Whistler's Mother is LeBron James

Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James

‘Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James’ Thorsten Sahlin’s first piece for COA. You can check out his new author Q&A piece here if you want to know a little more about people that actually enjoy Malort or being from everywhere and nowhere all-at-once.

It is not without an eye roll that I hear about a world-famous painting exhibiting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Individuals who normally wouldn’t spend 1.5 seconds on a lesser-known painting come in droves to view a work because someone else told them it’s important. With this in mind, I had reservations about going to see Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (Whistler’s Mother). Is this epitome of all things matronly worth trudging through the galleries of screaming children? Is it worth listening to their khaki-baptized parents summarizing the description from the pamphlet to one another as if these are their own takeaways from the piece? Oddly enough, the answer for me is almost always yes. After, all someone told me it’s important.

Viewing an artwork that is such an integral part of the art history canon is paradoxical. It’s exciting, but it’s preceded by a familiarity that can dampen said excitement. The rocking chair, the curtain, the vaguely defined painting resting at her eye level were all there; as I had expected. What I did not expect however, was the enthusiasm I had once I was face to canvas with it. Anna McNeill Whistler has become a comic vehicle for film, propaganda posters, cartoon characters, and countless memes. The image has become prodigiously familiar to all, and as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In spite of that, I felt no contempt, only awe; struck by her sheer superstar status.

From the painting itself, to its hulking sunken frame, to the protective glass that has reflected back the eyes of millions, Whistler’s Mother is a badass. Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James.

I should iterate, the NBA finals just wrapped up, and I cannot help but relate everything to basketball. Whistler’s Mother sits there, stoic, unperturbed, comfortable in the fact her legacy will be near unforgettable and yet, like LeBron in the finals, she was somehow being outdone. There was a Kevin Durant in this situation, someone wrenching greatness from the hands of the King (or Queen in this case) if even for a moment, and her name is Elizabeth Ebsworth.

I followed the gaze of Whistler’s Mother into the next gallery and it landed squarely on John Singer Sargent’s large scale portrait Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth). The shared glare between the two constructed an allegory of social and generational rivalry worthy of exploitation on the BRAVO channel (Bonnets VS. Tiaras… I’d watch that). Sargent’s painting is the visual antithesis of Arrangement in Black and Gray No. 1.

Mrs. Swinton stands tall, her gown capturing shimmering swaths of light and brilliantly reflecting them via Sargent’s painterly strokes of titanium white. She is alert, her right hand on the chair beside her, her left placed saucily on her hip. Like Durant, this was her moment.

If Whistler's Mother is LeBron James, Eliisabeth Ebsworth is second to none

Elisabeth Ebsworth, second to none

If you watched the NBA finals this year with no previous basketball knowledge, it would not be a stretch to consider that Kevin Durant is the better player than LeBron.  Granted, LeBron went off frequently, and would have been the clear MVP had the Cavaliers won, but with the exception of 2 games the Cavs were systemically dismantled by the Golden State Warriors.  That dismantling came mostly at the hands of Durant.  He was a historically elite Swiss army knife through five games, averaging 35 points, 8 assists, and 5 boards against the Cavs.  Like Ebsworth, he exhibited grace, confidence, and when the ticker tape settled, it was Durant standing there with the Bill Russell MVP award.

Unfortunately for Ebsworth and Durant, MVP moments, and quick gallery visits are fleeting.

There is no doubt Durant will be remembered as a PHENOMENAL player, but he will never carry the legacy that LeBron does.  The case is similar for the Sargent and Whistler paintings.  While beautiful and technically proficient (in my opinion more so than Whistler’s piece), Mrs. George Swinton is one of MANY well executed portraits of wealthy young women from the mid-20th century.  You can throw a dart and hit several in any museum.

Whistler’s Mother and LeBron are unique unto themselves; perfect storms of technique and “what the f**k?”.

They have outgrown the respective fields of basketball and art criticism. Sargent’s piece may shine stronger on first glance, but it doesn’t really matter, Whistler has already won.  Future art enthusiasts will celebrate Whistler’s Mother for its presence in pop culture and its deviation from more traditional subject matter, while Sargent’s Mrs. George Swinton will be just another beautiful portrait having lost its relevance to time.

