|James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights, 1872|
I went to see this exhibition because of the detail of Monet’s Sunrise, 1872 on the Time Out Paris website. Sadly, Monet’s was one of a handful of paintings of any significance in what is otherwise a vast exhibition. Why I imagined it would be more than a Musée d’Orsay summer crowd pleaser, I don’t know. That said, I am very happy I went because I saw a painting I have never seen before.
Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights (1872) has never been on display at Tate Britain when I visited in the past. And so, when I turned a corner to see a painting so subtly luminescent and so strikingly at odds with the bold colors and strong pigmented paintings around it, my heart stopped still. It’s difficult to express how extraordinary Whistler’s Nocturnes actually are. Only in their presence can the soft glow that emanates from their surface be experienced, and only before them can we see how close to impossible they must have been to execute. In their room at Tate Britain, the two Nocturne paintings are so far and beyond those in their midst that it is not difficult to see why they were rejected from the salon. Nothing could have prepared the 19th century for Whistler’s views of London from his Chelsea Studio.
The paint is so thin that the boat in the middle ground could be mistaken for the canvas ground. Or it might be that this misshapen shadow is the space on the canvas where the paint didn’t take as Whistler ran the brush horizontally. Perhaps the most astounding elements of the painting are the chimneys and their reflections. In fact, they might even be called violent because they strikingly cut the horizontality of the painted water. The lights on the opposite shore are more forgiving, gentler, even though they do the same thing: striate the calm luminescent river. However, unlike the chimneys, the subtlest of gestures, the brightness of the lights laps at the still, water at dusk. Also impossible to see in a reproduction: the small piece of foliage in the foreground and the badge on the right edge of the painting cast an unsettling ambiguity over the painting. Did Whistler paint this through his window and indeed mark the painting with the view as he saw it, including the plant in the frame of his window? In no other painting is the appeal of dusk so exquisitely luminescent as it is here in the Cremorne lights. And because I can’t find a reproduction to do justice to this delicate waterscape, I hope you will go to the Musée d’Orsay to see this exquisite gem for yourself. This painting is more magical and more mystical, and at the same time, does more to push the boundaries of painting in its time, than any other of those present in the exhibition.
|Gustav Klimt, Rosiers Sous les arbres, 1905|
That said, there are a couple of other paintings that might make the visit more enticing. Monet’s late waterlilies and Klimt’s Rosiers Sous Les Arbres (1905) are among the drawcards of what is otherwise an exhibition of second rate works that will nevertheless have tourist appeal. August Strindberg’s Wave VI and Wave VIII (1901-1902) on the recto-verso of a sheet of cardboard are superb. I didn’t know Strindberg had painted; always assuming his plays were his sole creative output. These two paintings of the sea are dark like the plays, however, both of them also show a moment of hope and possibility. These expanses of grey both represent the turbulence of the air and the projection of a soul churned up. The drama of the natural landscape as the canvas for the inner turmoil of the tormented individual artist is nowhere better encapsulated than here in Strindberg’s Wave paintings. The moments of red, yellow, as what we presume to be the sun waiting to appear in Wave VI and the stretch of the horizon under the threatening sky in Wave VIII give me the sense of an end, somewhere.
|August Strindberg, Wave VIII, 1901-1902|