Oil on canvas, 1876, by James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903)
This dark, brooding, diffuse, near monochromatic canvas may seem an unlikely candidate for random consideration in a gallery which comprises thousands of other perhaps more ‘arresting’ presentations. It is also small and its wall neighbour is a companion piece by Monet which is more visually pleasing, and yet I have to admit I am drawn to this painting time and again when I go to the Fogg to view the displays. What draws us to one particular painting over others? As my survey of what’s on display in the museum continues, I’m beginning to wonder whether there is any discernable scheme or pattern which links the otherwise random selection I fascinate upon. In this case perhaps it’s the musical title which made me stop and reconsider it the first time round? Or trying to decipher the swirling dense impenetrable mass of dark at its centre? Who is the figure walking towards what looks to be a fierce abyss of night? Or was it the distinct possibility there is a strong sub-conscious connection between the mood it evokes and the mood of my own dark soul?
I know a bit about Whistler because his paintings are often reprinted on the covers of classical music albums. Many of his works are entitled “symphony”, “harmony” or “nocturne” and certainly in the latter of this series of works, it seems he was very much preoccupied with emphasizing tonal qualities of harmonic visuals rather than focusing too explicitly on narrative or compositional aspects. To me, Nocturne in Grey and Gold invokes two other artists whose work I associate more with psychological manifestations than physical representations: Turner and Munch. In Whistler’s Nocture I see almost an inversion of Turner’s unfocused proliferation of light, such as we see in Decline of the Carthaginian Empire or Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory). Whereas Turner uses an oblique light source to illuminate the chaotic, Whistler seems to deploy an absence of light to undermine the serene: the effect is mildly disturbing, disconsolate, dislocating. This brings me, oddly, to Munch. I don’t know why exactly, but looking into the substance of Nocturne is like that glaze of terror you get when staring deep into the dark heart of something like The Scream, yes, sure, but more apparently, Anxiety or Jealousy. It functions as a psychic trigger, almost a mental emetic, which causes a moment of genuine panic, or a sense of profound helplessness. This is the response it elicits in me at least.
I think of Chopin’s nocturnes as evoking a mood of the tranquil, the therapeutic, the soporific even. I have never found them threatening, if music can be such, or perhaps harshly discordant is a better way of saying it. Not so this Whistler scene. It’s not so much a sense of discord, but rather the series of dichotomies the painting plays with. We have competing contrasts: grey vs gold, cold vs warmth, exclusion vs inclusion, the external vs the internal. True, Chopin (and any other composer of course) works with opposing shades too: majors and minors and other tonal colours, but with Whistler there is a disconcerting misdirection of these juxtapositions: the street we expect to be in near darkness is instead lit by a grey foreground pool of snow while the buildings in the background are rendered in an almost invisible swathe of black; architectural shapes become indistinct, structure itself seems to have collapsed. There are a few hopeful glimmers in the form of lighted windows and street lamps but the lone figure seems to walk away from them rather, black from head to toe himself, encapsulating the sense of being entirely stripped of any individualism. It becomes alarming, making me think of the lonely melancholy of T.S. Eliot’s Preludes or Rhapsody on a Windy Night. Whistler expressed his views on art in his essay, Ten O’Clock Lecture, in which he argued his belief in “art for art’s sake.” The image apparently means “only the image.” In light (or rather absence of light) of the intense emotional reaction I have to this painting, it’s hard to accept that Whistler had no deeper intention in his work other than to paint a figure walking home in the dark dead of night. Perhaps he did. But the lasting impression is one of a deeper disconsolation.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University.