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The Thoughtful Ballerina

‘The Thoughtful Ballerina’ is Emmie Strickland’s first piece for COA. You can check out her new author Q&A piece here if you want to know a little more about her or get some guilty-pleasure music tips.

I spend the majority of my days perfecting my portrayal of a fairy. Between musicality, perfectly executed choreography, and adding in some light acting, this can be overwhelming. Dancers, and in particular professional ballet dancers, are known to be self-critical perfectionists. There’s always room for improvement. We’re just crazy enough to drain ourselves every day in a career where the ultimate success is unattainable.

Classical ballet is dominated by magical, ethereal, romantic, feminine, appealing, emotional, and otherworldly characters. Sometimes I’m swan. Sometimes I’m a fairy, or ghost of a young bride. It’s  centuries-old with messages that still matter. It is a traditional mode of visual storytelling that celebrates the god-like potential the human body has to produce beauty.

And when your studio is lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, you are locked into perpetual self-reflection.

This makes ballet dancers some of the most self-aware people you’d ever encounter. We’re on a never-ending journey to fully know ourselves physically and mentally, because well-danced ballet demands that. It’s full command of all body movements, be it facial expressions, breathing, or state of mind. Because ballet is arguably the most exact of the many forms of dance, those of us who dance it as a profession are attentive and self-critical of our ballet technique to the point of obsession.

It consumes us.

We repeat the same step in front of the mirror countless times until it looks flawless, only to come into the studio the next day and be completely dissatisfied with it because of the tilt of the head or angle of the wrist. Tears are shed over the details. We are hyper-perfectionists. Our bodies are driven to the edges of cliffs and we are devastated beyond words when they cannot do what we want them to do, or subsequently (but not surprisingly) get injured.

We neglect important aspects of life-like relationships, nutrition, and sleep just to inch a little closer to this unreachable mastery of the set of motions and positions, all unnatural to the human body, that is ballet technique. And since not a single one of the professional ballet dancers in the world would claim to have perfected it all yet, each day we are led back to the studio, happily hooked by the idea of becoming our most perfect selves.

Emmie Strickland, The Thoughtful Ballerina

Emmie Strickland, The Thoughtful Ballerina. Photo by Jonathan K Taylor.

Yet despite the bliss experienced dancing through a dream every day, there lingers a cloud of uncertainty that gets in the way of my fully experiencing the art form. The all-encompassing world of professional ballet has handcuffed my ability to affect genuine change to the world we all share.

I have eight hours of work every day in a temperature-controlled studio, perfecting my portrayal of a fairy, while children die of starvation, bombs decimate villages, and the earth’s coral reefs petrify.

Big picture stuff, for sure. I’ve recently found myself thinking, how is dancing ballet relevant while I grumble over imperfect pirouettes. How are those pas de chats fixing the issues in civilization that my heart is aching to resolve?  It’s a maddening irony that ballet, my passion, nurtured the realization of this disheartening truth. I need me being a swan on a huge stage to somehow cure en epidemic. Right now, that swan shyly cowers under the shadow of her wing.

And while it might seem a comical proposition, I do firmly believe in my art form’s ability to enrich our audiences in countless ways. The fine arts are a necessity in a civil society; ballet included. We do find an occasional respite from elite theaters and velvet seats by performing outreach shows for underprivileged children. The art keeps history intact while breaking through walls that previous performers thought impermeable. It inspires and entertains. It reflects the human condition in a way that few art forms do.

Providing an artistic vessel for future difference-makers to have their own revelations is my redemption. I need it, and I hope they do too.

Maybe it is naiveté. Maybe it shows an inflated sense of self, that I believe I could affect real change It could just be a subconscious scratching of my ‘save the world’ itch. The hopeful (or hopeless, depending on you look at it) answer is that I should just pursue the obvious solution: save the world and dance. Fairies don’t need that much sleep, right? Conversely, maybe this is all the over-analysis of a thoughtful ballerina.

Artists and Nine-to-Fivers, alike: what do you do when your dream-career leaves your soul wanting? Tell us in the comment field below!