Masterpieces in Migration

What do audiences gain from seeing one of the world's most familiar paintings, Whistler’s Mother, up close? Nathan Smith explores the role of the touring artwork – and considers how international masterpieces are seen differently through Australian eyes.

Whistler’s Mother, one of the world’s most recognisable paintings, is also one of the world’s best travelled – much like the woman who served as its subject. Painted in London in 1871 by an American, James McNeill Whistler, the canvas was purchased by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and has since crossed the North Atlanic on voyages to and from North American galleries more than a dozen times. In March, it touched down in the Antipodes for the first time for an exclusive showing in Melbourne.

Whistler's Mother at the Musée d'Orsay

Whistler's Mother at the Musée d'Orsay, by F Delventhal (CC BY 2.0)

According to the National Gallery of Victoria, the Whistler’s Mother exhibition offers ‘a unique opportunity’ for local audiences to see a ‘true masterpiece’ up close. It’s a model that has proven successful for NGV International: Whistler’s Mother follows a number of ‘blockbuster’ travelling exhibitions the gallery has hosted in recent years, ­including the showcasing of 18th-century masterpieces from Russia’s State Hermitage Museum last winter, and Italian works from Spain’s Museo del Prado in 2014. This summer’s Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei collaboration, meanwhile, was much-publicised – and unexpectedly generated international headlines after Lego denied Weiwei use of their plastic bricks in his artwork.

The showing of Whistler’s Mother at the NGV is emblematic of this trend, an effort for Australian art institutions to bring well-known and recognisable artworks to the country not only to consolidate cultural ties to overseas institutions, but to show global participation in the art world – with a desire to render some of the world’s most famous artworks finally accessible to Australian audiences.


Still, considering the exorbitant costs of transporting artwork to Australia, running to hundreds of thousands of dollars for ‘priceless’ masterpieces, it’s worth considering what is truly gained by bringing an already familiar work to audiences that have seen it – in other forms – elsewhere. Like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Whistler’s Mother is a work whose worth is measured by how it has filtered through the zeitgeist – its likeness prominent across films, books, tea-towels and t-shirts.

Photo of a recognisable homage to Whistler's Mother

Whistler's Mother has filtered into the popular imagination like very few other works – a simple pose, shot from the right angle is enough to evoke the image. Pictured: a Whistler's Mother recreation by Julia Lu (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In our cultural age awash with duplicates, doubles, and replicas, then, perhaps what attracts viewers to touring exhibitions is the pleasure of seeing, ‘up close’, the iconic originals of the reproductions with which they are already familiar. German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin notes there is an ‘aura’ that an original cultural artefact carries that is lost when it is replicated and copied. Given how parodied Whistler’s Mother has been across 20th-century popular culture, the original carries an incredible potency, drawn partly from the proliferation of reprints and digital copies.

‘The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning,’ Benjamin writes, ‘ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.’ Benjamin’s idea is that it is not only the originality of the artwork, but also its history – being moved from gallery to gallery, the different representations it has experienced in popular culture – that makes the work of art so alluring.

Transporting an artwork to different galleries over time allows new viewers to experience this aura, in the process conferring the artwork with brand new meanings – and a richer and more global cultural history. For Michel Foucault, it is the fact that museums and art galleries are ‘heterotopic’ sites – ‘real sites that can be found within the culture [that] simultaneously represent, contest, and invert’ cultural artefacts – that means artwork can be interrogated again and again by new and different audiences when the artwork changes location and space.

Image of 'The Grande Galerie'

Transporting an artwork to different galleries over time is enough to confer the work with new meaning. Pictured: The Grande Galerie by Gideon Wright (CC BY 2.0)

Compare Whistler’s Mother with Ai Weiwei | Andy Warhol, the NGV’s most recent blockbuster. It comes as no surprise how much Warhol’s work appeals to gallery-goers, since his body of work has become synonymous with pop culture itself – tawdry and garish, celebrity-oriented, mass produced. The partnership with Weiwei only compounds this phenomenon, as Weiwei’s artwork probes the relationship art has to contemporary culture, examining issues of mass production, digital photography and consumerism in modern China. What galvanises the pleasure and aura of the ‘original’ in the Warhol exhibition is that the NGV – and local audiences who attended the exhibition – claimed some ‘ownership’ of the work, since Warhol’s pieces took on new meaning thanks to Weiwei’s responses and the controversy the exhibition attracted. In this instance, Warhol and Weiwei’s artworks garnered new cultural and political meaning.

Whistler’s Mother is slightly different – at once ‘removed’ from the gallery space because of its popularity in other pop cultural forms, but also inextricably tied to the classic art museum context, it occupies a unique place in our art culture. Given so few paintings have penetrated the zeitgeist as deeply as this work has, it comes as no surprise that the NGV has decided it is worth the cost. After all, with Whistler’s immense cultural value and icon status comes a unique opportunity to attract new audiences – ready for their first close encounter with a work that might seem to be everywhere, but is now only a metre in front of them.

Portrait of Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a culture writer based in Melbourne. His writing has appeared in the Economist, the Washington Post and the Atlantic. He tweets @nathansmithr and maintains a website at nathanrsmith.co. 

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