Rex Whistler Anniversary Commemorated

Next month will mark the 80th anniversary of the death of Rex Whistler on 18 July 1944. He died in France as part of the invasion force following D-Day. The Salisbury Museum has mounted a special exhibition of his work for the occasion which will continue through 29 September. Here’s a link to their announcement.

Simon Heffer in today’s Daily Telegraph also mentions the exhibit in connection with his comments on the Tate Britain controversy arising from Whistler’s wall painting in their basement restaurant:

One used to lunch in the restaurant at Tate Britain and study the remarkable 1927 mural by Rex Whistler, The ­Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. Whistler was barely out of the Slade, and just 21, when he began this fantasy, showing people about the same age as the artist going through an imaginary ­landscape looking for food. Part of the ­mural’s delight is its sheer ­romanticism, at odds with the modernism of the time when it was painted.

However, it is now contended that to admire it is racist. In 2020, an outcry orchestrated by two women charmingly calling themselves The White Pube drew attention to a kidnapped black child being pulled along on a string by a young woman, while his mother watches from a tree, and to caricatures of Chinese people.

No one seemed – or wanted – to know about the artist’s motivations. Whistler was no racist, but was known for his mordant wit. He was acutely conscious of the shocking inequalities that stood below the mindless high society of the 1920s, and is clearly satirising them in his painting, much as Evelyn Waugh would soon do in his novels.

Whistler’s art was insulted to the point where, in 2022, the Tate closed the room so the public could not see it. The gallery is a Grade I-listed building and, whether it likes it or not, it could not remove this component of that structure. However, in March it sought to “contextualise” the mural by complementing it with a film that claims to explore “the social and political context of 1920s Britain”.

All this is typical of how creative people from the past are put in the dock of a court set in a land they do not know and tried for “offences” that at the time were nothing of the sort. It makes some today feel better, but it is entirely unhistorical. Incidentally, in reporting the making of the new film, the BBC described the mural as “offensive”, though, unlike me, it did not put that adjective in quotation marks: it had made up its own mind and discarded any shred of objectivity.

The BBC comments on the contextualization film were written by Bonnie McLaren and are available at this link.  It is a bit unfair to say that the BBC itself adopted the epithet “offensive” as their own description of the painting. As is clearly evident from the text (if not the headline), they were clearly quoting the position of officials at the Tate Britain in that regard. Heffer’s article continues:

Next month, on July 18, falls the 80th anniversary of Whistler’s death, killed in action, in Normandy. Despite being in his mid-30s when war broke out, he was commissioned into the Guards Armoured Division, so determined was he to fight the racists who were then conquering most of Europe. He was killed having left his tank to go to the aid of other men in his unit; apparently, The Times received more letters about his death than for that of any other war casualty. That either shows the extent of support for a racist, or just what a greatly admired artist he was.

The Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire has recently opened an exhibition entitled Rex Whistler: The Artist and His Patrons, which runs until September 29. It takes a more nuanced and less hysterical view of the mural. “We should be wary of censoring or destroying art that does not fit with our twenty-first century values,” says the museum’s director, Adrian Green – and of course he is right. Others who love exhibiting only their self-righteousness should stop showing off.

The Salisbury Museum also mentions a new book about Whistler. This is by Nikki Frater and is entitled Rex Whistler: The Artist and His Patrons. It is available at from 20 July 2024 at this link. Here’s the description:

Focusing on the British virtuoso Rex Whistler (1905–44), who was linked to many of the most illustrious figures of the interwar period, this book explores an exceptional case of artistic patronage in the twentieth century. In weaving together social and art history, this beautifully illustrated volume reveals as much about the artist as it does about his patrons. It accompanies a major exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, which holds the Rex Whistler Archive.

Whistler’s cast of patrons includes the art collector and poet Edward James, avid diarist and socialite Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten, Cecil Beaton, Duff and Diana Cooper, author and poet Lady Dorothy Wellesley, and many others for whom Whistler worked on a diverse range of commissions. The exchange with his patrons, the book argues, allowed Whistler to explore a rich variety of subjects, materials, and techniques. Whistler’s commissioning circle was both diverse and privileged, with many embracing the sexual fluidity of the time, and the book deepens our understanding of how the elite were protected by their wealth and position from the strict societal mores of the 1920s and 30s.

Nikki Frater, an expert on Whistler’s work, draws on extensive archival research and newly available material to present a fresh interpretation of the relationship between the artist and his milieu. Frater’s behind-the-scenes approach illuminates Whistler’s creative methods and techniques and includes many previously unseen drawings and sketches. The book paints a nuanced portrait of his oeuvre and the artist himself as he tries to combine his challenging career with a complicated romantic life.


This entry was posted in Anniversaries, Art, Photography & Sculpture, Exhibits, Newspapers, World War II and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *