Visual Art review: Blue and Silver: Whistler and the Thames | Henry Kondracki: Paintings

Blue and Silver: Whistler and the Thames Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow **** Henry Kondracki: Paintings Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****

CHARLES Dickens was a great Victorian, a novelist of abundance, master of a coruscating flood of language and a panoramic cast of characters. James Abbot McNeill Whistler, an artist of the utmost economy, of less is more, was apparently the complete opposite. He died in 1903, just two years after Queen Victoria, but Whistler was no Victorian. He belongs squarely with the moderns.

The two men come together in their imagery of the Thames, however. In the opening paragraph of Our Mutual Friend, his great, dark novel of the river, Dickens has this image: "… a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in." The last part could almost be a description of Whistler's wonderful Nocturne, Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge, where in the dusk a dark boat slips over glassy water into the shadow of the bridge. Beyond is a hazy line of chimneys and warehouses.

The picture is on loan from Tate Britain to the Hunterian for the exhibition Blue and Silver: Whistler and the Thames. The work that gives the exhibition its name, Blue and Silver, is a folding screen. Painted in imitation of Japanese screens and the first of its kind in the west, it represents a critical moment in establishing the autonomy of painting. No longer a window onto a separate, discrete reality, it has become an object in its own right. Its composition closely related to the Tate's Nocturne: Blue and Gold, the screen has just two leaves. Across them a span of Battersea Bridge is silhouetted against the full moon. On the far shore, and seen beneath the bridge, the illuminated face of the church clock echoes the moon's disk. In the distance, although they are only an indistinct shadow in the dusk, is a cluster of untidy industrial buildings. It is an image of luminous poetry, but here, as in Blue and Gold, Whistler does not ignore the river's industrial life.

If Dickens was the river's novelist, more even than Turner or Monet, Whistler was its artist. There is a link, too, for Whistler's own copy of part of Our Mutual Friend is on display, as it was first published in 1864 in parts and blue paper wrappers.

Whistler by that time had already published his first set of etchings of the Thames. Pictures of the London docks, they were made in 1859 and '60. Later he always saw the industrial side of the river from the opposite shore. In these first prints, however, he went down to the docks to draw among the massed masts and crowded warehouses that lined the river banks at Rotherhithe, Eagle's Wharf and Black Lion Wharf. But he did not just record the scene.

He also drew the people, the longshoremen and the Billingsgate porters. In Black Lion Wharf, a heavily built man sits in the foreground, his dark head silhouetted against a patch of open water. Bearded and angry looking, he could have stepped out of Our Mutual Friend, or indeed a novel by Joseph Conrad. Conrad described the London Docks as "confused, varied and impenetrable", exactly as Whistler records the black muddle of buildings behind this sinister figure. The men in a pub in Longshoremen could also have stepped out of Dickens's novel. One of them stares threateningly out of the darkness and we can see Whistler's alien presence reflected in his glare. It is a dangerous and unfamiliar world, not a place for softies, but Whistler kept his cool. His hand never loses its sureness. The swiftness of his drawing is balanced marvellously with the complexity of the scene to capture the teeming vitality of the world's greatest port.

The exhibition creates a narrative from Whistler's evolving engagement with the Thames, his art growing sparer and more minimal as his interest moved from the docks to the upper reaches of the river near his home in Chelsea. He didn't go beyond Putney, however, and never into the countryside. He was always an urban artist and as the city's artery the river was much more to him than a casual subject that happened to lie outside the door of his house on the Chelsea riverbank. His engagement with it inspired some of his most beautiful work.

The old wooden bridge at Battersea was a favourite subject. He drew, etched and painted it from different perspectives and at different tides. Its complicated silhouette of intersecting horizontal beams and vertical posts echoed Japanese wooden bridges in the woodblock prints that he admired. From the Japanese artists he learnt the value of empty space. His Nocturnes, represented here by his screen and by several wonderful paintings, are little more than sky and water; the shadow of "breath on the surface of a pane of glass" was how he said his paint should look. He achieves this effect in a group of lithotints too. No more than grey washes, they are almost without drawing. Time flows as inexorably as the river does, but for a brief moment both are suspended and the stillness is magical. The potent simplicity of these nocturnes, both in print and in paint, is unlike anything else. Whistler dismantles the inherited structures of picture-making. As complex and as obsolete as the wooden bridges that he drew, they were as inevitably swept away.

In art, too often more is less. Victorian painting had been burdened by narrative and detail. Whistler set art on course for modernity with the clear principle less is more. That was the issue in the ill-fated libel suit that he brought against Ruskin. The great critic could not accept the sheer simplicity of Whistler's work. He said of Blue and Gold: Battersea Bridge that it was a pot of paint flung in the face of the public. Although Whistler won his suit, it bankrupted him.

It is an ill wind that blows no good, however. Whistler was so deeply disenchanted with his adopted country that he left instructions that whatever else happened to his estate, nothing should go to an English institution. Scotland was different and his sister-in-law, Rosalind Bernie Philip, eventually bequeathed all she had inherited from the artist to Glasgow University. Glasgow had twice honoured Whistler. The city was the first to buy his work for a public collection, his portrait of Thomas Carlyle acquired in response to energetic lobbying by his admirers among the artists. Later Glasgow University gave him an honorary degree and the Hunterian now holds the most important collection of his work in the world. This comprehensive show is put on with the benefit of only a single loan, that marvellous nocturne from the Tate.

Whistler shows how an artist can become the poet of a particular place and closer to home, Henry Kondracki is proving himself the poet of modern Edinburgh. He paints the city in all its moods, but is best when he captures buses of a winter evening sloshing through wet streets sparkling with the reflections of the city's lights. These are busy pictures, but full of evocative charm. When he captures the Meadows, white under snow, or a child on a wide expanse of sandy beach, he shows that he also understands and can deploy Whistler's wonderful economy and indeed his beauty of surface, even if he hasn't yet quite managed to paint like breath on a pane of glass.

• Whistler runs until 8 January; Henry Kondracki until 30 October