The curators who wrote the wall captions for the J.M.W. Turner exhibition (Metropolitan Museum, through Sept 21) ran out of words to describe Turner’s brand of imagination, because they used the word “Sublime” 14 times in within the first room alone.
Whatever word you want to use: sublime, awesome, dramatic, mind-blowing, soul-stirring, it’s a gigantic show, with over 140 watercolors and oils. The works of the first room showed Turner (1775-1851) at the full height of his powers. His shipwreck scene (above) from 1805 has more whirling energy than anyone else has crammed onto a single canvas.
His early watercolors and oils, like “Tintern Abbey” done when he was 17, have a precision of perspective and a control of value that make them a good example of a romantic spirit disciplined by controlled observation.
One of Turner’s gifts is the modulation of tones across large expanses of the composition. Instead of defining passages of architecture, clouds, or rock masses with sharp contrasts, he holds them to close value ranges. Contrary to the rule that the eye seeks out maximum contrast, these parts of the picture attract the eye more readily than other passages rendered in strong accents of black and white.
Strangely, though, his figure work never obeys the tonal rules he establishes for everything else. The figures are always a jumble of tone, spotty, and poorly conceived. Even in a historical painting like the Battle of Trafalgar (detail, above, and full composition inset below), where the figures are ostensibly the center of interest, they are awkwardly and embarrassingly drawn.
The painting seems to be divided into two different worlds: the sails and smoke, wreathed in magical vapors, and the figures, strewn about like boneless rag dolls on the doorstep of the scene.
Turner was at his best when his eyes were open. “Ivy Bridge, Devonshire” shows an appetite for the natural tangle of vegetation while at the same time giving equal attention to the surrounding light and vapor. His small watercolors from 1824 are sensitive and exquisite. The show includes a few very early plein air paintings from 1805, painted from a boat floating in the Thames.
As Turner’s career progresses, he grows more in love with light and atmosphere, and more indifferent to earthbound form. He maintains his sense of drama or the Sublime, but the more paintings you see together, the more his devices and tricks start to show. He falls into a conventionalism of color, composition, edges, and values.
In his painting of Venice, because of the cast shadows and the vertical streaks of reflections, the boats appear frozen in ice rather than sitting on water.
With the later work, it was as if a film began to cover his eyes. In “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829), lauded by John Ruskin as his greatest work, the ship looks like a comical wedding cake. No one standing with us around the painting was entirely sure which smudge or cloud was supposed to be Polyphemus. It was like standing beside a goldfish pond looking for goldfish and not seeing any.
Yellow and red, he learned from Goethe, represent life and spirit, while blues stand for darkness and denial. In his attempt to rise to Goethe’s poetic conception, Turner began to use these colors in a more and more habitual way. A glance across any of the rooms in the second half of the exhibition revealed Turner’s fixed color template: warm lights and cool darks, never mind the truth of Nature.
In the final section, where he descends into pure abstraction, the limitations of his resources become even more apparent. One wall shows five paintings in a row with the same compositional formula: light at the center, dark around the edges, with a small spot of light in the foreground.
The conventional view of art history is that Turner in his later paintings entered a realm of pure light and atmosphere, setting the stage for the revelations of Impressionism. I wanted to follow him into his universe of mistiness, but I got stuck in the paint. And as much as I love light and vapor, I love the earth too much—trees and rocks and ships and buildings and people, none of which have a place in Turner’s later paintings.
The critics throughout his career complained of “indistinctness,” “negligence,” and “coarseness.” It’s hard to disagree with them. As much as I love Ruskin’s writing, his defense of Turner on the grounds of truth to nature is absurd and illogical.
In the end, Turner deserves credit for the raw power of his visual ideas. Rough, crude, or maddeningly vague as he may have been, he was a cyclone of visual energy, and his fundamental innovations are powerful and unforgettable. Later artists in the romantic tradition, like Frederic Church, Alphonse Mucha, Thomas Moran, and Ivan Aivazovsky (above), took Turner’s ideas and ran with them, making luminous, radiant statements without losing track of their love of material things.
In response to his critics, Turner said, “Atmosphere is my style.” But atmosphere without form is like music without notes or speech without words. It’s unintelligible, and therefore meaningless. Perhaps, as his contemporaries worried, he suffered from a touch of madness or perversity. Maybe he imbibed too much lead white. As one visitor wrote in the guest book at the end of the exhibition: “What was this guy on?”