When a Painting becomes Poetry

A blog is a hobby; a blog is a notebook; a blog is a forum; a blog is a piece of art. A blog is unpaid, and so can rewrite our idea of what a journal is, what publication is. It reminds us that, in the age of culturecrat jargon such as “viability” and “private-public partnerships,” we can give away art entirely for free and that art can infiltrate a larger culture and therefore be worth something all on its own.

Here’s a blog I like: It’s called “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” and it’s a project of the Canadian poet and editor Paul Vermeersch (who is also a colleague of mine in the small-press publishing trenches). It is a poetry journal: He asks poets to contribute poems whose only constraint is that they be titled Sunrise With Sea Monsters. This is the name of a rather odd 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The painting (which usually resides at the Tate in London) is unusual for Turner in that it is fantastical: It is a blurry yellowy-brown seascape with a vague, threatening, monstrous shape looming in its centre. The central form could be made up of two fish, but together they seem to form the sketch of a face with large eyes. Nothing in this scene – neither sea nor sky nor animal – has a clear outline. It is almost abstract and so an exemplar of Turner’s daring formlessness.

Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The poets eagerly agree to play the game, and Vermeersch has amassed nine of these exercises, all wildly different, and none referring specifically to the painting (aside from their titles). There is a lovely melancholy one from Stevie Howell (“It’s Spartan, to try & / fall asleep at dawn in / the bed of a man you / just met.”). There’s a dense one, both tactile and cerebral, from Jeramy Dodds. (“With a tall Tanqueray I watch the tornado footage: / aerials bent to mantis elbows while the corn rows rose.”). There is a concrete poem by Conor McDonnell, a simple experiment with typography.

An ekphrastic poem is one that describes a work of visual art, real or fictional. But these are not, Vermeersch insists, ekphrastic. They merely share the same title as the painting. The title – perhaps its words alone – it’s a stepping-off point for a journey elsewhere.

Neither are they occasional poems (poems written for an event or occasion). Vermeersch chose this painting not because it happens to be part of the blockbuster Turner show, but because he always liked it. He had done the same a few years before with another painting, They Will Take My Island, by Arshile Gorky, which generated another series of fascinating and tangentially related poems, including a powerful cry of sympathy by Jonathan Bennett about a child with Asperger’s. (“He is larval. At one with his beloved insects, / murmuring, worrying about F3 tornadoes.”)

Poets seem to love these challenges. They are almost like a parlour game, a game of association: You have these words to work with, go. This is the challenge faced by the improv comedian.

But, indeed, all artists need exercises in order to get them going. One’s best work can come from an exercise or a formal constraint. Why is this? Is life itself not enough to inspire? Why do we need, sometimes, a trigger for a creative flight?

The most postmodern of theorists might even say that there is no such thing as inspiration from life: There is only other art. In other words, one makes art because one has seen art and wants to participate in it, to play the game, not because one has seen a sea monster. That is a bit extreme. But, in a sense, all art is about other art, if only in that it cannot help but refer to art that has preceded it. If it is a poem, it echoes all other poems that use the same language; if it is a painting, it exists in a continuum of paintings with the same colours or themes. Not convinced? Note how many artists preface descriptions of their work with the phrase, “It’s an exercise in …” The words that follow could be anything – line, colour, silence, changing scales, transgression – but the idea of the exercise is constant. (Evelyn Waugh, for example: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed.”)

What is an exercise? It is at once practice, workout and game. In art, the rehearsal room and the stage are often the same space.

by Russell Smith

Source: The Globe and Mail

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JMW Turner, art master and polemicist

As a Tate Britain exhibition shows, the artist’s later work offered a sharply political criticism of industrial society

JMW Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 Oil paint on canvas support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1230 x 1530 x 140 mm painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
JMW Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 Oil paint on canvas support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1230 x 1530 x 140 mm painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

For many art historians, the last years of JMW Turner’s life have sometimes looked like a let-down. It’s not hard to see why: in contrast to the string of triumphs that defined his early career, his old age was dominated by pain and disappointment. After turning 60 in 1835, his health began to fail. Weakened by influenza, robbed of his teeth and tormented by failing eyesight, he became, in his own words, “an invalid and a sufferer”.

