Having decided to take a day trip away from pounding the mean streets of the teeming metropolis a couple of weeks ago in order to check out the artistic delights on offer among the provincial bucolic backwaters of Oxford, I now feel a mysterious cosmic force of symmetrical dimensionality compelling me towards visiting its lighter blue varsity twin to the east. And, since a quick inspection of the very useful Trainline app reveals that by committing myself to travelling on certain selected off-peak trains I can make the return journey for less than £10, I decide once more to exit the cosy environs of the city and head off to inspect the cultural capital of the Cantabrigian community. Fortunately, I’m not in a hurry since the benefits of the cheap cost of the journey are somewhat off-set by the requirement to make fifteen tedious intervening stops along the way and spend nearly an hour-and-a-half to cover a distance that is, according to consensus corvid calculation, less than fifty miles. Subsequently subjecting this data to mental artithmetical analysis confirms to me an approximate average speed of a fairly feeble 35 mph which, following cursory google researches, I discover is not much more than the velocity attainable by the averagely healthy kangaroo. A fact that suggests there might well be exciting commercial opportunities here awaiting some sufficiently audacious antipodean entrepreneur. Anyway, leaving aside that debatable dragon den digression, when I do finally arrive at Cambridge I’m pleased to discover than the weather is moderately clement for the time of year and so, while the walk to get to the Fitzwilliam Museum is a bit longer than I recall from my various previous visits, the twenty minute stroll is a reasonably pleasant enough way to stretch my legs back to their normal elasticated length and condition.
Now I’m not sure why – presumably not just some curious coincidence of corporate financial jiggery-pokery – but it seems to be frequently the case with the large provincial public museums and galleries these days, that whenever I go to visit them, they’ll be undergoing some form of essential renovation or refurbishment work. And so it proves to be here at the Fitzwilliam such that the usually appropriately imposing main entrance – up the stone steps, through the classical Corinthian columns and under the ornate architraval carvings – has been made redundant, temporarily replaced by the alternative ingress through a Modernistic glass side entrance that is hugely less impressive. No matter, since this does at least usefully lead directly up the stairs and through to the main twin temporary exhibition spaces to which I had previously planned to make the first stop on today’s visit.
So, what particular pictorial delights are being offered up here for the entertainment and enlightenment of the eager seeker after visual stimulation? Well, Whistler and Nature promises to, ‘…cast a new light on the work of the great late-Victorian master.’ And what form will this novel expression of educatory elucidation take? Well, apparently, ‘This innovative exhibition reconsiders Whistler’s relationship with nature, examining the context of his military service and his subsequent fascination with nature at the margins.’ Hmmm. I’m not sure it’s actually worth the bother of tracking down the overworked officers of the local trading standards inspectorate and directing them to investigate the claims made by the curatorial staff at the Fitzwilliam but…I’m really not convinced that their exhibition puffery is matched by the actual displays in the galleries.
After all, amongst the seventy or eighty etchings and sketchings on display here, only one single item actually comes from the time when Whistler was studying at West Point and engaged in carrying out survey work designed to facilitate the requirements of potential military operations. And this very precise, geophysically accurate rendering of some specific strategic coastal topography looks utterly dissimilar from any of the other prettily rendered countryside scenes that the artist subsequently created after having returned to civilian life, departed his native America and begun living his artistic vie Boheme with residencies in London and Paris. In fact, only a relatively small percentage of the works on show even deal with what might generally be accepted as nature subjects, except in the very broadest sense of the word. Meaning that while there are indeed a few sea shores, riverbanks and other rustic roadside views, the majority of the works on display relate to studies of boats and warehouse along the Thames; domestic interiors; portraits of friends; architectural recordings of the facades of Venetian palaces; anatomical renderings of pretty young ladies and even the occasional still life study.
