Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion

May 21, 2012

One of LACMA’s current installations, Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion explores the prints of the American artist James McNeill Whistler, a key figure among the artists, critics and print publishers of the so-called Etching Revival of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In pursuit of a career as an artist, Whistler sailed to Europe at the age of twenty-one. He arrived in Paris in 1855, where he received artistic training, and later settled in London, never to return to the United States.  Whistler travelled broadly throughout England and the continent, chronicling in prints his response to the urban scenes, built landscapes, and people he encountered.  Through his paintings, prints, and writings on art, he was to achieve lasting international acclaim; but his combative and polemical character also earned him his share of notoriety, as he abruptly ended significant personal and professional relationships and engaged in public critical debate. The reception of Whistler’s paintings and prints at the time of their making was divided.  One of the most damning statements about Whistler’s work was made in a review of the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Art), in which the influential English art critic John Ruskin accused the artist of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  Whistler sued for libel and won the case. He was however, awarded a mere farthing, leaving him in financial ruin.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Under Old Battersea Bridge, 1876/78, The Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

The title of the installation, Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion, is taken from a review of the artist’s 1871 Thames Set, which, while in itself positive, makes note of the criticism his etchings did receive:

“It is one of the obvious charges against Mr. Whistler, as against many other masters of the etching-needle, that he constantly contents himself with slurring and hinting, instead of working patiently to a finish.  The etcher, when this is alleged against him, has to say for himself that his art is not an art of finish, but an art of suggestion, that what he uses this method and material for is to make notes and set down impressions, not to produce elaborate pictures, therefore, that he has a perfect right to stop where he pleases, and that it pleased no other etcher to stop so often as the chief of them all, Rembrandt.”  (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 January, 1872)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Forge, 1861, from the Thames Set, 1871, the Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Indeed, with their summary style, abbreviated forms, and fragmentary views, Whistler’s etchings and drypoints promoted an aesthetic language counter to the prevailing Victorian taste for the elaborate narrative description and meticulous finish of reproductive engravings.  Whistler exploited the marks of artistic process (for example, taking his plate through as many as twenty states in his Doorway) and treated individual impressions in a singular manner by varying the application of ink and the supports used, thus challenging conventional notions of finish.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Palaces, 1879/1880, from the Second Venice Set, 1886, the Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Among the twenty-five works exhibited are seven images of Venice.  In 1879, Whistler travelled to Venice to execute a suite of etchings commissioned by the Fine Arts Society of London.  These etchings, which beautifully render the effects of light and atmosphere through a skillful use of reserves of paper and expert manipulation of ink, are today considered among the most prized of Whistler’s oeuvre. In Whistler’s day, they did much to restore his reputation and finances, which had both suffered from the protracted Ruskin legal trial.  Yet when they first appeared, the Venice etchings were not met with universal approval. In a collection of writings published in 1890—titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies—the artist reprinted some of the unsympathetic responses his etchings had elicited (alongside his own acerbic retorts).  These remarks speak of an abiding apprehension towards the question of finish.  Whistler was disparaged as “an artist of incomplete performance,” his Venice etchings having been “done with a swiftness and dash that preclude anything like care and finish.”

While many of the prints on view are indeed seemingly spontaneous in execution, at times resembling preliminary studies taken from life, Whistler continuously reworked his plates, fastidiously redefining details and often reinforcing areas of shading to compensate for the wear of the plate.  His economy of means belies his great expense of labor.  This is especially the case with Whistler’s informal and concisely executed portraits.  Although spared of details of costume and setting, they are convincing likenesses that successfully convey distinct character and mood.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, C. L. Drouet, Sculptor, 1859, the Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Not all critics failed to admire Whistler’s mastery of the etching medium.  Many appreciated his resistance to the strongholds of Victorian convention, and praised the bold quality of his compositions which often have the appearance of being casually rendered: “they are singularly felicitous, dashing, dexterous, and suggestive” (The Critic, 25 May 1861).  This selection of Whistler’s etchings and drypoints considers—indeed celebrates—the printmaker’s exploration and subversion of artistic resolution.   It examines in particular the variety of technical means Whistler deployed to achieve his carefully considered and desired ends.

Naoko Takahatake, Assistant Curator, Prints and Drawings


This Weekend at LACMA: Free Friday, California Noir, Maria Nordman Closes, and More

May 18, 2012

First thing’s first: Happy Art Museum Day! LACMA, along with 100 other museums around the country, is offering free admission all day today. Come down and check out Chris Burden’s Metropolis II, or see exhibitions such as Robert Adams,  Daido Moriyama, or Children of the Plumed Serpent.

