Thursday, August 14, 2008

Turner Exhibition

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?”


Erik Bongers said...

Always interesting to compare tastes. Especially among artists -they seem better at describing how they feel and think about certain art in comparison to most viewers. They also get immediately to the point whereas art critics often get lost in an abundance of multi-syllable vocabulary. (or is it multi silly-ble...)

To me, that first example painting (the shipwreck) may well be Turner's best painting because it's the one where he is able to combine that furious energy while maintaining a very realistic portraial of the scene. Especially that wild ocean has the energy of a Michael Phelps water storm. A wildness I have never seen in any other marine. In fact, the last example painting by Aivazovsky is to me the perect antipode of the Turner - it has equally high waves, yet it has the energy of shopping-mall-easy-listening-music.

Turner gradually left realism and started focusing on the energy 'by itself' and to me that seems more like an intro to abstract art rather than Impressionism.

In fact, I think that in the competition "make an abstract painting that expresses violent energy" Turner takes gold with the likes of Pollack not even on the photo finish snapshot.

Erik Bongers said...

That's Jackson Pollock of course, not Pollack:)

Beth said...

I'm glad to see someone else who questions Turner's status as Sublime. :-) I haven't been able to see why people are so enthused, but I've only seen the pictures in the books. Sometimes I can see more in front of an actual painting (Braque comes to mind)-- so I'm glad to hear what you have thought when you look at his work.

Thanks, Beth

Victor said...

Ouch! I love Turner, and you kind of ripped him a new one! The way he is portrays pure emotion in the context of a representational painting is, well, sublime!

jeff said...

Tuner's ability with pencil and water color and perspective is first rate.

I always thought his figure drawing was not as good as his other work.

I am not sure why this is as I have seen figure drawings that a well done.

I like all of his work myself, the late work is more abstract through the lens of romanticism.

For me his late paintings do have a an air of struggle. I like that myself. I love seeing his thought process.

His early topographical work should be studied as he is a master of perspective.

jeff said...

Thomas Moran is a great example.
He loved Turner as this painting shows.

I agree Moran did stay more on earth as you say.

Turner is an acquired taste.

It is interesting to put up a Turner next to a Constable as these two painters really sum up this period of British Romantic landscape painting.

mordicai said...

Wow-- I followed up after being inspired by this, & looked at some more of his work-- pretty amazing stuff.

Jeff Z said...

Seems like a lot of concept artists these days: environment guys who aren't so great at characters.

And then the art directors drive them crazy. ;)

Scott Murphy said...

I completely agree. I currently work at the Met, and had recently visited the exhibit again on a break with some other employees.
I think that he was a magnificent landscape painter in the early years. The first room is by far the most impressive. All of the paintings have a great observed sensitivity to them and you can really feel the water swelling and splashing. I really was blown away by the paintings done at St. Gotthard Pass and many of his watercolors.
As I continue on past the first gallery though, I am starting to lose my interest. I see more and more ships which are all beautifully painted with a great romantic quality. They beckon me to come closer to admire all the fine details, but when I get there I am left dissappointed by the badly represented figures (especially just after looking at the Messonier in the gallery prior). I think to myself, "ok maybe he dropped the ball a little on his figures for this one. I'll let it slide." On to the next...the same thing.
After a while, I've given up all together. I found myself moving faster and faster through the rooms not bothering to stop and admire because I knew I would be upset that he took such care and dedication to paint a lovely environment and then I would get figures that had three black dots smacked onto a head shaped like a pancake.
I understand that the figures were small. But if I were going to paint an image nearly as ambitious as he with mutiple ships battling and each covered with little figures...I would make sure the figures held their own. Even if they are too small to get any real detail, at least make them anatomical.
Anyways, by the end, I was averaging about 3 seconds per room feeling very let down.
All the while such praise kept coming from the others I was with.
All in all, I'm glad to have someone that respects his early work as I do, but also recognizes his later work as a bit lacking.

Nonie said...

Anyone who responds to critique with "It's my style" loses all credibility... Your review is spot on. Early works are great... As he goes on they're less and less interesting.

Ezra said...

I've always felt that way about Turner. Glad to hear I am not alone.

jeff said...

"Anyone who responds to critique with "It's my style" loses all credibility..."

I beg to differ, however his work stands up hundreds of years after the fact which is more than can be said for some of his contemporaries.

Your passing judgment on one of the pioneers of landscape painting, he was one of the first to do it along with Constable.

We don't know the context of the statement. Turner was a very odd man, a working class cockney in the very class conscious world of 18th and early 19th century Britain.

He was often found of making statements like this, off the cuff and sarcastic, so it could be that he was doing just that.

He was one of the most popular instructors of drawing and perspective at the Royal Academy.

I agree however that his figures are funny, but this never bothered me. They were minor players in his compositions.

Rembrandt did some odd things with his figures as well in large compositions, would one dismiss him as well?

Unknown said...

I think "sublime" about covers it. Turner's work has always had a magical effect on me, later work included. As for Ruskin and Turner's hypocrisies , from reading this blog I'm finding that artists and critics from that period never really said what they meant. It all seems like a game of rhetoric to espouse a philosophy.

ZD said...

I'm glad you wrote a post about Turner. I don't think I agree with you about his later work, but the only one I've seen in person is The Slave Ship. I'll have to see this show before it ends.

Terry Daniels said...

I'm glad to see a mini-review of Turner from start to finish. I remember that in college, my Art History courses always mentioned only one or two of his most abstract works with the conventional bullet points on atmosphere, "mistiness", and so on. I'd never even seen the 1805 shipwreck. From the textbooks you'd think he never painted anything that wasn't orange fog.

This is my first comment here and I want to say "Thank You", James (and others), for all these posts and discussions... It's amazing what all I've learned here from y'all.

Terry Daniels said...
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