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Mr. Whistler's Galleries
(above: This reconstruction concept of Arrangement in White and Yellow provides a glimpse of the exhibition. It is a 1994 work in watercolor and ink on paper by Jared I. Edwards, FAIA. Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Freer Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution will join forces this fall to revisit two James McNeill Whistler exhibitions originally staged in London: Arrangement in White and Yellow (1883) and Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey (1884).
This reconstruction concept of Arrangement in White and Yellow provides a glimpse of the exhibition. It is a 1994 work in watercolor and ink on paper by Jared I. Edwards, FAIA. (Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) The collaborative exhibition, Mr. Whistler's Galleries, will be on view at the Freer Gallery from November 20, 2003, to April 4, 2004.
"As the VMFA embarks on the biggest expansion in its history, it is very timely to look back at the work of ground-breaking artists such as Whistler, especially his theories concerning the display of art in public galleries," says Dr. Michael Brand, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. (right: Dr. Michael Brand, Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo © 2000 Mike Curtin)
"At the beginning of a new century it is also timely to seek new ways of collaborating with other art museums for the public benefit. This unique collaboration with the Freer Gallery of Art will see a major VMFA exhibition staged in Washington rather than Richmond, primarily in order to strengthen the visual and intellectual impact of the project, but also to provide an illuminating VMFA experience for Virginians who live near the nation's capital."
Mr. Whistler's Galleries combines two unique exhibitions that will be shown side by side in Washington. Arrangement in White and Yellow is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Dr. David Park Curry, curator of American arts at the VMFA. Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey is organized by the Freer Gallery of Art and Dr. Kenneth Myers, assistant curator of American art at the Freer.
Whistler is famous as an avant-garde artist who challenged accepted standards of subject matter, scale and even public behavior, but his artistry as an exhibition designer has been largely overlooked since his death in 1903, according to Curry. (left: Dr. David Park Curry, Curator of American Arts, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo © 2001 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
"Now my rooms," James McNeill Whistler proclaimed more than a century ago, "are pictures in themselves."
Drawn from the worlds of domestic decoration, fashion and the theater, Whistler's presentation techniques were as advanced as the art they showcased, according to Curry.
Visitors to Mr. Whistler's Galleries will have the opportunity to experience both Whistler's artworks and his groundbreaking gallery design.
Amidst a flurry of controversy, the 19th-century White and Yellow exhibition traveled to six American cities after its British premiere, showcasing Whistler's recent etchings of Venice and London. Whistler covered gallery walls with white felt embellished with brilliant yellow moldings.
His etchings were hung spaciously their radically plain white frames providing minimum distraction from the etchings themselves.
"Decorations included draperies of yellow fabric, a yellow sofa in the center of the room, a group of 'perilous little cane bottomed chairs,' oriental pottery, and flowers in various shades of yellow," Curry says.
"Straw matting covered the floor. Although critics complained that the 'superabundant yellowness almost gives one the jaundice,' there was a general consensus that Whistler had created a background admirably suited to display his etchings."
Whistler revealed his flair for showmanship, hiring an attendant "habited in the tints of a poached egg" to circulate through the exhibition selling a catalogue that included critical quotations taken out of context by the artist to hoist journalists with their own petards.
The following year, his Flesh Colour and Grey exhibit was similarly orchestrated to feature pastels, watercolors and oil paintings.
"It was shocking to the sensibilities of 19th-century 'gallery-trotters,' but Whistler's innovations irrevocably changed approaches to gallery design and foreshadowed contemporary installation and performance art of the 20th century," Curry says.
Support for An Arrangement in White and Yellow is provided in part by the Elisabeth Shelton Gottwald Fund of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Foundation and the Fabergé Society of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Curry has written a major new scholarly book on Whistler that will be launched in conjunction with the exhibition. James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces, Essays in Visual Syntheses will be published this fall by Quantuck Lane Press, New York. Seven richly illustrated essays will reconnect Whistler's abrasive behavior with his esoteric paintings, drawings and prints, focusing on shared issues of performance, fashion and display. Research and publication has been generously funded by the Luce Foundation for American Art, New York; the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles; and FLOWE, a private Denver foundation.
Myers has also written an accompanying book, Mr. Whistler's Gallery, a study of the Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey. Publication details are not yet available.
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