Doggedly, he kept working, but he increasingly found himself alienated from public taste. Although he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy – of which he had been a fellow since 1802 – his art was scorned by the critics. With the exception of John Ruskin, almost all of them looked down on his style. In 1836, his works were derided as “childish” by Blackwood’s Magazine, and in 1842, one visitor dismissed Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth as all “soapsuds and whitewash”.

Tate Britain’s exhibition “Late Turner – Painting Set Free”, however, casts these years in a completely different light and shows just how wrong Turner’s critics were. Covering the period between 1835 and his death in 1851, the paintings are a testament to the remarkable originality of his declining years, and demonstrate that – despite the harsh judgments of his contemporaries – some of his finest works actually belong to his dotage.

Far from having been hampered by his failing eyesight, these works show that Turner succeeded in turning it to his advantage, anticipating the Impressionists by decades. Applying successive layers of translucent colour, he filled his canvases with a rich, hazy light, while using a restricted tonal range to fill his works with a rare poignancy and power.

Their vibrancy is hard to ignore. Based on sketches made during his travels in France, Switzerland and Italy in this period, pieces such as Fishermen on the Lagoon, Moonlight (1840) have an almost dream-like quality that elevates them into the realm of pure, unalloyed emotion.

But what is striking about the works in this exhibition is not their technical originality, but their highly political and often sharply polemical tone. Like many other Romantic painters of the day, Turner had recognised the role that art could play in social and political change; but it was only in his old age that he began to explore the potential for artistic commentary in full.

Turner – like his younger contemporary Charles Dickens – was a sharp critic of the industrial and commercial change sweeping mid-19th-century Britain. Casting a locomotive as a dark, sinister beast carving a pitiless path through the landscape in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), he drew attention to the threat posed to the natural beauty of the English countryside by the industrial revolution; while in The Slave Ship (1840), he depicted the appalling human cost of the illegal trade in slaves.

Turner’s most powerful – and subtle – attacks were, however, directed at the changes sweeping the political world. Although the Tate’s curators omit to mention the fact, the last 16 years of his life coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval across Europe. But while many of his fellow artists were caught up in the revolutionary ferment of the day, Turner was profoundly at odds with the fervour gripping Europe. In his mind, a cancer was eating away at the heart of political life, and Britain – along with most of the continent – was going to the dogs.

Turner chose to explore this theme of moral and political decline through the history of ancient Rome. Classical historians had attributed Rome’s fall not to military defeat or barbarian invasion, but to the loss of virtue. Seduced by wealth and luxury, the Romans had, they believed, abandoned their commitment to duty and public service, and let the state rot from within. It was this narrative that Turner examined in paintings such as Regulus (1828; reworked 1837). In this dramatic work, the visual rhetoric of light and darkness is brought to bear on Regulus’s willingness to accept blindness and death so that his country would continue its struggle against Carthage, and illustrates the common Roman belief that it was after Carthage’s final defeat that Rome’s moral fibre began to decline.

The relevance that this had for Turner’s own times was plain to see. Although Britain and her European neighbours were reaching the peak of their imperial and commercial prowess by the time of Turner’s death, they were losing their moral fibre.

No longer motivated by duty and public service, both governments and revolutionaries were adrift on a sea of luxury and self-indulgence. And, as Rome’s history showed, only disaster could follow.

There is, indeed, a sense that in The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835), Turner sought to show that the end had already begun.

It is this profoundly political dimension to Turner’s later works that makes Tate Britain’s exhibition especially welcome. While it succeeds in rehabilitating the reputation of the artist’s final works, it also invites us to apply the message of his paintings to our own times. Like the aged Turner, we are surrounded by political upheavals. Civil wars rage in Ukraine and Syria, northern Iraq is in the grip of conflict, and in our own country, domestic troubles abound. But, as Turner suggested of his own age, what is lacking is a morality of politics.

If this exhibition shows anything, it shows that the time has come for a rebirth of the civic virtues of old before it is too late. It is only telling that it takes an artist scorned in his own times – rather than a politician in ours – to show us this.

Alexander Lee’s latest book, ‘The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Disease and Excess in an Age of Beauty’, is published by Arrow

by Alexander Lee

Source: The Telegraph

Turner Prize awarded to group of architects

Assemble help Turner Prize rediscover the art of controversy

Assemble drew up plans for a winter garden in one derelict house
Assemble drew up plans for a winter garden in one derelict house

Cows in formaldehyde. Lights going on and off. Elephant dung.

