Walk the line: Whistler flouts tradition

In a small room in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), among a small little group of undergraduates, graduates and professors, several small prints were discussed within the context of a career much more magnanimous in scope, renown and influence. You may not know much about Whistler (James Abbott McNeill Whistler), but given that he practiced various media, lived in several countries and had unrelated occupations leading up to his artistic career, it wouldn’t be surprising if you had heard his name. Thanks to Emily Arensman, a first-year student in the Williams College graduate program in Art History, several of Whistler’s prints from the WCMA collection were further brought to the College’s attention.

Arensman’s intimate lecture flouted the stereotypical sequence of slides that is associated with art history talks and focused instead on six prints. Given the intimacy of the lecture’s setting and the seeming self-containment of the works, it was surprising to discover that Whistler was an artist who seemed to revel in a deliberately unclassifiable ambiguity in his life and in his art.

Although born in Lowell, Mass. in 1834, Whistler later claimed to be from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 11. After a brief stint as a ministerial student, Whistler enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point; while there, he barely kept his grades up and generally flouted authority, preferring to draw incessantly in sketchbooks. Given Whistler’s notoriously incorrigible public presence, this rebellion was not out of character: He lived and worked in the time of the Impressionist movement in France and was well-acquainted with the oft-mentioned greats of the 19th century, but is seldom noted as a contributor. Perhaps this is because Whistler believed in “art for art’s sake,” refusing to conform to the affinity for sentimentality and moral allegory that captivated his contemporaries.

Instead, Whistler’s art focuses on pure line and form, especially in his prints. His etchings, on display during Arensman’s talk, are the result of a printing method that allows more freedom than engraving: The artist pours acid onto a design already carved into wax using a metal pen. After the acid eats away at the exposed parts of the metal plate, the remaining wax is wiped away, and ink may be applied to the resultant grooves. No doubt the freedom of the method is telling of the artist’s artistic philosophy in general.

In fact, as demonstrated by Arensman, no two impressions of the same plate are ever the same. The WCMA is fortunate enough to possess three impressions of the same plate, and the lecture flowed from this mysterious starting point. Aided by magnifying glasses and Arensman’s knowledge, it soon became clear that the subtlety of the lines, the dynamism of the perspective and the atmosphere of the setting changed dramatically according to the artist’s intended tone. “Whistler’s prints are exceedingly varied and rich and, I believe, provide a key to understanding his work in other media. Through his etchings, in particular, we can see how he never ceased searching for new variations, new techniques which became increasingly suggestive rather than descriptive,” Arensman said.

What Arensman emphasized most of all in respect to the artist’s technique is that content, plot and narrative were irrelevant to Whistler. As evidenced by the ambiguity of his titles (various prints and paintings entitled Nocturne), the artist was much more concerned with compositions that emphasized tone, line and 2-D aesthetic than with symbolic communication. In fact, many of his other works were simply titled “study”, “symphony” or “harmony” in order to discourage a thematic categorization of his work.

Up close, Whistler’s prints appear to be a series of intricate lines, some short, some long, some parallel, some tangled. From afar, his lines give form. The print medium thus seems to fit perfectly with Whistler’s artistic philosophy: Not only is it impossible to discuss Whistler’s art in more than abstract terms, but the size and the detail of his prints encourage an intimate engagement achieved only by seeing the works “in the flesh.” Thus, the form of Arensman’s discussion, which defied stereotypical art history lectures, was also a reflection of, and homage to, the steadfastly form-centric, anti-narrative work of the artist.