This weekend is also your last chance to see Maria Nordman FILMROOM: SMOKE, 1967–Present, on view in the Art of the Americas Building. FILMROOM: SMOKE is one of Nordman’s earliest pieces; the single-room, two-channel video documents the same scene from two positions—a fixed tripod and a hand-held camera, moving in concert with the breath of the actors and the ocean behind them. Outisde of the exhibition you’ll find a new sculpture Nordman created just for this exhibition, YANG-NA 2011–Present—a frame scaled to the same size as the Filmroom, through which you can become the actor yourself.

Maria Nordman, Filmroom: Smoke, 1967–Present. Photo: Courtesy of the Fundação de Serralves, Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto, Portugal

Stay at LACMA into the evening and catch bassist Henry “Skipper” Franklin performing for Jazz at LACMA, right in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light. Over in the Bing Theater, tonight is the start of our latest film series, The Sun Sets in the West: Mid-Century California Noir. Get here early to see the sunny objects in our California Design exhibition, then see the shadows fall in ten noir thrillers set in the Golden State, presented this weekend and next. Friday night we present two from the 1950s: Kiss Me Deadly and The Crimson Kimono (the latter directed by the legendary Samuel Fuller). On Saturday night we screen three in a row: Blake Edwards’s Experiment in Terror, the Burt Lancaster vehicle Criss Cross, and the 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s M

We’ve got two great talks happening this weekend too. On Saturday afternoon, LACMA curators Austen Bailly and Franklin Sirmans introduce a talk about African American art between collectors Aryn Drake-Lee and Jesse Williams and scholar Dr. Halima Taha, author of Collecting African American Art.

On Sunday, artist Lawrence Weiner will join LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan and assistant curator Jarrett Gregory in conversation about contemporary aesthetics. Stick around to tour the bevy of new installations on view now, and then head to the Bing Theater for our free Sundays Live concert featuring Young Musicians Foundation Chamber Ensembles.

Textile Panel (Mola), Panama, San Blas, Kuna people, last quarter of 20th century, gift of Lindy and Ellen Narver in memory of Grace Narver, from the installation Stitching Worlds: Mola Art of the Kuna

Finally, to cap off a busy weekend, we’re screening Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, Sunday night at 8:30 pm in the Bing Theater. Though the film is sold out, there will be a standby line forming at the Hammer Building Ticket Office at 6 pm.

Scott Tennent


How to Make a Museum Hip Hop Series

May 17, 2012

Tonight marks the launch of Through the Mic: LACMA x Hip Hop, a new monthly concert series taking place on the third Thursday of every month from May to October, co-curated by LACMA and hip hop artist Murs. The inaugural show—3MG, aka Murs, Scarub, and Eligh—is sold out. But you can buy tickets now for next month’s performance, Dumbfoundead and Medusa. Jason Gaulton, who heads LACMA’s Muse programs, details how the concert series came about.

Step 1: Dream It
It’s the classic L.A. story, kind of. Maybe not Boy meets Girl, but Museum meets Rapper. We teamed up with Murs a few months ago to create the first live music series dedicated to hip hop at a major arts institution. Now, it’s ready to launch.

Step 2: Name It
Through the Mic stems from hip hop’s mode of expression. Microphones are to hip hop as brushes are to painting. The relatively simple tool unlocks a world of gripping truth, vivid imagination, and a wide range of emotion. Life stories bad and good take on greater meaning when amplified and accompanied by a beat. They become more than words; the mic makes them anthems.

Step 3: Frame It
Through the Mic is not only about hip hop—it’s also a celebration of Los Angeles. The genre is the perfect showcase for our city’s talent, diversity, and spirit. Through the Mic’s performers span L.A.’s various neighborhoods, each bringing unique sounds and messages.

Step 4: Place It
Location. Location. Location. LACMA happens to have one of the best. The stage set up in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light gives any outdoor venue this side of the Hollywood Bowl a run for its money. The 202 streetlamps provide an incredible backdrop in the heart of the museum. Hip hop will have never looked so good.

Step 5: Rock It
Any concert series is only as good as its music and, as we’re trying to launch a series that will flourish for years to come, we thought we better have some damn good music. Through the Mic co-curator Murs takes the stage this Thursday as part of the reunited 3MG: Murs, Eligh, and Scarub, originally formed a few miles away at Hamilton. In June, Koreatown icon Dumbfoundead shares a bill with the high priestess of underground hip hop herself Medusa and the rising star Gizzle. Announcements for July through October are coming very soon so don’t stray too far.

Jason Gaulton, Muse Coordinator


This is a Film About John Baldessari

May 16, 2012

Last fall LACMA held its first annual Art + Film Gala, honoring Clint Eastwood and John Baldessari. For those who were there, one of the big highlights of the night turned out to be a short film about Baldessari (narrated by Tom Waits!), made by filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, aka Supermarché. Just yesterday we received the green light to share it with you. So, here you go: everything you ever wanted to know about John Baldessari, including his wi-fi password. Enjoy!

