Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, by James Abbot McNeill Whistler (USA) c. 1872-75.
Smudged blues and blacks with fireworks in the background capture Whistler’s Japonaise phase: a flat, calligraphic impressionism where the first lights stipple the city.
A dark stanchion meets the bridge’s equally dark horizontal from below, holding it up over the darkening Thames.
The intersecting shadows form a T.
Or, a cross.
Maybe not a cross in the meant, symbolic, weighty sense. That wasn’t in Whistler’s DNA. But a cross is there, as a first and last glance will confirm — even if only a vestigial, possibly ironic presence in
an increasingly secular world.
And the people who walk across the bridge are rendered as ghostly, silhouetted existences. Below, unseen to them, is a lone, hunched foreground figure on a pier: An urban loneliness without the
recompense of solitude. It’s not a long leap from here to Eliot’s “Unreal City” in “The Waste Land.”
Did Whistler mean any of this?
“The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see,” wrote Whistler’s friend Oscar Wilde.
It is a lonesome beauty Whistler gives us. Whether we know it or not, we’ve all been those people at the top of the picture walking across the bridge, as well as that man hunched on the pier below, not knowing we’re being looked at.
Other times, like now, we’re the one who steps out of the picture to look through an elegiac prism at life being lived by others.
The Japanese expression for such a sensation is “Mono no aware” — the deep pathos of things.
For which there are no other words.
Mike Dillon lives in Indianola, Washington, a small town on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. He is the author of four books of poetry and three books of haiku. Several of his haiku were included in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, from W.W. Norton (2013). Departures, a book of poetry and prose about the forced removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor will be published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019.
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