Art and politics are often seen as bed-fellows in our modern age. Banksy, the British born stencil graffiti artist, is often considered a vandal for displaying his work on public spaces, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei whose art is celebrated, but has been held (without charge) in the past by the same government for ‘economic crimes’. However, a different sort of politics has bought an iconic piece of art to the Victorian capital. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and as part of a long standing agreement known as the 1977 Australia-France Agreement on Cultural and Scientific Cooperation, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has been lent Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, otherwise known as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, otherwise otherwise known as Whistler’s Mother. An iconic piece by James McNeil Whistler.
But Whistler’s Mother is only here until the 19th of June.
Nestled in the corner of the second floor at NGV International, hemmed in by the 16th,17th and 18th Century European collections, is a modest but informative exhibition named after its centrepiece. The exhibition begins by telling us that an “unfortunate side effect of such popularity is that iconic art can become so familiar that that work almost disappears”.
The reason behind its popularity is less clear, but Whistler’s Mother has become one of those paintings that is instantly recognisable. The painting has taken on a life of its own, so to speak, and as what happens with great icons such as this, the work has been copied in parody.
So, the journey into the life of Whistler’s Mother begins by looking at the parody.
To illustrate this, you are presented with the design for a stamp that former President of the United States; Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested be produced for Mother’s Day when he was President in the 1930s. What needs to be noted is the addition of a vase full of flowers, added by the stamp designer to make the image look happier.
Due to space and thematic constraints, this is the only example of parody we are presented within the exhibition, however the exhibition book illustrates other parody examples including Mr. Bean, Naked Gun, and The Simpsons.
Now, gently broken in to the subject at hand, you wander through two rooms where you learn about the origins of the painting, the origins of the style used by Whistler, and the quirky and progressive painting methods he used to create the piece. You even get a glimpse into how his fascination with Japanese Woodblock printing ultimately influenced his artistic composition. All of this is presented beautifully with selections of the various series he produced as an etcher.
There is also a small section that briefly explores Whistler’s influence on Australian artists such as Mortimer Menpes and John Longstaff. Both artists were successful at their craft and studied directly under Whistler. Ultimately, this makes Whistler’s Mother significant on the Australian art scene as Menpes and Longstaff would have not only been influenced by the artist but would have been around while he was painting Whistler’s Mother.
The exhibition also manages to bring some of the artist’s life into focus, giving the creation of the painting some context. They tackle this with a mockup of Whistler’s studio space, the gallery even has an E.W. Godwin chair which is similar to the chair that Whistler’s mother would have sat on for the painting. The gallery has even placed chairs of a similar design for visitors whilst watching the ten minute documentary about the life of Whistler and the creation of his painting.
Anna Matilda McNeil, the mother of Whistler, often signed her correspondence to her son with:
‘Your afflicted but ever affectionate widowed mother’
Her age and hard life is responsible for her affliction, but you wonder if the stern look on her face is due to a life of suffering or the number of hours spent on that chair. It is said that an artist must suffer for their art, but not that the viewer must too. The chairs are incredibly uncomfortable but the documentary is worth the watch, and the uncanny similarity between the screening chairs and the Godwin on display brings you closer to the artwork.
At the end of the exhibition, in its own room, is the painting you have come to see. Even though the image is familiar, seeing the original work, presented in its original frame, feels like the end of a pilgrimage, especially with the knowledge you have gained in the previous two rooms.
As you leave the exhibition space with your eyes accustomed to the low light and your mind full of etchings and the low tonal painting of Mother, you wander into a very large, very bright room. This room is full of big, boldly coloured, and heavily religious paintings, painted by Europeans some two centuries before Whistler. The contrast is shocking and it burns Whistler’s Mother into your brain like a fresh photo-negative exposed to light.