Tuesday, 15 July 2014

'Art Happens': James Whistler and Ten O'Clock lecture

 February 1885: the Ten o’clock Lecture

A man in immaculate evening dress stepped onto the stage in Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly.  He placed a glossy opera hat on the table, set down his walking-cane and adjusted his eyeglass.  James Whistler appeared in the footlights like a figure from one of his own canvases: an Arrangement in Black and Silver. ‘It is with great hesitation and much misgiving’ he began, ‘that I appear before you, in the character of The Preacher’. Whistler had practised his lines during the past winter months, trying out turns of phrase as he strode up and down the riverbank at Chelsea.  He had perfected his principles over countless dinner-tables.  As one friend put it, ‘the only new thing was Whistler’s determination to say in public what he had said in private.’  But now he faltered a little as he cast his eye over the up-turned faces before him.  He recognised several devoted followers, some sceptics, many critics. 

What had they come to hear? Most expected a fashionable evening’s entertainment, an American eccentric showing-off.  His droll delivery meant that they underestimated the force of his attack on the art-establishment.  For Whistler’s monogram was very apt – a butterfly with a sting in his tail.

Whistler’s radical artistic manifesto struck at the heart of Victorian assumptions about beauty, Nature and the role of the artist in society.   Firstly, he declared that art-critics should leave the masses alone.  Most folk would never be enthusiastic about spending their spare time in galleries or creating the House Beautiful.  ‘The people have been harassed with Art…their homes have been invaded’ and, Whistler suggested, this has left the public bewildered and resentful.  Instead, Art should be left to those who could best appreciate it.  The true artist, Whistler said, was an outside, a ‘dreamer apart.’ Like himself.

And Art was not meant to be improving. The public were encouraged to delight in pictures that were morally uplifting. They admired naturalism, anecdote or sentiment.  Whistler summed up this approach: ‘Before a work of Art, it is asked: ‘What good shall it do?’.  In his view, this was utterly wrong-headed.  For Whistler, Art was ‘occupied with her own perfection only – having no desire to teach’.  Art was about beauty, delight, joy.

He went on to tackle another fundamental tenet of Victorian thinking. Whistler denied that art was more likely to flourish in a particular time or place.  The most beautiful things could be made in ancient Greece, or at the Court of Philip II of Spain, in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam or Hokusai’s Japan.  Whistler scoffed at the ‘fabled link between the grandeur of Art and the glories and virtues of the State’.  Beauty was wedded to individuals, not to Nations. In his words, ‘peoples may be wiped from the face of the earth, but Art is.’ 

His delivery gained strength as he took on the British obsession with painting the natural world.  An artist, Whistler believed, ‘does not confine himself to purposeless copying, without thought, each blade of grass.’ (This was a dig at the hypnotic realism of the Pre-Raphaelites.)  Whistler denounced Nature as vulgar. He acknowledged that many in the audience would be shocked by this blasphemy. ‘Nature is very rarely right’, he argued, ‘to such an extent even, that might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong.’  Only the artist could select elements from the natural world, group them, and create something harmonious.  

Whistler used a musical analogy to explain his idea. He suggested that ‘Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music’.  So drawing directly from natural examples was like saying to the musician ‘that he may sit on the piano.’  Whistler knew how to make an audience laugh, but he also kept them on their toes.  They could not anticipate whom he would lunge at next. 

In his bantering way, Whistler was taking on the Victorian heavy-weights, John Ruskin and William Morris, as well as the more esoteric art-criticism of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater.  He was paying off old debts, and sizing up new rivals. In 1878 he had been publicly humiliated by Ruskin.  In the ensuing libel case, Whistler was forced to justify the value of his art to the Attorney-General.  His paintings were described in court as ‘strange fantastical conceits,…daubs,…not serious works of art’.  He was bankrupted.  Whistler destroyed many of his paintings, sold his house and left London. He passed a chill winter exiled in Venice.  He took with him two dozen copper etching plates, reams of brown paper and boxes of pastels. He etched, though his fingers were so numb with cold that he could hardly hold the needle. He drew his bare lodgings in a dilapidated palazzo, with his companion Maud Franklin silhouetted against the open window.  He called this work The Palace in Rags. He refused to picture the buildings that Ruskin had glorified in his book, ‘The Stones of Venice’.  Instead Whistler’s Venice was ephemeral, glittering and intimate.  