Scott Tennent


The Art of Codices in Children of the Plumed Serpent

May 15, 2012

People don’t usually connect the words cool and codices, but go see the painted manuscripts in Children of the Plumed Serpent and you just might change your vocabulary.  A codex is a series of deerhide “pages” sewn together and folded like an accordion. The pages are then covered in gesso and painted with figures in bright colors.  The three codices in the exhibition—the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the Codex Selden, and the Codex Becker II—tell histories of particular Mixtec communities in Mexico.

Part of what makes these codices so special is that the corpus of extant pre-Columbian painted manuscripts numbers only twelve, of which the Codex Zouche-Nuttall is one.  Many of the codices were destroyed in the first decades following the arrival of Hernán Cortés. Spanish conquistadors and Christian missionaries considered these painted works “diabolical” because of their images of idolatry, human sacrifice, and divination.  The Codex Zouche-Nuttall’s survival is remarkable and may be due to its unusual history. It’s very likely that it first left Mexico as part of a shipment from Cortés to the king of Spain, Carlos V.  This is the first time it has returned to the Americas in almost five hundred years.

Even after the conquest, native artists continued to produce painted codices.  The codices Selden and Becker are among those from the colonial period, but most scholars consider them to be continuations of an indigenous tradition.

Codex Zouche-Nuttall:

Codex Nuttall, Mexico, Western Oaxaca, 15th–16th c., The British Museum Library, London, photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

The Codex Zouche-Nuttall presents genealogical histories of the Mixtec dynasties of Tilantongo, Teozacoalco, and Cuilapan. Its pages are painted on both sides in bold blues, reds, and gold.  The side on view illustrates the life of Lord 8 Deer, the founder of the Mixtec people, his family history, his travels, conquests, and eventual ascent to power.

The codex includes scenes leading up to and of 8 Deer’s grand nose-piercing ceremony. The nose ornament he wears is an important symbol of his new status as tecuhtli, or dynastic head, and legitimates his right to the Tilantongo throne.

Codex Nuttall, Mexico, Western Oaxaca, 15th–16th c., The British Museum Library, London, photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

Also impressive are scenes of Lord 8 Deer’s journey to meet the sun god, from whom he receives precious gifts to present at the sacred ball court.  If you look closely at the pages on display, you’ll see the I-shaped court, where Lord 8 Deer offers a gold and feather object.

Codex Nuttall, Mexico, Western Oaxaca, 15th–16th c., The British Museum Library, London, photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

Codex Selden:

Codex Selden (detail), Mexico, Western Oaxaca, 1556–1560, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, photo © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Codex Selden (detail), Mexico, Western Oaxaca, 1556–1560, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, photo © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Unlike other Mixtec codices, the Codex Selden is laid out vertically: it reads from bottom to top in a boustrophedon, or winding pattern. In an earthy palette of brown, gold, red, and orange, beautifully detailed illustrations outline native dynastic genealogies of the town of Jaltepec.

The pages on view in Gallery 4 show the life of the female ruler, Lady 6 Monkey, a rival of Lord 8 Deer (from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall).  They illustrate, among other important events, 6 Monkey’s marriage to 11 Wind and the costumes and rituals associated with betrothal.  In the case just in front of the codex in the exhibition, you’ll see examples of jewels and ritual regalia worn or gifted during marriage ceremonies.

Lady 6 Monkey and Lord 8 Deer vied for power in Tilantongo.  It’s worth knowing that 8 Deer appears in the Selden and 6 Monkey in the Zouche-Nuttall. For example, in this scene from the Zouche-Nuttall, the rivals are in the top center, identified by their name glyphs.

Codex Nuttall, Mexico, Western Oaxaca, 15th–16th c., The British Museum Library, London, photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

This cross-referencing of important figures in the different codices highlights the geographical, historical, and mythological connections shared by the Mixtec communities of Oaxaca.

At some point after 1556, three-quarters of the Codex Selden was “erased” and painted over. What we see today is a revised version of the earlier story.  Some scholars believe that the codex was repainted for use in a legal dispute between the towns Jaltepec and Yanhuitlán over possession of a third town, Zahuatlán.  Unique features of the codex—its orientation, its narrow focus on one particular town, and its detailed genealogies—suggest it was made for an audience of outsiders, possibly the courts, rather than  native nobility.

Codex Becker II:

Codex Becker II (detail), Mexico, Oaxaca, Nochistlan, 1200–1521, Museum für Völkerkunde, Wein, photo © Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna

As in the codices Zouche-Nuttall and Selden, connecting the stories told in the manuscripts with specific towns and places in Oaxaca has made them easier to read. The Codex Becker II cannot be linked to a distinct town or community and the people represented have not yet been identified, putting into question the purpose for its creation.  What’s more, there is no narrative to the codex, but we can see that the artist wanted to show dynastic genealogies, beginning with the first ancestral couple emerging from a mythical place of origin and continuing through several generations of historical rulers.

