Courtesy of Cornell University

October 1, 2018

The Touch of the Butterfly at the Johnson Museum

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It seems almost inevitable that an artist will internalize a part of themself in their work, perhaps due to consummate passion, perhaps as a result of an unshakeable obligation, These auto-inscriptive tendencies are undeniable, even if hidden. In many ways, the works of an artist serve as a sort of biography, with both surface and subconscious caprices being hidden and displayed in the works and their relations to each other. This is precisely the case in The Touch of the Butterfly: Whistler and His Influence. Located in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, this exhibition traces the life of James Abbott McNeil Whistler, a riveting biography that is deeply echoed by the evolutions and qualities not only of his own works, but also by the juxtaposed works of other artists who exerted their unique influence on Whistler’s development.

While the exhibition spans Whistler’s mastery of a number of media, he was particularly celebrated for his etchings. In this process a caustic chemical substance (usually acid) is used to produce incised, or etched, lines on a metal plate. While etching can encompass a variety of techniques, the central motive is the ability to make reproductions of the original print.

In his early twenties, Whistler’s move to Paris proved to be an incredibly formative period. Heavily involved in the bohemian art scenes, it was in the French capital that Whistler was exposed to Japanese art. The exhibition shows adjacent paintings of Katsushika Hokusai, whose breathtaking minimalism can be found in pulses and echoes in Whistler’s later works.

But it was not just minimalism that had its effect on Whistler. Later in his career, he adopted a signature that would become an unmistakable affirmation of his touch. Many of of the pieces in the exhibition show this trademark —  a petite, but ornate butterfly stylized to its various incarnations. Although this creature was known at times to possess a stinger in Whistler’s written correspondences, the emblem is not as prominent in his artistic works.

Searching for the signature in his works is one of the most fulfilling aspects of the exhibition, as it marks the artist’s approval of the work as well as serving as a marker of temporality; the butterfly did not occur until the later stages of his career, but at the same time echoes his early inspiration from the Japanese painting tradition — an inspiration which would inform the rest of his life. In a similar vein, the butterfly’s form constantly oscillates between works; in most cases it is a distinct and purposeful imprint upon the work.

Yet for me, one of the most sublime appearances of the butterfly is in “Vase with Hawthorn.” The work, executed using gray wash that has been heightened with white, displays a softness that is distinct from the sharp lines of Whistler’s etchings. The receded bluish tinge, furthermore, evokes the oceanic infinities of nostalgia, and for painting of such small size it is as if a distant vignette is being watched from a pinhole. In notable contrast to the crisp signatures of Whistler’s other works, here the butterfly arrests the gaze not by the sharpness of its expression but rather by the haunting manner in which it fades to the blue, descending upon the spectral. Though certainly not one of the artist’s most iconic works, “Vase with Hawthorn” is a an interiority of paroxysmal beauty. Above all it reflects an intimacy of Whistler’s touch, a symbiotic love for his work which ultimately rejects the corruption of age.

The Touch of the Butterfly: Whistler and His Influence is located in the Gold Gallery, Floor 2L, of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum until December 16th.


Varun Biddanda is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]