The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies is James Whistler’s witty and sarcastic response to John Ruskin and other critics who accused the painter of a lack of skill and of trying to sell unfinished works.
In 1877, the Grosvenor Gallery exhibited several Nocturnes by James Whistler—all painted in a style that defied conventions of the time. Whistler’s works were equally out of step with paintings by the old masters and the alternative pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. John Ruskin, among other critics, was particularly indignant about Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold—the Falling Rocket and the price for the painting set by the artist. To him, the work—which is now considered one of the artist’s masterpieces—was nothing but an insult to the public, and Whistler himself was a “coxcomb” asking two hundred guineas “for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. The artist took Ruskin to court for libel and won the case, but was left almost bankrupt in the process.
Whistler’s text is an elegant response to hostile comments by reactionary critics such as Ruskin. Compiling the most absurd criticisms in a kind of collage (“his chiaroscuro has no moral foundation” or “the artist clearly cannot paint water”), Whistler offers a stinging critique of the bourgeois tastes and art-criticism of the time. Even those who do not have a great interest in the history of art will almost certainly enjoy Whistler’s brilliant use of language. The book also contains Whistler’s 1885 lecture Ten O’Clock. Talking to audiences in London, Oxford and Cambridge, the artist lamented the “flooding of the art world” caused by Amateurs and Dilettantes, which he believed resulted in art losing its primary aesthetic function.
Ekaterina Nekrasova, who translated The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies in the 1970s, points to the historical significance of Whistler’s text, which was of special importance to the younger generation of British artists. “Essentially this was the first attempt by an artist to defend his vision before the narrow-minded and ill-informed art-criticism of the Victorian era.”
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