Tag Archives: abstract

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – To Define Is To Kill, To Suggest Is To Create

11 Jun

“To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.”

(Stéphane Mallarmé)

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water, 1872

The more I gazed at these near abstracts paintings by the American expatriate painter Whistler, these dreamy and vague river-scapes of the Thames, the more this quote by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé kept coming to my mind: “To name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little; to suggest it, that is the illusion. It is the perfect handling of the mystery that Constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of mind or inversely to choose an object and to disengage from it a State of mind, by a series of unriddlings.

Stephané Mallarmé’s poems are full of complicated and unique symbols which leaves the reader the space for interpretation, and he used music as inspiration and a role model because music is the most irrational and also most romantic of all the arts, as E.T.A. Hoffman said in the early nineteenth century. I see a direct parallel with this Mallarmé’s thought and these landscapes that Whistler painted in the 1870s are a visual portraits of that thought; the little boats and the setting sun in the painting “Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water” just like the lights in the “Nocturne” bellow are more suggestive than direct, accurate, realistic portrayals of the scene. This vague interpretation of the scene Whistler saw before him gives these paintings a poetic flair, these are the kind of artworks one can gaze at for a long time and daydream. Reveries come easy when we gaze at something undefined and ready to be expanded with our imagination.

James Abbott McNeil, Nocturne, 1870-1877

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as “Symphony” or “Nocturne”, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

I really love the idea that the title Nocturne can be given to a painting as well, not just to a piece of classical music as is mostly the case. The title alone can the suggestive and influence our perception of the painting and a title such as “Nocturne” certainly directs my perception into a mystical, dreamy direction. In 1872, he wrote to Frederic Leyland, an amateur musician who inspired Whistler for his musically inspired titles: “I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish.” These Nocturnes are pure poetry on canvas. One would think that covering an entire canvas in monotonous shades of blue and grey would make a dull painting, but the effect is the opposite.

In 1877, Whistler exhibited his “Nocturne” series of the river Thames at the Grosvenor Gallery in London and these paintings truly enraged the art critic and writer John Ruskin who wrote of the exhibition that Whistler was “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face“. This just show how scandalous these half-realistic and half-abstract paintings were to Victorians. Today, after all that art has gone through, the good and the bad, our eyes are so desensitised that these paintings could hardly be considered outrageous.

James Abbott McNeil, Nocturne: Blue and Silver, Chelsea, 1871