Throughout its 31-year history, the Turner Prize has revelled in selecting winners that prompt the question: “Yes, but is it art?”

This year, it has done it again.

But as the shock value has drained out of modern art, and as fewer artists can simultaneously tap into and taunt popular culture, the Turner Prize has been forced to look beyond the art scene altogether.

Until being nominated, this year’s winners Assemble did not think of themselves as artists.

They were a group (numbering between 14 and 18) who had innovative ideas for architecture and design projects.

When the phone rang to tell them they had been nominated for the Turner Prize in May, they did not think it could be THE Turner Prize.

“The girl who took the call in the office thought it was for an obscure architecture Turner Prize that we had never heard of before,” member Fran Edgerley told Liverpool’s Double Negative art blog.

It was THE Turner Prize. They were nominated for the prestigious art award for their work regenerating terraced houses that had been boarded up for years in Toxteth in Liverpool.

They won the Turner Prize for their work in Liverpool's Cairns Street
They won the Turner Prize for their work in Liverpool’s Cairns Street

They worked closely with local residents and were familiar faces on the building sites in one of Liverpool’s most run-down areas – far removed from a fashionable artist’s studio.

But nor were they following the fashions and formulae of most architects. They brought an artistry to the process, lovingly fashioning low-cost fireplaces, tiles, fabrics and other interior fixtures and fittings.

They took part in a monthly community street market and even drew up plans for a winter garden that would take up the full height of one dilapidated house.

Assemble formed in 2010 and, as well as the Liverpool project, have turned a derelict petrol station in London into a cinema, converted a disused motorway underpass into an arts venue and built temporary theatres in Chichester and Southampton.

They have created an adventure playground featuring mud, scrap metal and campfires in Glasgow, are turning a former Victorian bathhouse into a new art gallery for Goldsmiths University and are erecting a huge climbing wall in Swansea.

Many members of Assemble studied architecture - but did not finish their training
Many members of Assemble studied architecture – but did not finish their training

Their work caught the attention of Alistair Hudson, director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, who was on this year’s Turner Prize panel and has been Assemble’s biggest champion.

Hudson has long been an advocate of “useful art” – art that plays a role in society and the community, rather than being reserved for a white-walled gallery.

He traces the idea back to William Morris, who believed in “art for all” and who designed wallpaper, textiles and tiles as part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th Century.

Assemble, Hudson told BBC News arts editor Will Gompertz, fit into “a long tradition of art working in society”.

He added: “You could perhaps look at Bauhaus, or the Omega Group, or the Arts and Crafts group as part of a long trajectory of artist communities or artist activists really trying to have a genuine impact in the way society operates.

“There have always been these different versions of art, and different art worlds in operation.”

So what is the difference between an architect and an artist?

“I would argue there’s maybe not a fine distinction,” Hudson said.

“There’s a graded line between the two. One blurs into the other.”

Assemble designed a temporary theatre in Chichester
Assemble designed a temporary theatre in Chichester

But that view is not shared by everyone.

The Daily Telegraph’s art critic Mark Hudson told BBC Newsnight on Fridayhe did not see Assemble’s work as art.

“It works very well as architecture,” he said.

“Why bring it in as art? If you’re just looking for stuff that isn’t pretentious and is useful, why don’t you nominate B&Q or Oxfam?

“It’s great if art can be useful. But just because it’s useful doesn’t make it art.”

There was not much actual art on the Turner Prize shortlist this year – perhaps an indictment of the state of British art.

‘Anyone can create art’

Assemble were shortlisted alongside an avant-garde opera, a recreation of a supernatural study room and a lifeless installation comprising chairs and fur coats.

Against that competition, it was no surprise that Assemble won – they shone a light on our forgotten urban spaces and showed a way forward.

After the ceremony, Assemble’s Joseph Halligan told Reuters the art world should not shut its doors on people like them.

He said: “I think the idea that art is something that can only be created by someone that declares themselves an artist is maybe not the best thing.

“I believe that anyone can create art, and art should be for everyone.”

by Ian Youngs

Source: BBC News