Three disheartening words for those who won’t be going overseas anytime soon recur in entries to the catalog of “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free,” which opens on Saturday, June 20, at the de Young Museum: “Exhibited London Only.”
Those lucky enough to have viewed the exhibition at Tate Britain in London will have seen more than twice as many as the 65 works that appear here. But then, Tate Britain presides over the artist’s magnificent bequest of his work to the nation and keeps a selection of it perennially on view. That, plus the fragility and value of many pieces illustrated in the catalog, apparently kept them at home.
Still, even an abridged survey of this British romantic artist’s works on paper and canvas presents ample, and in these parts rare, opportunities to delve eyes-on into a protomodernist’s vision.
The de Young exhibition owes the impression of richness that it leaves both to a spacious and beautifully lighted installation and to a signal quality of Turner’s art.
Turner was a man of his time in wanting to update “history painting” — edifying visions drawn from vaunted sources — by portraying momentous events that he had witnessed, leaving their consequential meaning up for debate. The 1841 watercolors here describing “Fire in the Grand Storehouse in the Tower of London” and the arresting oil painting titled “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834” even have some of the possibly unseemly magnetism of present-day disasters witnessed through mass media.
With mild discomfort, we may recognize in Turner’s romantic sensibility the swings of mood and belief that sweep through present-day culture, powered now by means of transmission of which Turner never dreamed. Yet everyone who has ever traveled with a sketchbook — the way Turner did extensively — will recognize in him a masterly colleague.
Water, stone (made into pigments), fire, wind, sunlight and darkness:
These were the true and elemental poetic media, which Turner still speaks to us. The immensity and irresistibility of natural forces fascinated him, as they did many artists of romantic temperament, and even in the pictures he devoted to whaling, steam power and other markers of accelerating industry, nature looks indomitable.
The intimate scale of Turner’s watercolors and his oil paintings’ prizing of almost cinematic effects above depictive detail activate fully the resilience of a viewer’s imagination.
Studying Turner’s art, the engaged eye seems to bound from one plane of focus to another, from visionary sweep and novelty to odd marvels of paint-handling that seem sometimes to have distracted Turner from his larger pictorial ambitions — eccentricities in which painters and public would eventually see genuine creative freedom and authority inscribed.
The literary underpinnings of Turner’s art — its representational program, as the art historians say — has worn least well of all the aspects of his art.
We have no trouble comprehending or appreciating paintings such as “Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead … on the Night the Ariel left Harwich” (c.1842) or even the peculiar “Sunrise with Sea Monsters” (c. 1845), which provoked confusion or ridicule among his contemporaries. The tendency of such pictures to equate ambiguity with content makes as much sense to our eyes, sighting from the aftermath of modernism, as does their undisguised delight in their own materiality.
We may even find it tempting, anachronistically, to project onto some of Turner’s art prophetic inklings of climate catastrophe. Such visions of ultimate things have far more immediacy for us than do the renderings of mythic or Biblical themes that explicitly preoccupied Turner, such as “Dawn of Christianity (Flight into Egypt)” or “Europa and the Bull” (c. 1845?), never mind the maunderings of his own verse that Turner appended to many pictures, which a number of wall labels dutifully excerpt.
The exhibition materials say little about Turner’s life, other than that, as a painter, as a personality and a highly influential member of the Royal Academy, he was a controversial figure.
John Ruskin, Turner’s great champion among critics, recalled him in credible terms. “Everybody had described him to me as coarse, boorish, unintellectual, vulgar,” Ruskin wrote. “This I knew to be impossible.
“I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look.”
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was the son of a London hairdresser who had the good sense to encourage his offspring’s native gift for drawing. The artist’s mother was mentally unstable, committed eventually to the infamous Bethlehem Hospital, better known as Bedlam. Her helpless unraveling left her son with a lifelong fear that he might have inherited her tendency to madness.
Turner’s father sent him away to live with more prosperous relatives, who apparently made efforts to bolster what little formal education he received. But his sophistication seems to have grown out of studio practice and observation of the world.
An exhibition might be built around Turner’s life, as Anthony Bailey, his most recent biographer, suggested when he wrote, “To us the trade of hairdresser may seem humble enough, but to a small child it would have been fascinating: jugs of hot water brought up from the kitchen range, soapsuds and froth and steam … the strong smell of unguents, bay rum, cologne. And then there was all the paraphernalia of hot tongs, curling papers, braiding pins and crimping irons for the dressing of wigs, and the clouds of white powder.”
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free: Paintings and works on paper. Through Sept. 20.
by Kenneth Baker