Monday, January 23, 2012

Portrait with a Low Brow: Whistler's Mother was a "Mad Old Cow"

by Drew Martin
In the film Bean, Mr. Bean is a narcoleptic sitter at the Royal National Gallery. He is gladly shipped off to America when the Grierson Gallery of Los Angeles seeks an expert to receive Whistler's famous painting known at Whistler's Mother from the Musee d'Orsay. The painting is actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black. Bean is anything but a specialist and is mistaken as a quirky genius. When asked about his position, he says "I sit in the corner and look at the paintings." The curator is impressed by this simple approach for a scholar. The movie is full of lowbrow antics: Bean sneezes on the head in the painting and tries to clean it up with paint thinner but ends up dissolving it, which he then replaces with a cartoon face. He fixes the disaster by swapping the damaged canvas with a poster. In his speech at the unveiling, Bean offers that it is a large painting, which is good because if it were a small painting - microscopic - no one would be able to see it, and that is about family, which he has discovered on his trip is the most important thing. He says that even though Whistler's mother was a "mad old cow" he was still thoughtful enough to spend the time to paint her picture.