So, I suppose what’s really on offer is more just a general review of Whistler’s experiments in the print medium. Which is fair enough, although since all the works here are notably on the small scale and the artist clearly delighted in delineating his subject matter with all the detailed precision of a finickity watchmaker, I’m not sure that they’ve been displayed to their best effect. It’s not just the decision of the curators to dim the gallery lighting (doubtless due to the prissy concerns of the conservationists) but the installation of a special little ankle-height wire barrier that prevented this viewer from getting close enough to comfortably bifocus the lenses of his bifocular glasses.
In addition to the works on paper, three of four small paintings have been included in the show to add some necessary colour relief to an otherwise very black and white display. But these works, which reveal Whistler’s famous penchant for producing landscapes with features utterly obliterated by fogs, mists and other freak meteorological conditions – and that effectively turn them into quasi abstract colour field paitings, avant la lettre – seem utterly unrelated to any of the other print works on display.
All in all then, while I suppose the show is not a completely unreasonable introduction to the Whistlerian world of print, I don’t think the works on show are necessarily the best examples that could have been found; as mentioned already, the display makes them hard to see; and the suggested curatorial reason for their selection seems to me to be somewhat spurious in origin. Indeed, reading the accompanying labels, it soon becomes apparent that the works are actually all on loan from Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum collection (which itself is partly closed while the builders are in). So, it’s all slightly disappointing especially as one would imagine that, being situated in the middle of such an eminent seat of learning, the Fitzwilliam would be sufficiently prestigious and well enough funded to attract some of the cohort of extra clever inhabitants of the town to organise shows that more successfully manage to combine attractive visual appeal, proper artistic revelation and serious intellectual weight.
A thought that is compounded when, on exiting this temporary show and passing through a room of Dutch 18th century paintings, I happen to come across the Charrington Print Room which currently contains a special selection of a couple of dozen items from the Musuems’s permanent collection of works by none other than…Whistler! The lighting is better here, there are no barriers and there are also some later works that show the artists turning to lithography (which allowed the development of a looser more relaxed style) and, most bizarrely, there are even some works here that are exact duplicates from the other show. Why there was no signage indicating this additional display and why the two displays weren’t better co-ordinated is unexplained – and rather baffling.
As for the rest of the Fitzwilliam permanent collection, most of the more Modern paintings that are normally on display in the first three galleries have been placed in storage while the renovations mentioned previously are carried out. So, there is only a small smattering of British and French works to be seen, the best of which are probably the trio of Monet landscapes and the couple of pretty Millais portaits. Otherwise, most of the main rooms are dedicated to Spanish and Italian old masters works – most of which are worth a look even if there are no absolute stunners. My personal favourite picture (for today at least), however, is a village scene by Peter Brueghel and while it may be considered by many to be much less sophisticated than the works being produced by his Southern contemporaries at the time, it’s hard not to admire the strength of the rougher, darker, cruder narrative structure.
After which, it’s another walk – again much longer than I’d remembered it being – to get to the other gallery on today’s itinerary, the one at Kettle’s Yard. And maybe my memory really is starting to let me down these days for I’d also forgotten just what a terrible shameful shambles had been made of the massive redesign work that the gallery here had been subject to a few years ago. I think perhaps the main point was to extend the famous house with its in situ collection of Modernistic paintings, sculptures and decor (which I’m sure I’ve blogged about before, and so won’t bother to reiterate my commentary here). But it’s also provided the excuse to install a small café and expand the retail area such that the actual floor area of the exhibition space has been substantially reduced. Although, as one of the invigilators explained to me, apparently the height of the gallery had increased by way of compensation…aaarrrgh!
As for the two small current displays – an overly repetitive sequence of drawings by Julie Mehretu and a cramped selection of works by Louise Bourgeois – well, I’m not sure they were really worth the journey. And as the rain clouds now slowly start to gather, the thought of that long trudge back to the station is somewhat less appealing, a feeling unmitigated by the knowledge that at least I should be able to have a nice long snooze on the interminably slow train ride back to the city.