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Media Preview: Wednesday, November 19, 9 a.m., Freer Gallery of Art
“Mr. Whistler’s Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London”
During his lifetime, the artist James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was as renowned for his radically spare, avant-garde exhibition designs and flamboyant, self-promotional personality as for his artwork. This fall, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art-repository of the most important collections of Whistler’s work in the world-will join with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, to commemorate the centenary of the artist’s death with a major new exhibition at the Smithsonian featuring a broad selection of his prints and paintings.
“Mr. Whistler’s Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London” will be on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery in Washington from Nov. 20 through April 4, 2004. The exhibit creates new versions of “Arrangement in White and Yellow,” and “Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey,” two of Whistler’s most famous and influential installations and examines his role in the forefront of exhibition design.
Both installations were controversial and radically innovative because they challenged long-standing assumptions about the display of art. Featuring identically framed artworks that were hung widely apart on plain, lightly colored walls in moderately sized but elegantly appointed rooms at a time when exhibitions routinely displayed artwork from floor to ceiling with no space between frames, Whistler’s installations paved the way for the spare exhibitions that have become the norm.
Whistler’s “Arrangement in White and Yellow” opened in February 1883 at the Fine Art Society in London and featured 51 of his etchings, most of which had been completed in Venice in 1879-1880. Forty-nine of the original 51 are on view at the Freer. Whistler described his installation as “Sparkling and dainty-and all so sharp-White walls-of different whites, with painted mouldings-not gilded!-yellow velvet curtains-pale yellow matting-yellow sofas and little chairs-lovely little table yellow-own design-with yellow pot and Tiger Lily! Forty odd superb etchings…in their exquisite white frames-with their little butterflies-large white butterfly on yellow curtains and yellow butterfly on white wall…-and finally servant in yellow livery.”
At the opening, the servant-dubbed the “Poached Egg Man” by newspaper reporters-passed out Whistler’s parodic exhibition catolog, in which he mocked his critics by reprinting snippets of critical comments from reviews of previous exhibitions of his Venice etchings. A free reprint of the 24-page catalog to the 1883 installation is available in the exhibition.
Whistler’s major May 1884 exhibition, “Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey,” opened at Dowdeswells’ gallery in London and juxtaposed one life-size portrait of a female model with 66 smaller works of art. Subjects included scenes of Chelsea (Whistler’s neighborhood in London) and the Cornish coast; nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam; and a series of watercolor drawings showing female models in Whistler’s studio. The Freer installation includes 34 oil paintings, watercolors and pastels that were in the original exhibition -most mounted in re-creations of the unusually wide, flat gilt frame the artist designed. Seven additional works resembling others originally on view will also be shown.
A worsted wool, serge material covered the upper walls of Whistler’s carefully designed installation. It was intended to invoke a Venetian palazzo. However, newspaper reviewers variously described the color as shell pink, salmon, rose, and crushed strawberry. The lower section of the wall or “dado” was painted a creamy white. Moldings and chairs were white, rose or gray. A gray carpet covered the floor while the fireplace mantle was covered by a gray velvet valance embroidered with a silver-and-flesh signature butterfly. Planters (some rose, some white) holding azaleas and white marguerite daisies were scattered around the rooms enabling visitors to experience the works as Whistler intended them to be seen.
“We are delighted to be able to broaden our outreach and enrich our scholarship by cooperating with the VMFA in bringing together two curators who are acclaimed experts in the field of Whistler studies,” says Julian Raby, director of the Freer and neighboring Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
“We, too, are excited to collaborate on this innovative venture, as we strive to bring out creative programs to a broader national audience, including our patrons in Northern Virginia,” says VMFA director Michael Brand.
The exhibition is sponsored by Sun Trust Bank and has received generous support from The Lunder Foundation, the Elisabeth Shelton Gottwald Fund and Fabergé Ball Endowment of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, and the Fabergé Society of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “SunTrust views this unique partnership as an outstanding opportunity for SunTrust to support-at the same time and in communities we serve every day-both the arts and two superb cultural institutions,” says C.T. Hill, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank, Mid-Atlantic.
Two books-available from the gallery shop and from major bookstores- appear in conjunction with the exhibition.) “James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces, Essays in Visual Syntheses” by David Curry includes an analysis of the 1883 exhibition. It is a wide-ranging discussion of Whistler’s work as a painter, printmaker and designer in the context of performance, fashion and display issues. “Mr. Whistler’s Gallery: Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition” by co-curator Kenneth John Myers focuses on the 1884 exhibition and explains how Whistler’s installation challenged contemporary ideas about the value of art. It identifies and includes full-color reproductions of all of Whistler’s works that are known to have been included in the original installation.
The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at asia.si.edu.