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Whistler, ca. 1860
Photo credit:  Modern gelatin silver print, Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art Archives, Smithsonian Institution

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Whistler:  Impressions of an American Abroad—Etchings and Lithographs from Carnegie Museum of Art, Through January 23, 2000, Works on Paper Gallery

James Abbott McNeill Whistler never chose the easy path.  An artistic genius seldom satisfied with what he produced or with the public’s reaction to it, Whistler pushed the limits of his own abilities and the limits of what his viewers would tolerate.   Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, Whistler later claimed that his true birthplace was Baltimore. He had the heart of a Southerner and the intellectual sophistication of the European avant garde and his accent and his manners sometimes seemed English, sometimes French, depending upon whom he was with.  After moving to Paris in 1855, he never came back to the United States. 

Whistler’s strong sense of artistic mission was challenged in 1877, when noted art critic John Ruskin viciously attacked Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket.  Whistler sued Ruskin for libel.  The November 1878 trial turned into a public debate on the nature of art, with Whistler lecturing the public on how art "should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it. . . ." 
Whistler won the trial, but was paid only one farthing in damages.  His legal expenses were not covered.  This experience, coupled with his own extravagance and pursuit by a vengeful creditor, left him bankrupt and homeless.  Thus when the Fine Art Society in London commissioned twelve etchings of Venice, to be completed in three months, he was very happy to accept.  Fourteen months later, Whistler returned to London with about fifty etchings, one hundred pastels, seven paintings – some of the most innovative work he had ever done.  True to his nature, however, he had avoided the main tourist route along the Grand Canal with its well-documented scenes, drawing instead on the backwater canals, crumbling palazzos, and the life of a living city no other major artist had noticed. 

The Carnegie International – Portrait of a Century

Andrew Carnegie’s plan to enrich the permanent collection of Carnegie Museum of Art through regular international exhibitions has, we can safely say, been a success.  More than 300 works have entered the museum’s collection through the Carnegie International, making the collection’s core, as intended, the "Old Masters of tomorrow." 
The Carnegie International is a great document, a visual history still being written of our cultural evolution. Each exhibition is part of a dialogue with the preceding ones, reflecting the social concerns, political upheavals, aesthetic breakthroughs, and general consciousness of the world as a whole and the generation that it represents. Madeleine Grynsztejn, curator of contemporary art at Carnegie Museum of Art and of the 1999 Carnegie International, says that our current era is "characterized by the many voices allowed, since the 1960s, in the conversation we call culture." 

The earliest Internationals stuck closely to the traditions of academic art and purchases of Winslow Homer’s The Wreck, for example, reflected the museum’s aesthetic caution.  Politics affected the practical aspects of mounting the exhibition: during World War I,  there were no exhibitions, and during World War II the exhibitions were solely of American painting because shipping art from Europe was too dangerous.  Few works were purchased by the museum during the depression.   Another tradition that gave way during European upheavals was hanging the exhibition by country. 

But the influence of politics goes deeper than such practical matters.  In the exhibition history International Encounters, Lois Marie Fink writes, "After 1914 . . . the general expectation that humankind would move steadily onward and upward toward perfection and harmony lost all credibility as the Western world, like Western art, became ever more fragmented."  As the established order of the previous century gave way, the art in the International began to reflect the turmoil. The largely figurative works purchased throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s indicate that Pittsburgh was not ready for the abstraction of the 1950s. 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the permanent collection began to grow more quickly, a reflection of the city’s revitalization during Renaissance I, more reliable funding, and a commitment from the community to support the institution. 

During the 1980s, with a reaffirmation of Carnegie’s original goals for the show, and a new focus on international art, the International was reinvigorated.  In 1988, more women were included on the advisory committee, and more female artists were featured in the exhibition. 

The 1991 exhibition was co-curated by a woman for the first time, and the 1999 exhibition’s curator is a woman.  New voices are now part of the conversation.  The Internet, global migration, and cross-cultural influences and a millenial consciousness should certainly influence the upcoming chapter in this great cultural document. 

The 1999 Carnegie International opens November 6. What will we think when we see our times reflected in it?  And what will history say about us, when it sees this International as the final statement of the 20th century? 

The 1999 Carnegie International is sponsored by Mellon Bank Corporation. 

Major support is provided by income from the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Endowment Fund, and by The Grable Foundation; The Heinz Endowments; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; USAirways; and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. 

Additional support has been received from ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art / San Antonio; Susan and Lewis Manilow; the Mondrian Foundation; and the Trust for Mutual Understanding. 

The exhibition program at Carnegie Museum of Art is supported by grants from The Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The programs of the Heinz Architectural Center are made possible by the generous support of the Drue Heinz Trust. 

Richard Serra's Carnegie won the 1985 exhibition with his monumental steel sculpture Carnegie, a gift of Jane Holt Roesch, stands at the Forbes Avenue entry. 
Credit:  Tom Barr 


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