Turner’s Timeless Show of Light, Color, and Wonder

We on the West Coast of the United States have been privileged this year by having available to us the largest showing of Britain’s arguably greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner, ever seen on Pacific shores. More than 60 paintings in oil and wager color by Turner have been on exhibition here. First at the Getty in Los Angeles, then — and for three more weeks — at the DeYoung in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

I’ve seen the show twice, taking the better part of a day each time. Along with Vermeer and Van Gogh, Turner’s one of my very favorite artists. The experience of this show rates as one of the aesthetic highlights of my life. I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t had a greater impact in the media of each city, but such are the times we live in. Nevertheless, the exhibit has been a hit in both LA and San Francisco.

A look at the Tate Britain’s traveling exhibition of late Turner pictures, entitled “Painting Set Free.”

Turner, who lived from 1775 to 1851, was a Romantic artist. Born in London on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd, Turner created some of the most magnificent seascapes, landscapes, and history paintings ever produced.

A master of light and color who worshiped the sun, his glorious figurative work prefigured abstraction in his evolving effort to depict the beauty he saw around him. But his art did not simply evoke natural beauty and antiquity, it embraced the advent of technology as Britain moved from the Age of Sail to the Age of Steam, the expansion of democracy as liberal reforms Turner backed came into being, the abolition of slavery, and premonitions of the end of the British Empire even as it moved to its zenith.

Turner’s work encompassed both the era of the Napoleonic Wars and the springtime of the Victorian Age.

As a result of Britain’s chronic state of war from the early 1790s till 1815 with first Revolutionary and then Imperial France, Turner’s incipient wanderlust wasn’t allowed to come to the fore until his early middle age. But his stunning scenes of Britain, and occasional foreign trips amidst breaks in near perpetual war, more than sufficed.

After Napoleon was finally defeated once and for all at Waterloo — which led to a brilliant Turner depicting not the glory of Wellington’s triumph and Britain’s ascendance as the leading world power but the bloody butcher’s bill of victory — Turner was at last free to roam. By the time of the period covered by this exhibition, Turner’s career from age 60 on to his passing at 76 in 1851, he was a veteran traveler.

In addition to his beloved British coastal, river, country, and architectural scenes, Turner was drawn, both for pure pictorial studies and and historical and contemporary comment to the Alps, Holland, Rome, Carthage, and, above all, Venice. The latter, far more than his native London, where he characteristically lived on the River Thames, was his municipal muse, as it were. That most aquatic, aesthetic and feminine of European cities, Venice was for Turner cityscape and seascape as fundamental dreamscape.

As thrilling as his meditations in light, color, and historicity could be when focused on Rome and Carthage in particular — especially with regard to not so veiled commentary on the exciting rise and elegiacal decline of empire — Venice provided Turner with an ever renewable source of energy and wonder, ethereal as may be.

But for all that, it was the sea that proved to be Turner’s most sustaining source of fascination and arena for depicting action. It was his haven away from the hustle and bustle and hassle of London.

As eminent as Turner was in his own lifetime — not for him the scorn and anonymity afforded Van Gogh, or, for that matter, the modest acclaim of Vermeer in his own lifetime — and towering as his reputation is in Britain today, Turner was also quite controversial. Though he was clearly the leading British artist of her storied reign, Queen Victoria took a dislike to Turner and refused to knight him. Bizarre, considering all the fundamental nonentities who have come to bear the title “Sir.”

Ironically, given his depiction of British naval prowess in the Napoleonic Wars — especially potent for its infrequency in Turner’s work, as he was no jingo — it was a French monarch who was to pursue a royal friendship with Turner and shower him with royal honors.

If Turner was bothered by his lack of relationship with the monarch whose name came to define much of the century, it certainly had no discernible effect on his work. He was extremely prolific in his late period and painted to suit his own sensibility.

It was a less distinct seeming, more ethereal looking aesthetic for the most part, though with The Fighting Temeraire and other works he’s every bit as sharp and distinct as in the works with which he developed his great reputation. Yet he seemed to be searching for a higher sense of figuration, reduced to its shining essence in light and color.

It’s for this reason that he was hailed in the 1960s as a proto-modernist. Of course, it’s the fate of those in every modern era to imagine that their scene represents the culmination.

The Fighting Temeraire was voted Britain’s favorite painting in a recent BBC poll. The picture, which depicts a great sailing ship of the line from the Napoleonic Wars, one of the keys to Britain’s world historical victory at Trafalgar, being towed by a steamship to be broken up decades after winning its fame, was a natural for an appearance in Skyfall, the 50th anniversary Bond film. Here Bond contemplates the painting in London’s National Gallery and meets his new quartermaster.

The curators behind Painting Set Free aim to debunk this sense of Turner as the first abstract painter. In their intriguing catalogue, they present some potential physiological reasons for the change in Turner’s art. His eyes may have been damaged by his lifelong habit of gazing at the sun. He was ill, perhaps diabetic, though he lived to the age of 76.

But in the end, they settle, as it were, on the theory that Turner was simply further following his own genius and presenting his depictions of the world around him in more pared down and fundamental ways, at least by his lights. And light was always a cornerstone motif for this richly rewarding artist.

The Tate Britain in London is Britain’s national gallery of British art from 1500 to the present. As such it is the greatest repository of Turner’s art, which naturally can be found in private collections and museums around the world. The Tate was the recipient of Turner’s posthumous bequest to the nation.

In addition to his increasingly inspired use of light and color, Turner in his late phase continued his characteristic mastery of perspective and use of pictorial space.

In this exhibition, I’m especially struck by a number of pieces. 1845’s Norham Castle, Sunrise is frequently cited as evidence of Turner’s prefiguration of Impressionism and abstraction. It’s a paring down of figuration to the sublime. I don’t think Turner thought he was anticipating the future, he simply painted what he wanted to paint.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, his celebrated depiction of the mountain and nearby lake, looks almost Japanese in its aspect.

Ehrenbreitstein depicts an immense ancient German fortress at the confluence of two rivers, almost a continental Gibraltar.

Heidelberg: Sunset is a gorgeous depiction of the famed German university town on a tributary of the Rhine.

The Dogano from the Steps of the Europa is an exquisite Venetian scene, a shimmering vision from the mouth of the Grand Canal.

Ancient Rome and Modern Rome make a lovely matched set, fuel for political imagination.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, which happened not long before Turner painted it in the mid-1830s, is is an avalanche of color and historicity viewed from across the Thames.

And Approach to Venice is simply a shimmering vision beneath a sky alight with riotous color, poised between night and day, as vessels cross the Lagoon approaching the distant city.

With such wonderful Turners at last en masse in California, I’m struck by what the artist might have made of the the sights to be found here.

Less populated parts of Northern California might seem reminiscent of Britain, much chronicled in the Turner oeuvre. But one can only imagine how Turner might be inspired by the Southern California coast, San Francisco, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, not to mention the desert.

Sadly, it’s never to be. But what Turner left behind will suffice.

It’s a visionary legacy of light, color, wonder, and contemplation. An eternal avenue of timelessness in an increasingly ephemeral world.

The exhibition moves next to Canada, where it will open in Ontario on October 31st.

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