Putting Wilde in the shade Green Margarine is a tribute to the wit of Whistler, discovers Moira Jeffrey
The exhibition Green Margarine, which opened this week at Glasgow School of Art, may sound like a line from Dr Seuss, but it is a tribute to a much earlier wit, that of James McNeill Whistler. Whistler famously claimed he taught the young Oscar Wilde everything he knew.
When Wilde once jealously greeted one of Whistler’s bon mots, by proclaiming he wished he’d said it, Whistler muttered acerbically, ”You will, Oscar, you will.” Much that we think of as Wildean may actually be Whistlerian: the dandyism, the foppish hairstyle, and some of the linguistic tricks behind the wit. Sarah Walden, the conservator who restored Whistler’s most famous painting, has written about how the two men identified as outsiders in English society – one gay, the other American – and shared their admiration for the cult of the aesthete. It was a friendship that inevitably went sour, and while Wilde eclipsed the older man, this summer has seen Whistler once more on the rise. In the past few months Glasgow has been celebrating the artist’s centenary in an astonishing variety of ways. Along with the keynote exhibitions and the celebrated loan of the portrait of his mother to the Hunterian Art Gallery, there has been a whole range of related events. Vincent Hantam, a former principal of Scottish Ballet, ”danced to Whistler’s tune” in performances at Gilmorehill and the Hunterian, and he’ll do so again on November 1 at the Burrell Collection. This summer the Collins Gallery hosted a major show, Mothers and Sons, of works inspired by Whistler’s portrait. There have even been film screenings, perish the thought, of Bean: the Ultimate Disaster Movie, in which that painting made a guest appearance. Green Margarine is the brainchild of Lapland, a Glasgow collective organised by Patrick Macklin and Hugh Pizey which has organised shows in locations as diverse as an empty shop in the Merchant City, a cathedral, and southside allotments. We’ve heard much about Whistler the artist. This show, featuring seven graduates of the art school, explores Whistler the dandy, the obsessive aesthete, and the decorator. In a sense, it takes up where the Hunterian shows, which have been keen to establish Whistler’s design credentials, leave off. The location is apt, as one response to the Whistler centenary has been the suggestion that Whistler was an artistic polymath in the vein of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. While that may be stretching it, the painter’s obsession with unified and harmonious interiors was legendary. It was alleged he dyed his butter to match the crockery and the Green Margarine exhibition, a tableau set out like a dining room, is a play on Whistler’s legendary meals. On the wall is a shelf of Whistlerian crockery, a load of junk-shop finds elegantly overprinted in gold and elaborately monogrammed, by Hugh Pizey. Even the decorative Japanese dishes are thus decorated, a clear case of gilding the lily. Whistler, an exponent of Japonisme, was equally cavalier. He had no qualms in overpainting an exquisite Japanese screen with a view of Battersea Bridge to make his key work, Blue and Silver. The screen makes a reappearance in a contemporary version by painter Jane Topping, which includes the modern Glasgow equivalent of the sites, such as Wapping and the unrecorded Thames, that Whistler loved: images of the SECC and the Forge shopping centre. On the flip side she has assembled a montage of images from her studio including the actor Jason Schwartzman, playing Max Fischer in the movie Rushmore, a geeky reinvention for the twentieth century of the art-for-art’s-sake dandy. Topping’s other work is a drawing on leather exploring a character at the heart of the Wilde/Whistler Dilemma: Reginald Bunthorne, the protagonist in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 comic opera Patience. The modern accounts almost always identify Bunthorne, from his habit of carrying a white lily, as a parody of Wilde, but a contemporary audience would have identified him from his looks. With his monocle and shock of white hair he was a dead ringer for the painter, not the playwright. Hanging from the studio ceiling is a contemporary chandelier, on the windows a graphic depiction of Whistler’s fighting-peacock mural (the peacocks representing Whistler and his patron who had demurred at the fee charged by Whistler) and in the centre a sculptural reinterpretation by Craig Wallace of the painter’s Nocturne in Opal and Silver. Among all this sweetness and light it has fallen to Craig Mulholland to provide a dark interpretation of dandyism in a series of works that refers to Whistler’s great friend, the French symbolist poet Mallarme. Whistler once said that a painting should be like the breath on a windowpane. The depressive Frenchman, this was the age of absinthe, decadence, and silk smoking jackets, also once wrote that the soul was summed up when we exhaled it in rings of smoke. Mulholland has combined the two dicta in a series of works featuring panes of glass blackened by smoke. In the corner sits a sinister blackened-glass cabinet, like an iron lung. A drawing is etched into the blackness, an ashtray and dozens of cigarette stubs. The meal, it seems, is at an end. Green Margarine, Studio 42, Mackintosh Building, Glasgow School of Art, until September 26. Whistler Festival info from www.whistler2003.com