Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Diverse Rex Whistler

Illustration by Rex Whistler for
The Lord Fish endpapers.

Recently ran across this amazing illustration via author Katherine Langrish's rich blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; in which she wrote about Walter De La Mare's short story, The Lord Fish.

But Sarmo, why had you never heard of Rex Whistler?
I quickly ordered a copy of the long-out-of-print book, and researched this peculiar (in the best sense) artist. Recently, a large volume has been published titled In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work. I was glad of that title; it made me feel less bad about never having heard of such a prodigiously talented man.

The Cover of The Lord Fish.
Look at that fish-fellow on the spine! Okay-- here he is, larger and enhanced:

 Beautiful, evocative, creative, perfect!
Yes, I'm excited about discovering this, and am checking out other works by Whistler.

But why was he almost relegated to obscurity?
Matthew Sturgis, in his review, theorized:
"Versatility was at the heart of Whistler’s art. He painted murals, portraits, landscapes and conversation pieces; he created theatre sets, costumes, book illustrations, dust jackets and Christmas cards; he designed advertisements for Guinness and Shell, a Valentine telegram for the Post Office, an Axminster carpet, and a toile de jouy with views of the Cornish fishing village of Clovelly, among much else. This diversity has counted against him. It counted against him in his own day, when his most conspicuous works – magazine covers, sets for popular revues, advertising posters – could make him seem both frivolous and commercial, and at a time when artists were supposed to be serious and pure."

My question: Was it really the time period (my emphasis above), as Sturgis explained, or was it Whistler's diversity? The modern art world has certainly changed in that many more styles of art are available for purchase and perusal, but is the perception of what is "serious and pure art" any different? I think not.

 Buckingham Road in the Rain, by Rex Whistler
This is a beautiful and evocative work, for certain, and probably considered serious and pure by art critics in-the-know.

 The Mermaid, by Rex Whistler
This one, beautiful and evocative, may be considered serious and pure as well.

But I'm bugged. Leonardo DaVinci is celebrated for being a "Renaissance Man"; in his case, diversity was a plus. Same for Picasso. But not in Rex Whistler's case? Sadly, both in Whistler's world and in the contemporary art world, artists who follow a single "style" and path are seemingly favored . Even Maurice Sendak complained at one point in his career of being "hoplessly mired in children's books", meaning that he didn't feel free to diversify into theater design. Thank goodness that didn't stop him. (Of course, I suppose there are art critics who would still dismiss Sendak's output as "mere illustration".)
But for me, living in a culture open to fostering diverse creativity (and less labels) would be infinitely more rewarding and enjoyable.
 Ah, all the favors that pretentiousness and phony intellectualism have done for the arts and art lovers.
Rex Whistler's illustration for The Marsh King's Daughter.

Baker and Fireman, by Rex Whistler
 Wonderful stuff, huh? Some art critics don't know what they are missing.

Hope you like Whistler's work as much as I do. Thanks for reading!


  1. Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful artist! I particularly like his print illustrations, each line so wonderfully right where it is.

    1. You are welcome--very glad to know you enjoyed this.

  2. Indeed, wonderful ! Thanks for sharing, Tom!

    1. You are welcome. Steel Thistles is inspiring--I'd be kind of lost without the blogosphere :)


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