Rex Whistler – A Talent Cut Short

In Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Second World War movie Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hank’s character Captain Miller is the subject of a wager. His men have a pool going about what his job was before the war. No-one quite knows, so the kitty keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Well, later on, after the brief joviality – because if you can’t laugh at times even in the darkest moments, then what hope is there? – all is revealed. He is, and this is a spoiler alert, so cast your eyes away and get the film of DVD, a schoolteacher, one that teaches English composition.
Yet what does that matter, when you’re fighting for your life, for freedom and world peace? You could argue that it doesn’t, after all, one must remain focused on the task at hand and everything that you were somewhat goes out of the window. You are now, first and foremost, a soldier. Yet, there’s always traces of you, holding desperately on.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much, my wife is even gonna recognie me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I’ll ever be able to, tell about days like today,” Captain Miller says at one point.
“Ahh, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan, I don’t care. The man means nothing to me; he’s just a name. But if, you know, if going to Ramelle and finding him so he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well then, then that’s my mission.”
Rex Whistler was a painter before he was a soldier and never forgot that. He signed up to the Welsh Guards, training as a tank commander. While conscious of his duties on the field of war, he continued to paint and sketch. On July 18th 1944, in Caen, Normandy, he was killed in action. He was 39.
The title of a new exhibition at Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum references the tragedy of his early death, declaring him to be a “talent cut short”. What could have become of this amiable gentleman, who had always demonstrated a talent above and beyond his contemporaries?
We can’t really say. Although he is by no means forgotten (among those who are in the know), Whistler’s reputation in comparison to other twentieth century artists is understated. He remains an enigma and therefore will never be iconic, at least for now. This show though, gives a fitting impression though, of someone who had plenty of potential.
“Whistler was no Eric Ravilious or Paul Nash,” said Laura Cumming, the chief art critic of the Observer.
“The history of British art could be written (is generally written) without mention of his name. Yet his curious aesthetic – nostalgic but coruscating, classical but zany – breathes the spirit of a particular time and place as no other, and that spirit seem to be his own – self-deprecating, witty and brief, leaving the party before the night fades.”
Efforts are being made to readdress his misplaced neglect. Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum in particular is leading the way in raising awareness of his work and bringing about a new conversation about the artist whose prolific output extended out into all sorts of mediums.
In addition to this exhibition, the museum has been awarded £350,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to go towards developing a permanent collection of works and artefacts belonging to Whistler.
“Acquiring the archive will ensure that future generations appreciate the talent of an artist whose work epitomises the interwar era,” commented Adrian Green, director of Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum.
That is already beginning to happen.
Rex Whistler – A Talent Cut Short at Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum runs until September 29th 2013.
Cadogan Tate can ship works of art from anywhere in the UK to most destinations around the world.