [15] He cultivated a flamboyant persona and pursued the press, because if he and his work were talked about, it legitimized them as art of equal worth to paintings and narrative art.

In addition to notoriety, a further way to commercialise his work was to suggest that it was too revolutionary for common people to understand. This flattered those who attended the private view of Arrangement in White and Yellow, for example, complementing the colour harmony in their black or white costumes, at the artist’s request. They must have felt like they were part of an exclusive circle, because they complete the effect of the décor and because they could appreciate Whistler’s work. [16] In this context, it is interesting to examine David Park Curry’s remark that Arrangement in White and Yellow ‘captured the ethos of the Aesthetic Movement interior as a stage for presentation of an artistic self’. [17] In other words, both the artist and his guests performed artistic personae within the walls of his exhibition, and in the tradition of nineteenth century entertainment, it was a place to be seen, as well as to see. This was not the only instance in which Whistler self-consciously utilized dress. Aileen Ribeiro observes that his own impeccable style reflected his personality, [18] but we might go further and say that it projected his personality as well; it played a part in his persona and could tell people from a distance who he was and what he stood for. This, too, is common practice in the modern commercial art world. An artist must ‘look like an artist’, gallerists and critics use complex art jargon to explain the ‘meaning’ of works, and previews of exhibitions still tend to be exclusive events. This is meant to create a context in which art is talked about, therefore meaningful, and therefore saleable.

If all this sounds rather negative, it is not meant to be. It would be too simplistic to say that Whistler created controversial exhibitions for the sake of being talked about and selling his work, or that the contemporary art world is a bubble built on public image and noise. Whistler’s views as an aesthete are widely documented and seem too much a part of him to be only a construction. However, what I do want to suggest is that his innovative approach to personal publicity and presentation of his work heralded a change in the way the public consumes art. The postmodernist world of consumerism is linked closely to advertisement which functions as follows: being told to want something makes you want it and then buy it. What Whistler did was simply an early version of this practice: creating a setting in which his work was best appreciated, making people feel that appreciating it was proof of their good taste, arguing for the merit of individual abstracted works, and ensuring that he, his works, his exhibitions, and his entourage remained in the public eye.

NOTES: [1] Kenneth John Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery: Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition (London: Smithsonian Institution and Scala Publishers, 2003), p. 1.

[2] Deanna Marohn Bendix, Diabolical Designs: Paintings, Interiors, and Exhibitions of James McNeill Whistler (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), p. 205.

[3] Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery, p. 4.

[4] Ruth E. Fine, ed., Studies in the History of Art: James McNeill Whistler A Re-examination (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1987), p. 67.

[5] James Mc Neill Whistler, cited in The Freer Gallery of Art, The Whistler Peacock Room (Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1951), p. 10.

[6] Whistler to Thomas Waldo Story, 5 February 1883, GUW 09430.

[7] Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 192.

 [8] Margaret F. MacDonald, Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2001), p. 113.

 [9] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 184.

[10] Whistler to The World, 22 May 1878, GUW 13153.

[11] Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery, 3.

[12] Alan Wallach, “The Museum of Modern Art: The Past’s Future,” in Art in Modern Culture: an anthology of critical texts, edited Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris (London: Phaidon Press and the Open University), pp. 282-291 at p. 285.

[13] Fine, Studies in the History of Art, p. 79.

[14] Nigel Thorp, ed., Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings of James McNeill Whistler 1849-1903 (Manchester and Glasgow: Fyfield Books in association with The Centre for Whistler Studies, 1994), p. xiii.

[15] Bendix, Diabolical Designs, p. 211.

[16] MacDonald, Palaces in the Night, p. 107.

 [17] David Park Curry, “Much in Little Space: Whistler’s White and Yellow Exhibition as an Aesthetic Movement Bell-weather,” in The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, edited Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr (London: V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 191.

[18] Aileen Ribeiro, “Fashion and Whistler,” in Whistler, Women, and Fashion, Margaret F. MacDonald, Susan Grace Galassi, and Aileen Ribeiro, with Patricia de Montford (New York, New Haven and London: Yale University Press and The Frick Collection, 2003), p. 42.

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About mfmmacdonald

I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.
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