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Palaces in the Night: The urban landscape in Whistler’s prints

The work of one of the most controversial artists of the mid-19th  century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), is featured this summer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The exhibition, which continues until September 8, centres on the cityscapes for which Whistler is widely celebrated as a printmaker.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter c1872

Born in the USA in 1834, Whistler’s family travelled between the USA, Europe and Russia due to his father’s occupation as a civil-engineer. In 1859, aged 25, Whistler settled in London, choosing to reside alongside the working people of Wapping and Rotherhithe, frequenting the pubs and theatres, backstreets and riverside wharves where they lived and worked. Before settling in London, Whistler had spent three years at the US Military Academy at West Point where, despite being dismissed by the then superintendent Robert E Lee, he became highly proficient in map drawing and was employed in the etching office of the US coastguard after his dismissal. The precision that he learned at West Point and with the Coastguard would greatly benefit him in his later career.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Limehouse 1959

The exhibition also includes work from Whistler’s travels in Europe, but undoubtedly it is the work that depicts London, a London that has long passed into history, that most captures the attention. Whistler was able to capture this ramshackle world of wooden jetties and wharves through spending time observing the intimate details of everyday life and shunning any sensationalism that might distort the real lives of the people he drew.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – The Barber’s Shop 1887

‘…the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil – and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky – and the tall chimneys become campanile – and the warehouses are palaces in the night – and the whole city hangs in the heavens’ James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1885.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Rag-Shop Milman’s Row 1887

To find out more information about the exhibition, click here.

 

Shout it from the rooftops; drawing is back!

Having been out of fashion and overlooked for several decades, perhaps not by artists but certainly by art schools and art dealers, drawing is once more being celebrated for its role at the heart of artistic practice.

Drawing is what makes art “tick”. It “includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting…drawing contains everything, except the hue” declared Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In other words, its importance cannot be overstressed. This weekend’s Draw Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery in London is the first of its kind in the UK. Dedicated to modern and contemporary drawing, its aim is to encourage people to look at drawings “as more than pencil on paper”. And to ask the question “what is drawing in the digital age?”, says the Fair’s strategic director Jill Silverman van Coenegratchts.

“Less like a shopping mall, more like a museum”

Although the focus is on drawing, exhibitors were able to include related sculptures, paintings, photos, videos, providing the drawings were 70% of their offering. Undoubtedly, the 50 odd galleries were there to sell but the fair was intended to be more like a curated event. Jill Silverman van Coenegratchts  “[the aim is] to create a space that feels less like a shopping mall, more like a museum”.

Draw Art Fair certainly offers a comprehensive look at drawing in all its aspects. The works of modern masters like Matisse, Kandinsky, Cocteau, Picasso, Moore are featured alongside contemporary artists such as Irene Lees. Lees extraordinary hand-written, researched “artwork-essay” drawings are certainly like nothing I have seen before. Click here to view them on the Candida Stevens gallery website.

Draw Art Fair also features drawing-performance events such as Harald Smykla’s Movie Protocols – pictographic shorthand notation of films (utterly fabulous in my opinion!) and Simon Heijdens’s laser driven Water Drawings.

And alongside the individual gallery offerings, exhibits from international collections including an exhibition of drawings and sculptures by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi brought to my mind the work of local Suffolk sculptor Bernard Reynolds, who was also an accomplished artist and draughtsman.

Colin Moss’s own views on the importance of drawing came from his rigorous art school training in the 1930s. Then, students covered life drawing, antique drawing, figure composition and measured perspective. The demanding Board of Education Drawing Exam was, for Colin, “a wonderful sort of basic grammar [and] was the basis of everything I’ve ever done since” (see below).

And this belief in the primacy of drawing was passed onto his students:

Here’s to next year?

So let’s hope the Saatchi Gallery’s Drawing Art Fair is not a one-off and that drawing is back in the limelight, where it belongs. For those unable to get to the fair this weekend, all the work is being shown on Artsy. To  find all the related info and articles, click here. And do read Laura Cumming’s in-depth article from April’s Guardian on the absolute enduring joy of drawing.