Turners Whaling Pictures
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART | MAY 10 – AUGUST 7, 2016
In 2008, the Metropolitan’s survey of the British Romantic painter JMW Turner (1775 – 1851) revealed him, in his exceptional blend of literature, landscape, history, morality, politics, and technical experimentation, to be the great Western artist of the first half of the 19th century. And, like Titian, or Caravaggio, or Rembrandt, or Matisse, an artist for all time, continually relevant to the changing human condition, and with an oeuvre ripe for focused explorations of various aspects of his career. The Met’s present show of eighteen objects contextualizes his brief fascination with whaling subjects late in his life, and is built around one of the museum’s three major Turners, Whalers (ca. 1845), purchased in 1896, and three additional three-by-four-foot oils on loan from Tate Britain.
These are spectacularly painted, as are a couple of Turner’s peerless watercolors on display. However, like Pablo Picasso in his 1950s series on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, or Willem de Kooning in his bronze sculptures of the 1970s, Turner’s four whaling pictures have the air of a thematic experiment that this assured, mature, masterly artist could not quite pull off. The problem is not the ships, or the light, or the seas, but the whale. He had never witnessed a whale hunt and was working from literary descriptions and unpersuasive prints with beasts as lifeless as the fiberglass Giant Blue Whale at the American Museum of Natural History. They are like a monster film with an unconvincing creature. Yet curator Alison Hokanson has successfully produced an absorbing and focused exhibition around works that only partially hit their mark, a minor aspect of this major artist’s career.
The oils were painted at the height of the artist’s powers. The self-promoting Turner had found a new Maecenas in Elhanan Bicknell, who was involved in the whaling trade. He painted the first two of the series on spec in 1845, and it seems to have worked, as Bicknell purchased the Met’s picture. But the other three went unsold and never connected with the public the way many of his celebrated history pictures and landscapes did. By this time, whaling may have been an industry too removed from its 18th-century London heyday, yet not temporally distant enough to be read as metaphor or nostalgia, or ripe for reassessment. The pictures were noted for their painterly pyrotechnics, but the subject did not excite. Even Bicknell returned his, claiming it had been shoddily and cheaply touched up with watercolor.
Still, the artist had done his homework: his narratives came from Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale of 1839, stories of adventurous quests in the Pacific for whales and profit. The fat was rendered for oil used for illumination, and five lamps from the Met’s seemingly bottomless American Decorative Arts collection are usefully on display, with one attractive dual-armed British Argand example that burned purified spermaceti, and features a Sheffield metal plate and a Wedgewood Blue Jasperware pottery pedestal.
Over the sixty or so most productive years of this British industry, before precipitously declining in the 1830s, killing sperm whales was dangerous and messy work: this resonated with Turner’s working-man sympathies. At the Met, a harpoon from the South Street Seaport Museum brings murderousness to the forefront, and arcs over the vitrine of lamps, its sharp iron tip shaped like the hull of a boat and pointing towards the first and best picture of the series, Tate’s Whalers. In a bit of curatorial magic, it lies at the exact angle of the harpoon held by the picture’s white-clad central figure. His jointless compatriots look on nonplussed—they resemble bored gondoliers.
Whalers is best seen as a picture of grand scything arcs, tumult, and energy visibly conceived. Turner built his unprecedented surfaces from sweeping curves moving up and to the right throughout, colorless rainbows drawing moisture and froth into the sky, and painted with anything at hand: brushes, palette knives, sleeves, rags, fingers. As in the most pulsing of his late marines, sky and sea are transposed into one great opalescent scrim—they resemble mother-of-pearl. In the foreground, the stiff and minute surfacing whale is less interesting than the sea’s roiled surface, built from innumerable glazes, painted wet on wet: the artist has dragged the blunt end of the brush through a top layer of white conveying an agitation both psychological and representational. Though the whale is hardly visible, resembling a large rock in yeasty water, the spray thrown by its thrashing tail rises up at left to envelop the unsuspecting whalers from behind: beast and man are both under threat. This peril comes to fruition in the Met’s Whalers, the centerpiece of the show, where the grievously injured and flailing whale has knocked together and upended the whaleboats: mortality will touch both sides in this sublime battle.
Absent modern visual technologies like CGI, or well-funded empirical research like Jacques Cousteau’s, even Turner’s imagination hits limits: the Met’s whale is a long black battering ram with a pink mohawk and an impossibly dislocated mouth. The wall text includes a long description of a whaling picture from Moby-Dick that is just ambiguous enough to be Turnerian, but Herman Melville’s pen fared better in conveying these beasts than Turner’s brush.
The year before Turner commenced this series he painted one of his greatest works, Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Western Railway (National Gallery, London), a conflicted view of modern technology—a coal fire-stoked locomotive sweeps through a dramatic English landscape and bears down on a fleeing hare. Turner depended on trains to get to his painting locations, but also cast them as demonic harbingers of change. It is thus interesting that he then took up the moribund toil of whalers, an industry that had been around for two centuries, but seems less connected to the national interest. Turner resorted to conflating it with empire and exploration, using the name of a famed military vessel in his third whaling picture. These were not critiques of the whale trade, lacking the political punch of his Slave Ship of 1840 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the greatest Turner in America, with its appended lines connecting the slavers’ lust for profit with human despoliation. Profit was certainly a motive in whaling, and the final picture in the exhibit, Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves shows the risk of such obsessive pursuits—no longer has the artist rendered the whale, but its blubber is being rendered in the ship at left, while at right men on the ice use great saws to free their vessel—reflecting the danger of being stranded in polar waters.
During the final summer of the George W. Bush era in 2008, Turner’s post-Napoleonic mediations on the British Empire’s future and the history of Europe and the Mediterranean basin seemed particularly resonant. The whaling pictures, despite their somewhat unconvincing treatment of the oceanic mammals, bear a similar topicality. After nearly two centuries of people depleting the earth of resources and wantonly killing its non-human denizens, these pictures, bearing the artist’s respect for these unknowable, lumbering, truck-sized beings, with their magnificently worked and glowing skies, elicit melancholy and historical poignancy. Turner did not romanticize whaling nor render heroic those who practiced the trade—he made the whalers so small and mechanical that their humanity is in abeyance. Ultimately, Melville does help us to understand Turner’s paintings: as in Moby-Dick, we have sympathy for the whale.