June 20, 2008

Field trip to Williamstown to contemplate the soft side

James McNeill Whistler: “Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.”

Ken Johnson reports in the NY Times that Marc Simpson, the Clark Art Institute's curator of American art, has gathered 41 paintings, dating from the 1870s to 1919, by 15 Americans for their current exhibition “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly." "The works are mostly landscapes in which painterly gestures, sharp edges and other signs of technical effort are minimized. Quiet, blurrily luminous scenes of natural calm by Whistler, George Inness, John Twachtman and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, among others, appear like mirages, as though they’d magically materialized on canvas....The show includes no female artists, but women are subjects of several paintings. William Merritt Chase’s gorgeous, mostly red painting of a young woman relaxing in profile in an armchair is undoubtedly a hedonistic response to his friend Whistler’s famous portrait of his formidably upright mother. Gender is most conspicuously at issue in the works of Dewing, who painted young women in neo-Classical garb in vaporous pastoral environments. These women are fashionable beauties, but they are also nature goddesses. From today’s perspective his paintings may seem laughably sexist and vapidly decorative. But consider the times, a period of explosive industrial and economic growth driven by ruthlessly ambitious men. Dewing’s paintings — and soft painting in general — might represent an alternative way of being, a 'feminine' state of sensuous receptivity, soulful indolence and communion with nature. So, while soft painting may seem superficially disengaged from gritty social reality, a deeper view might interpret it as a cry for attention from the repressed feminine side of America’s male-dominated collective psyche. That, at least, is one way to account for the tantalizing effect of this exhibition." Read more.

Another reason to make the trip besides the beautiful setting: CAI has a new building by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly," curated by Marc Simpson. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Through Oct. 19. Includes work by including Whistler, Inness, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, John Twachtman, Eduard Steichen, "and others." (Why don't museums and galleries list all the artists on the website?)

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