Royal Academy, London
This life-affirming show tracks a revolutionary moment in art, as the US artist and his young Irish lover blow apart the claustrophobia of Victorian painting

American cowboy James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his flame-haired Irish lover Joanna Hiffernan go on a wild rampage and shoot the art world of Victorian Britain to bits in this hugely enjoyable artistic and biographical romp. It’s such a well-told story it will doubtless inspire a so-so film coming to a streaming service near you soon. Don’t wait for that, go to the Royal Academy and enjoy a life-affirming adventure with the mothers and fathers of modern art.

To appreciate how new and subversive the double act of Hiffernan and Whistler were in 1860s London you have to realise how clogged Victorian art was. A wall of it suffices to set the airless scene. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Annunciation is claustrophobic, a narrow picture of a small room where the figures are bled of life in their pseudo-medieval aesthetic prison. Then you look at the opposite wall and a raw, boozy, sexual slice of real life startles you awake.

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