J.M.W. Turner

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 1 – Sept 21, 2008

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) has been recognized both as a leading representative of the sublime in landscape painting and a harbinger of the Modernist temperament that would endeavor to do away with exactly such literary influences in art. Of the sublime Turner was well informed, while of the Modern mind he could only have guessed. Yet in his art he combined a love of atmospheric perspective, later emulated by the Impressionists, with a sense of awe before nature that the Modernists would have ill-countenanced.

In the current retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, Turner’s exuberance sometimes grates, and there are paintings that, taken alone, might have relegated the artist to the lesser ranks. But the overall impression of this retrospective is one of a great artist grappling with vast changes in his environment and in himself. Turner allowed contemporary tastes and his own beliefs to determine what constituted suitable subject matter for his art. In doing so he strove to elevate landscape painting to an equal stature with history painting. If, in much of his early work, Turner is not up to the task his ambition set for him, we forgive him because the desire itself is touching and, more importantly, because the scope of his later successes easily overshadows his early failures.

Joseph Mallord William Turner "Light and Color (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge," exhibited 1843. Oil on canvas.

In his watercolors, Turner never faltered. The first painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790 was a watercolor and although he aspired to greater things—the medium was little respected then—it is apparent from the exhibition’s first gallery that Turner’s natural proclivity for it exceeded his gifts with oils. It is said that an artist either has the knack for watercolor or doesn’t. Unlike oil paints, which virtually require reworking and layering, watercolors favor the preservation of spontaneous first gestures. It is difficult to effectively build up watercolors due to their solubility even after they’ve dried, so one’s idea about the composition must be clear from the outset. Turner grasped and respected these inherent limitations from the very first in works such as “Norham Castle, Sunrise”(c.1798). Its degree of detail and high finish never get in the way of its clear sense of a specific atmosphere on a particular day in England’s northern countryside. Turner’s watercolors always seem real. As such, they set the precedent for great watercolorists like Winslow Homer and recall the ink work of East Asian masters.

The watercolor medium was also a natural foil for the excesses of Turner’s technique. One senses, more than with most artists, Turner’s frustration with his own limitations. The desire to transcend these, and to use one’s medium in a completely new way, contributes largely to the scope of an artist’s ambition and of his or her art. It was perhaps this over-acute sense of possibility in Turner that, for the first half of his career, drove him regularly to force his oils. His incessant focus on the sun’s perfect orb or his slavish palette knife work on the impasto of an ocean wave regularly reduces these techniques to tropes in Turner’s early landscapes. Here, one senses the artist continually thwarted on the edge of ecstasy, overcompensating for the loss. His greatest excess (and his greatest failure) on display here is “The Battle of Trafalgar, October 21 1805.” He made two paintings on the theme, the first in 1806, just after the fact, and the second in 1823-24 at the behest of King George IV. Turner’s disinclination toward history painting combined with the innate drama of his personality here produces a painting of monumental banality, its one saving grace the comic, inverted face of a drowning sailor placed front and center. This helpless creature, swept away, can only be a portrait of the artist himself.

Even as his obsession induces fatigue, Turner’s intensity stirs excitement and gradually bears fruit. The conventional narrative applied to Turner holds that the artist emerged from his roots in traditional landscape painting with a new style, suffusing form in light to create fields of color verging on abstraction, hence his connection with Modernism. Turner’s transition to his later style is made thoroughly apparent in the retrospective by a gallery devoted to his masterpiece “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834) along with its watercolor studies. To call these studies more abstract is accurate but also misleading, for Turner in no way deviates from his focus but simply allows the material quality of paint to speak more freely and naturally to his subject matter. Here, Turner transitions from a great talent to a master.

Where many contemporary critics saw near chaos in his later canvases, today we see an artist gradually adjusting his style to fit his interest—an actual case of great art being understood only after its time. Turner’s interest is in how paint describes color in atmosphere and the mystical experience these elements can induce in a viewer. Anyone sensitive to nature’s changing moods recognizes the experience in life but how does one pin it down in paint? What Turner found was that the devil’s in the details. The transposition of a mystical experience to art is effected in the artist’s general approach to his subject, not in the particularities of the scene rendered. Thus “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” (c.1840-45) the last painting in the exhibition, is also its perfect bookend. It is a roiling sea of paint punctuated with staccato brushwork and the suggestion of a fishy sea creature sketched in cadmium red. There is great humility in this painting. Turner’s humorous sea monster seems like a jab at his own high-flown themes from the past, and this offbeat touch in an otherwise serious painting heightens its pathos. Here, Turner overcomes his pedantry and, in the haze of a troubled sea, discovers a human quality in nature’s drama.

The retrospective’s introductory text makes mention of Turner’s “erstwhile” rival, John Constable, and several critics have subsequently weighed in with their own judgment as to who is the better painter. Not long ago, I visited the Yale Center for British Art and examined Constable’s paintings, including a number of his cloud studies. They are excellent. But for days after visiting the Turner retrospective, I could not look at the sky without experiencing again Turner’s fierce desire and ambition for what he saw there. I could not get his paintings out of my mind. With regard to the question of who deserves the title for preeminent landscapist of the 19th century, I shall cast my vote for Turner.

Contributor

Ben La Rocco

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