The codices on view are impressive examples of ways that the ancient Mexicans recorded and thought about history.  Reunited with other contemporary material objects in the exhibition, they help to present a fuller picture of Mexico’s past.

To explore more pages of these fascinating codices, visit the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. database:


Laura Leaper

Curatorial Research Assistant, Latin American Art


New Installations at LACMA

May 14, 2012

While some of our major exhibitions have closed or are preparing to close this spring and early summer, we have mounted a handful of new installations that consider works from our permanent collection in new ways.

The German Woodcut: Renaissance and Expressionist Revival is located in the Robert Gore Rifkind Gallery for German Expressionism on the second level of the Ahmanson Building. The installation features approximately fifty woodcuts from the Renaissance and from the early twentieth century.

Hans Baldung Grien, Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses, 1534, Los Angeles County Fund

Russian Avant-Garde is a small but mighty exhibition tucked into The David Murdock Family Gallery also on the second level of the Ahmanson Building, just to the right of René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. The installation includes some objects that LACMA acquired after organizing the exhibition The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910–1930: New Perspectives, in 1980, the first large-scale exhibition of the movement in the United States.

Wassily Kandinsky, Orange, 1923, Los Angeles County Fund

In the Art of the Americas Building, Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion includes a selection of approximately twenty-five etchings and drypoints by Whistler, a key figure in the so-called “etching revival” of the latter half of the nineteenth century, is located on the third floor, toward the back of the American art galleries, through the David Geffen Gallery and to the left.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Street at Saverne, 1858, The Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Also in the Art of the Americas Building but on the fourth floor in the Latin American galleries is Stitching Worlds: Mola Art of the Kuna, an in-depth look into the tradition of the mola—a textile created by Kuna women that is constructed from layers of cloth that are cut and stitched into colorful and intricate motifs.

Textile Panel (Mola), Panama, San Blas, Kuna people, last quarter of 20th century, gift of Lindy and Ellen Narver in memory of Grace Narver

Remember, members can see these installations and all of our permanent collection and special exhibitions for free all year round.

Jenny Miyasaki


This Weekend at LACMA: Mother’s Day Activities, Member Appreciation, Japanese Film Series, Teen Night, and More

May 11, 2012

Happy Mother’s Day Weekend! As usual there is plenty to do at LACMA this weekend, plus a little extra for Mom—and for members. First: today through Sunday is Members Appreciation Weekend. Show your membership card and you’ll receive 20% off in the California Design gift store and select items in the Art Catalogues store, plus 10% off food and drink in the Plaza Café, adjacent to the Bing Theater. For Mother’s Day, treat Mom to a special brunch at Ray’s (reservations recommended) and then give her a tour through the galleries. We’ve got free drop-in tours, plus the usual free Andell Family Sunday activities. You can also treat your mom to a concert by the Crossroads Chamber Orchestra, performing works by Shostakovich and Schubert—conveniently priced at $0.  (By the way—are you following us on Pinterest? We’ve got a whole board of works from our collection that celebrate Mom.)

Mary Cassatt, Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child, 1880, Mrs. Fred Hathaway Bixby Bequest. On view in the American Art Galleries.

Of course, Mother’s Day isn’t until Sunday and the weekend has only just begun. For tonight’s free Jazz at LACMA concert, Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer Ruslan Sirota takes the stage.  

In conjunction with Fracture: Daido Moriyama, we present the film series High and Low: Postwar Japan in Black and White, featuring films depicting urban Japan after World War II. The series is split into two weekends—today and tomorrow, and then again in June. Tonight, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1966 The Face of Another is followed by Susumu Hani’s 1968 Nanami: The Inferno of First Love. Saturday night we present a double feature of Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Akira Kurusawa’s Stray Dog.

Attention teens! Saturday night at 7 pm you’re invited to After Dark—see Children of the Plumed Serpent for free and dance to DJ Knockstudy. Tell your parents to stay home—they’re not invited. This is a teens-only event. Check out the event page for more information.  

Skull with Turquoise Mosaic, Mexico, Western Oaxaca or Puebla, 1400-1521, gift of Constance McCormick Fearing

All this and much more is happening at LACMA this weekend. Maria Nordman FILMROOM: SMOKE, 1967–Present is entering its final week, while Robert Adams and California Design will both be gone in the first week of June. Get here soon if you haven’t seen them yet. We’ve also recently opened a number of smaller installations highlighting our permanent collection, from the Russian Avant-Garde to German woodcuts  to Japanese paintings to Panamanian textiles. Check out the full list of installations for even more.

Scott Tennent


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