Now, five years on, Whistler was ready to answer his critics.  He had regained a foothold in the London art-world, with his one-man exhibitions at the Fine Art Society.  He was re-establishing his name as a portraitist. Whistler combined the verve of Velasquez with a sharp critique of modern manners.  His painting of Lady Archibald Campbell caused a sensation at the Grosvenor Gallery in the summer of 1884: her shiny yellow boot and black stocking could be glimpsed beneath the hem of her dress as she whisked her skirts away from the picture frame.  Whistler’s female figures were supple and ambiguous.  He designed many of the gowns worn by the women who sat for him and he chose to dress them gorgeously in translucent layers of tulle and soft pleated silks.  He disliked the current vogue for ‘Aesthetic Dress’.  Whistler deplored the uncorseted, ‘unbecoming’ robes in sad colours that made young women look lanky and dishevelled.  One reason for his dislike was that the campaign for ‘Dress Reform’ was so publicly championed by Oscar Wilde.  Both men liked nothing better than a verbal sparring match. 

Wilde had lectured on ‘Beauty, Taste and Ugliness in Dress’ to audiences across Britain in 1884-5, from Leeds to Dublin, from Bury St Edmunds to Newcastle.  So it was partly in response to Wilde’s successful speaking engagements that Whistler decided to book the Prince’s Hall in February 1885.  Whistler had heard Wilde there, delivering his ‘Impressions of America’.  Now an American-born artist would take to the stage to lecture about the British, their failings and follies.  Whistler’s line about the public’s reluctance in the face of Art – ‘they have been told how they shall love Art, and live with it…their very dress has been taken to task’ – was a jibe directed at Wilde.  Their wit was competitive.  Their friendship, formed in 1881, was now wearing thin. But the rivalry was still, to some extent, stage-managed. 

Whistler asked Helen Carte, wife of the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, to arrange the booking of the lecture hall.  As she was in the throes of producing The Mikado, Whistler took to wandering over to her tiny office at the Savoy Theatre in the evenings.  There, in the winter lamplight, they discussed Whistler’s plan. He wanted his audience to enjoy an un-hurried dinner before coming on to the lecture.  Ten o’clock in the evening seemed like a civilised hour to start. Whistler recognised that this timing alone would raise eyebrows among the industrious middle-classes.  He evidently did not expect his audience to have to rise early the following day.  But as he consistently explained in the lecture, Art was not a matter for the masses, but for the Few. 

Whistler was of course aware of the paradox.  He was preaching the gospel of the artist set apart from society before a large paying audience.  And he was prepared to take his ideas on the road.  He gave the same lecture on three more occasions in 1885 – Cambridge, Oxford, and again in London – and then had the text privately printed.  It was an edition of 25 copies, a trifle that could be passed off to friends.  His Ten o’clock lecture was a triumph of self-publicity, it made him a celebrity, a gift for the cartoonists with his monocle and his tuft of white hair carefully arranged among the black curls.

But, for all the swagger, Whistler was in earnest.  He derided Ruskin, as he would later deride the poet Swinburne and indeed Wilde, because they could do nothing but talk.  They could not make an image appear upon the canvas as Velasquez did when he ‘dipped his brush in light and air, and made his people live within their frames, and stand upon their legs.’  Critics were parasites. The true artist did not want his pictures to be read as novels, decoded for their morals.  Painting was about form, colour and composition, not about subject.  Whistler gave his works musical titles – Arrangements, Harmonies, Symphonies – to deflect attention from the thing in the picture, and to focus on the way it was painted.  His canvases could be consumed as a piece of music is consumed, the audience concentrating on the formal aspects of the art, its shape, its rhythms, its mood.  Whistler was not interested in story-telling.  When he was questioned about one of his landscapes, a Harmony in Grey and Gold, Whistler wrote, ‘I care nothing for the past, present or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot.’  Narrative was unnecessary.  Morality, history, faith, patriotism, pity were irrelevant. 

It may have seemed on that February evening that the audience were merely watching a butterfly flapping its wings, and causing a small stir in Piccadilly. But the repercussions were breath-taking. Whistler’s lecture brushed away the old certainties about what to paint, how to paint it and how to write about painting.  Whistler imagines the artist as ‘differing from the rest, whose pursuits attracted him not.’  An artist was not bound by the laws of realism.  An artist could decide when a work was finished: it may look like a sketch to the uninitiated, but according to Whistler, ‘the work of the master reeks not of the sweat of the brow – suggests no effort – and is finished from the beginning’.  An artist worked for the pleasure of the few, not for the many.

This was a manifesto showing how art could be made modern.  Art is uninhibited by history, uninterested in explaining itself to those who cannot see.  It is concerned with the vision of the artist, not the expectations of the patron or the critic.  Art is swift.  It is eclectic.  As Whistler put it, ‘Art happens’. 

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I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on suzannefagencecooper@yahoo.com for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.