Venice stinks, Whistler rules

Venice is less perfect than people would like to think, particularly in the summer, when the city is overrun by tourists and unbearably hot. In the afternoons, a putrid stench rises from the canals, a mix of sewage and seaweed. Long lines block the pathways into the main square, Piazza San Marco, as people wait to get into one of the city’s many landmarks.

It is not quite the romantic Venice of the social imagination. As a 10-year-old, I was decidedly disappointed.

But, while I remember the heat and the stench, I know I was also fascinated because it was Venice and it was beautiful. This sense of beauty came not from the fulfillment of an ideal so much as it came from the challenge to the ideal. Beauty came from the discovery of the underlying, hidden aspects of city.

James McNeill Whistler’s (1834-1903) work, on display in the Corcoran Gallery’s “Whistler and his Circle in Venice,” captures this Venice.

A subtle attention to detail is characteristic of the Corcoran’s exhibitions. For “Whistler and his Circle in Venice,” the exhibition space is painted a dark shade of eggshell, which works well with the subdued, tarnished gold frames on the pieces. The lighting is low because the pieces are sensitive to light. This adds to the warm, amber-hued and soothing atmosphere of the show. The art both complements and is complemented by the warm tones of the space.

“Whistler and his Circle in Venice” encompasses two rooms. The first is filled with Whistler’s work. The second features the work of several artists who were influenced by Whistler’s work in Venice. The exhibit has a total of about 120 pieces.

Pieces such as “The Bridge,” which depicts a bridge covered in hanging laundry, and “The Bread Stringers” capture the human aspect of the city. People often appear in Whistler’s renditions of Venice not as part of the general landscape but as characters in the life of the city. Using quick sketches but also full and generous lines, Whistler renders a Venice that extends beyond its picturesque landmarks.

Through his work in Venice, Whistler aimed to explode the romantic Victorian perceptions of the city. Venice was a popular subject, and artists usually depicted the city’s attractions. Whistler wanted to present a different Venice. He drew very few of the major landmarks, and when he did, he sketched straight onto the copper plate so that the resulting etchings were often barely recognizable. It is clear that Whistler took delight in the unexpected glimpses of the ordinary in a place so commonly perceived as extraordinary. This approach clearly resonates in modern depictions of well-known places.

The artist, born in Lowell, Mass., spent most of his life in London. In 1879 Whistler went to Venice on a commission from the Fine Arts Society of London. He was to produce some etchings for the December season.

Whistler stayed in Venice for 14 months and produced a great number of pieces. Also at this time, a circle of artists began to congregate around Whistler — they were influenced by his work. “Whistler and his Circle in Venice” aims to explore the work produced not only by Whistler but also those around him.

As an artist, Whistler takes equal interest in the inorganic. Many of his pieces explore the architecture of the city, although not necessarily the landmarks. There are many courtyards, staircases and doorways – the architecture of the everyday. An example is “The Doorway.” While the piece is an exquisite rendition of a beautiful door, the focus of the piece becomes the female figure in the foreground, stooping over the step, sweeping.

The best works in the exhibit are Whistler’s pastels. At the time, pastel was generally seen as a very “feminine” medium. His use of pastel is most effective when it is sparing, employed only to enhance the color in a sketch. Whistler rarely covers the paper entirely, letting the contrast between the rough, grainy texture of the brown or gray paper and the smooth pastel work to his advantage. The accents of color and texture are stunning. Perhaps the best piece of the exhibition, “Venetian Scene,” shows Whistler’s masterfully selective use of color, a skill that he uses to create a complete and effective atmosphere in an apparently simple piece.

However, the exhibition has its shortcomings. I was generally disappointed and disinterested by the second room, which mostly contained work influenced by Whistler. There needed to be a more substantial collection of pre-Whistler representations of Venice to create a balance.

The exhibition would perhaps have been more effective if Whistler’s work had been intermixed with that of the artists whom he influenced. In this sense, the exhibition is poorly designed. While the layout of the Whistler portion of the exhibit was impressive, as part of a look at the work of “Whistler and his Circle” it was ineffective.

Nonetheless, the Corcoran has mounted an interesting exhibition. The first room of “Whistler and his Circle in Venice” is fascinating, beautiful and well worth a visit. The second room may take more effort to appreciate.

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