Two days after the class-canceling blizzard last week, the pristine layers of snow had been trampled away. What had been white blankets turned into piles of brown slush like left-out apple slices. I walked to the University Art Gallery that Thursday to hear a concert paired with their new exhibit, “Whistler in Paris, London and Venice.” I added my own footprints to the gradual stampede.
Inside, an undergraduate string quartet sat in front of a small audience. The musicians performed selections from three works connected to the locations and time period of the exhibit. James Abbott McNeill Whistler is the artist in question, an American-born figure from the Gilded Age. Whistler etched (and sketched) like the snow fell that week, his tiny strokes barely converging into powerful masses. The important difference, of course, is that his art—and the pieces performed by the quartet—can’t be stomped on by rubber boots.
The performance gently placed the audience in mid-19th century Europe. The rivers Whistler often captured with spare strokes felt close, if frozen. Curator Heather Nolin opened the concert by talking about Whistler as if he were a starry-eyed student: at 21, he moved to Paris, got a French girlfriend named Héloise (thanks, Wikipedia), and obsessed over the connections between art and music. Alexander Dubovoy ’16, a student liaison for the YUAG, introduced Camille Saint-Saëns’s String Quartet No. 2 to accompany Whistler’s work from Paris. Saint-Saëns used the piece to “stake a claim” in the French Romantic tradition as young gun composers like Debussy and Stravinsky emerged, and you could hear the stubbornness as the four parts danced in a structured choreography. The performers (violinists Jennifer Gersten ’16 and Emily Switzer ’17, violist Abby Elder ’17, and cellist Benji Fleischacker ’17) knew how to fit the intricate sounds together, especially when the cello’s pizzicato grounded the lilting upper register.
When I visited the exhibit later, the piece’s echoes bounced around my head as I passed through Whistler’s “French Set,” a series of etchings he did in Paris. They didn’t match the sassy joy of the quartet, but they reminded me of what Dubovoy said about the composer. As an old man watching new musical movements tower over him, Saint-Saëns wrote the piece as an outsider. Whistler’s works in the “French Set” have a similar feeling. Their decaying houses, women working in their homes, and other eavesdropped-upon scenes speak in gritty, shadowed detail. The subjects’ faces are hidden, as if entering their lives would shatter something.
As Whistler moved to London to find success, his eyes turned water-ward. His “Thames Set” focuses on the changing waterfronts of the city in the same way current neighborhoods quickly gentrify. His pieces are like paused action, the quick strokes of the angular boats suggesting the direction of their paths. At the concert, String Quartet No. 1 by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams too depicted reinvention, this time with folk songs from Britain. The piece’s chugging, foot-stomping rhythms were smoothed out, peaking out from the veil of the string quartet tradition.
The final section of the exhibit focuses on Whistler’s time in Venice. The aging Whistler left London after suing art critic John Ruskin for libel. Ruskin had criticized the artist’s painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” calling him out for “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The Venice etchings resultantly look like a string of exhalations — from tension, politics, words. If you go to the exhibit, go for them. The ink grips the paper’s fibers themselves, and the delicate dashes merely guide the colors towards the ships and horizons they represent. There’s even a pastel work so fragile it lives behind a pink curtain, waiting to be revealed by the viewer.
Dubovoy introduced the Venice-accompanying pieces, by Giacomo Puccini and Hugo Wolf, with Whistler’s artistic departure in mind. Puccini’s “Crisantemi” was written in 1890 for the death of the King of Spain, and its melancholy, unified cries make a grave of layered sound. Elder’s evolving viola solo particularly stuck in my mind. The “Italian Serenade” by Wolf mimicked Whistler’s perspective as yet another outsider, trying to understand the Italian culture as authentically as possible. The performers flew athletically through the intricate piece, and the audience noticed. A man with 90’s bleached hair and his female friend looked at each other multiple times, impressed and raising their eyebrows.
I understood that man during the concert and, days later, as I sifted through Whistler’s etched waterfronts and anonymous faces. When the Wolf ended, I looked out the lobby windows towards the YUAG Sculpture Garden. A smooth, rounded layer of snow rested on the concrete steps leading to a higher level, but a path of footprints cut sharply through the middle. The storm was over. The footprints, though, were there to stay, just like the memories of Whistler, his influences and the composers featured at the performance. That’s more beautiful than untouched snow.