Master of the gentle art: Whistler was known for his charm and talent, but also his feuds. (Photo: Corbis)
Show Hide image

Foppery and flapdoodle: a life of James Whistler by Daniel E Sutherland

The US-born artist had talent to burn and a weakness for showmanship.

Whistler: a Life for Art’s Sake
Daniel E Sutherland
Yale University Press, 432pp, £25

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a fascinator. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who became his friend, characterised him justly as “a master enchanter . . . able to be both precious and worldly”. The painter Henri Fantin-Latour, another friend, gave him precocious pride of place in his picture Homage to Delacroix (1864), in a company that included Baudelaire and Manet. “To have known Whistler and not be schooled in taste was all but unthinkable,” the worldly Baron Charlus informs the young Marcel in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust called him “Wisthler”, a reference to another admirer, J K Huysmans, who inscribed a copy of À rebours: “To M James Wisthler, l’un de ses fervents, J K Huysmans.”

Proust met the artist only once (and may have appropriated his gloves) but he had a profound feeling for the man and the work. “In my deliberately naked room there is only one work of art,” he confessed to a friend, “an excellent photograph of Wisthler’s Carlyle in a serpentine overcoat.” In Search of Lost Time also pays homage, not only in the Proustian painter Elstir – a composite portrait but a near anagram, however the name is arranged – but also in plain speech. “Well, there we are,” Charlus continues, “it is the hour, as Whistler says, when the bourgeois go to bed . . . the moment to start taking a look at the world. But you don’t even know who Whistler is.”

Do we know who Whistler was? We know that he was born in the US and brought up in Russia, where his father was a railway engineer for Tsar Nicholas I; that he moved to Paris to learn how to be an artist and then to London when he had become one. We know that he dressed like a dandy, talked like a wit and lived in style. We are familiar with his feuding and how he was awarded only a farthing in damages when he won a libel case against John Ruskin, who had accused him of “throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face”. And we understand that he was an aesthete who believed in art for art’s sake and that he tagged his pictures with a symbol of a butterfly with a sting for a tail – a reflection of his work and personality.

And, of course, we know that Whistler’s Mother is famous – “possibly the second most recognisable painting in western art after the Mona Lisa”, burbles the blurb for this book. Properly titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, that celebrated portrait was nearly rejected by the jury of the Royal Academy when Whistler first sent it in.

Once launched, it was much loved. He was a seductive portraitist. Whistler’s women, from Milly Finch to Lady Archibald Campbell, fairly sizzle with style: bold, beautiful, bedazzling, they are not to be trifled with (though a little trifling might not go amiss, they seem to say, if anyone is up to it). His men are character studies of masterly refinement. Lithographs of Mallarmé and Sickert catch them to the whisker.

Whistler had talent to burn, a cultivated magnetism, a barrelful of self-regard and a weakness for showmanship. Much of his creative energy was dissipated in the gentle art of making enemies, to borrow the title of his autobiographical chronicle of feuds and polemics. Characteristically, Whistler wanted to call it Scalps!.

For all the foppery and flapdoodle, however, Whistler is difficult to fathom. Are we any the wiser (or perhaps the Wisthler) after reading Daniel E Sutherland’s life? The book is finely crafted and exhaustively researched. He makes large claims for his subject – “arguably the greatest [artist] of his generation” – and for his research. “I visited 30 libraries and archives in consulting the 200 manuscript collections and 2,000 books, catalogues, dissertations, articles, essays, newspapers and pamphlets that form the bedrock of my research on Whistler’s life,” he tells us, twice. Such assiduity yields copious notes but, regrettably, no bibliography.

The life is told punctiliously, evenly and chronologically; strictly cradle to grave. There is no afterlife, or only the faintest glimpse of one. Whistler himself was preoccupied with posterity. He asserted the right to edit the final proofs of a putative biography and also his entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After his death, his friends and relations got down to some bitter feuding over the shape of his legacy.

Five years later, in 1908, came the first big strike on posterity: The Life of James McNeill Whistler, two volumes by two fervents, the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, a work that went into six revised editions over the next 17 years. Of this creeping barrage of biography, Sutherland observes merely, “Whether the Pennells got Whistler’s story right is another matter altogether, and still much debated. People who had known Whistler far longer accused the American couple of ‘exploiting’ the dead artist.” The nature of the debate is a mystery never dispelled. He is similarly tight-lipped about the next contender, James Laver, a penetrating historian of costume and fashion, who remarked that Whistler “was as much obsessed by elegance as a man-milliner”.

Sutherland’s occasional affectations of style bid to out-Whistler Whistler, especially the precious “Oh” at the beginning of a sentence. “Oh, and he decided to build a house.” “Oh, he was full of ideas.” For the most part, however, it is a surprisingly unshowy affair, given Whistler’s penchant for display. There is a certain repetitiveness to the tale, an endless cycle of fraternisation, litigation and excommunication.

Sutherland is prodigiously well informed. He knows the price of everything. Whistler’s world unspools before us. Yet Whistler’s world-view remains elusive. The interior is unplumbed. As an artist, he is overvalued, or at any rate too readily accepted at face value, often his own. “Perhaps the most influential artist of his generation”, runs the hopeful claim. Perhaps. His canvases were not merely canvases, Whistler was keen to say: they were picture patterns. His picture theory is a pretty thing but it had its limits. Far beyond lay an artist of his generation whose work he considered childish. Oh, his name was Paul Cézanne.

Alex Danchev’s books include “The Letters of Paul Cézanne” (Thames & Hudson, £29.95). He is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Disney
Show Hide image

Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

0800 7318496