There's more to Whistler than his mother.
When he wasn't painting matronly sitters, James McNeill Whistler was making a name for himself as one of the world's finest etchers. Although the Gibbes has featured art from its personal archive and the Vreede collection a couple of times before, it's well worth revisiting in a larger, more instructive show called Whistler's Travels.
This time around, a series of etchings and lithographs are on view in the Rotunda and its two neighboring gallery rooms. That gives the art more room than usual to breathe and be appreciated. Some, like "Old Putney Bridge" (1879), will be familiar to longtime visitors. Other pieces are fresh, finely wrought records of a simpler bygone age.
In "San Biagio" (1879-80) the active figures almost blend with the architecture, showing that they're intrinsically connected with their city. Laundry hangs from windows and a rough-hewn boat rests in the foreground. "The Two Doorways" (1879-80) has the same lived-in look, contrasting an ornate doorway with a crumbling one on a canal. All these imperfections perfectly capture the Venice that Whistler thought "others never seem to have perceived."
Spanning some 20 years, the etchings show a variety of different moods and styles. Some are tiny studies — little more than thumbnail scratchings, like "Boats, Dordrecht" (1884), conveying a great deal with each line. Others are very simple ("Early Morning, Battersea," 1859) or soft and subtle, such as "Zaandam" (1889), showing a row of windmills on the horizon. But most are confident documents of the places and people Whistler saw on his journeys through England, France, Holland, and Italy.
In "Street at Savene" (1858), a near-deserted streetscape is lit with a solitary lamplight. "Longshoremen" (1859) is a motley character study, while clear depictions of colorful locales like London ("Thames Police," also 1859) show why Whistler is so highly regarded — and deserves a second or third look in a new context.
Lure of the Lowcountry is a separate exhibition in the main gallery. Through 16 large-scale mixed-media photographs, artist John Folsom creates a "fictional space" using our local landscape as his guide. His oak branches are thin, fragile, and sometimes skeletal, a foggy memory of true trees. The dirt roads are smooth, the water unpolluted. There is no harsh sunlight here, no signs of modern technology, no trucks or power lines to sully the view.
This is the storybook Lowcountry with visible gridlines creasing its pages, the love affair rather than the reality. But like any good story, it has dark touches. These images are Gothic, eroded, dusky, and autumnal. "Intercoastal #1" is an example of his ethereal style, with its sepia tone and proscenium of dark boughs. "L'Auberge Gothic" leads the viewer through a tunnel of trees to a soft light beyond. Other pieces focus specifically on waterways, branches or leaves, each tinted to give them the feel of old lost photographs. But they're far more than that.
Folsom uses Edisto Island, Palmetto Bluff, and Cumberland Island, Ga. as key inspirations. He digitally manipulates his photographs, then prints them with archival pigment on separate panels that are attached to larger wooden boards. These are refined with oil paint and sealed with wax, creating a complex patina.
It's gratifying to see Folsom's contemporary, unorthodox technique juxtaposed with 14 early Lowcountry landscapes from the Gibbes collection. They work perfectly together. Most of these are oil or watercolor on paper by the Rev. William Gilpin, Thomas Coram (Mulberry Plantation, Berkeley County), and Charles Fraser (St. Thomas).
The Gibbes is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. On March 7, Charleston Chamber Opera will perform "Whistler's Women: Songs on a Life Well Traveled" to tie in with the Rotunda exhibition.