14.4.06

Rex Whistler

I'm a bit of a whistler myself, but I wasn't really expecting to enjoy this exhibition, but it's nice to see some Art in the Art Gallery for a change. All I knew about Rex Whistler (no relation to the Whistler who painted his mother, but his younger brother was Laurence Whister, the glass engraver) was that he painted the Tate Gallery restaurant murals age 22 and that huge painting of a chubby nude Prince Regent having a peep at the sleeping naked lady Brighton ('HRH The Prince of Wales Awakening the Spirit of Brighton'), which usually hangs in the Pavilion. I had the impression that Rex was a pampered toff dilettante with a penchant for pastiche and trompe l'oeil, hanging round with the 'Bright young things' between the wars, generally looking into the mirror a lot and being photographed by Cecil Beaton. But he was the son of an Essex builder (born 1905) who studied at the Slade and, by the evidence here, worked hard and obsessively. The title of the show says it all: 'The Triumph of Fancy' – with all that fussy Rococo twiddliness, he was a Post-Modernist even before Modernism got going! It suits the Regency opulence of the Art Gallery splendidly. The first room confirmed my prejudices: heavy handed oils and tiny pen and ink drawings filled with microscopic detail. But by the third end room I was a convert. His army paintings and drawings were a revelation – the diagrams of how kit should be laid out, paintings of barrack life (including a lovely portrait of a sergeant chef), a large street scene for target practice, H M Bateman-like cartoons, and his fake old masters for the officers' mess. Most poignant is a self portrait in Welsh Guards uniform, on a balcony accompanied by gin tray and bundle of brushes. On 18 June 1944, his first day of action, he was killed by a mortar bomb in Normandy. He illustrated Gulliver's Travels and Andersen's fairy tales, amongst many other books, so there is lots of illustrator interest. A PV is no place to view the art (especially with an unexpectedly free bar – should've got there earlier!), so a second (or third) visit is on the cards. Maybe see you there? My tip: take a magnifying glass! 'Rex Whistler: The triumph of Fancy' is on at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until 3 September. Free admission.
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