In the recent Head On photo festival, one memorable picture showed a side-on view of a dominatrix in a shiny black jump suit sitting in a curved chair. On the grey wall behind the sitter was a framed photo of a muscle-man’s torso covered in leather straps. It was Whistler’s Mother for bondage fiends and fetishists. Try a quick web search and dozens of other parodies of this famous image appear. No painting, with the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, ever had a better claim to be called ‘iconic’.
The picture is on show at the National Gallery of Victoria for another fortnight, as part of a small exhibition that situates the work within art history and establishes its uniqueness. It’s the kind of event that has been a long-held fantasy for Australian art museums: to import one indubitable masterpiece rather than 60 works of variable quality that must be passed off as masterpieces.
It has always been a favourite parlour game for curators to ask: “Which work would you bring to Australia if you could choose anything at all?” Some would opt for Velázquez’s Las Meninas, some might prefer Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. My personal choice would be Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. By any standards, Whistler’s Portrait of the artist’s mother (1871), is a brilliant catch.
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has facilitated the loan in return for Pierre Bonnard’s La Sieste (1900) from the NGV’s holdings. The apparent generosity of this swap should make us more appreciative of the Bonnard, which is one of the greatest pictures in Australian public collections.
Nevertheless, one could never claim a comparable iconic status for Bonnard’s erotically charged portrait of his wife, Marthe lying bottoms up on an unmade bed. She may be one of the most celebrated subjects in all of modern art, but Madame Bonnard is an non-entity alongside the public profile enjoyed by Whistler’s puritanical old mum.
The artist’s original title for the work was Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, which served the desired purpose of dumbfounding his audience. “To me,” Whistler explained, “it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?”
He was probably being deliberately provocative – a characteristic gesture for a figure who loved to stand out from the common herd. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was one of the most flamboyant artists of his age. Born in Massachusetts, he would be brought up in St. Petersburg, where his father had a commission building railways for the Tzar; and later in Britain. Whistler was the complete cosmopolitan whose fluency in French meant he was as much at home in Paris as in London.
Regardless of national identity it was Whistler’s personality that won him fame and notoriety. In the words of his most recent biographer, Daniel E. Sutherland, “he has been called the quintessential ‘outsider’ and the ultimate ‘insider’. He was a maverick and a rebel, but also a much honoured Master. He was an untutored genius and a hopeless charlatan. He was inventive and avant-garde; he was eccentric and derivative. He was outrageously egocentric and painfully insecure.”
In modern parlance Whistler was a celebrity, but one who had the talent to support his public image. He had learnt the value of self-promotion from Gustave Courbet who gloried in the title “the most arrogant man in France”, but for a natural attention-seeker – whose signature symbol was a butterfly with a stinging tail – it was largely a matter of following his natural impulses.
Along with painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Whistler was one of the artists most admired by Australian artists of the late 19th century. He has stood the test of time better than the others, and it’s to be regretted that our public collections don’t possess a single painting, although there are many examples of his etchings, including Black Lion Wharf (1859), which is the image one sees framed on the wall behind mother.
This etching, one of a series that Whistler made of the Thames and surrounds, is included in the NGV exhibition, as part of a range of material relating to the artist and his times. This includes paintings such as John Longstaff’s The Lady in grey (1890) and The young mother (1893), in which the debt to Whistler is patent. It also reveals Longstaff at his most imaginative, drawing on Whistler’s palette and pictorial devices for two beautiful, tender pictures of his young wife, Topsy. I’ve always thought of these works as “Whistlerian”, but to view them in close proximity with the Portrait of the artist’s mother is a lesson in the way one painter borrows from another and brings a new sensibility to the mix.
By the time one arrives at the portrait, hung in solitary triumph at the end of the show, the sense of anticipation is overwhelming. I’ve seen the painting on many occasions at the Musée d’Orsay, but it was exciting to encounter it in Melbourne where it is being treated as a honoured guest.
To its first viewers the picture must have seemed startlingly bare, with Anna Whistler’s black dress creating a massive negative shape in the centre of the composition. The white of her bonnet, cuffs and handkerchief stand out starkly against this black backdrop. She looks stern, but on closer examination one can see that the face is modelled with great filial care. Here we meet with the paradox of a painting that is simultaneously monumental and intimate. It’s doubtful that Anna Whistler’s legs were as long as the image suggests, but the modelling of the face is completely convincing in its realism. We shouldn’t be fooled by the widow’s garb into believing that Anna was a forbidding personality. Despite her unflinching religious beliefs she was an indulgent parent to her boy, Jemie.
Even the grey of the wall is not as austere as it first appears. There is a warmth in this colour that is picked up by the soft brown of the wooden floor, and the sliver-grey pattern in the black curtain on the left-hand side of the picture. Indeed, the oriental twists and dabs of pattern in the curtain add a touch of vivacity to a work otherwise defined by its geometry.
The painting has led a complex, indeed contradictory existence. As an Arrangement in Grey and Black, it became a rallying point for the formalist aesthetic of ‘art for art’s sake’, but this pose could not be sustained as there is something slightly monstrous in referring to one’s mother as an arrangement of tones. By 1883, when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon, the painting had been retitled Portrait of my mother. In this incarnation it would become a universal symbol of motherhood, viewed by many with unabashed sentimentality.
As a work it sums up so much about Whistler himself – the pose of avant-garde rigour applied to a subject for which he felt the deepest affection; the notorious ladies man who puts his mother – literally – upon a pedestal.
Conservator, Sarah Walden, who wrote a fascinating book about the painting, notes that Symbolist novelist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, felt the picture held intimations of “a sort of delicious sickliness in European culture,” while Americans would come to view it as “a symbol of robust moral health.”
One could argue that the picture seems to have begun its life as a thoroughly European proposition and become progressively more American. A composition that was incomprehensible to the provincial mindset of the United States in the 1870s, would gradually become associated with the four-square logic of a work such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).
The transformation was underway at the time of the First World War and reached its apogee during the years of the Depression, when a battered nation fell back on traditional values such as the sanctity of motherhood. Today many Americans would be amazed to find that this painting resides in a museum in Paris. Its visit to Australia may be seen as a confirmation of its enduring status as a bridge between the Old World and the New, between the so-called ‘mother country’ and its wayward child.
National Gallery of Victoria, until 19 June
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4th June, 2016