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On Turner- A Maelstrom Maker – Content, Color and Context

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

An essay inspired by the exhibit of Turner's work at the MFA in Boston- Brian Keeler

The work of the British Painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) has long held a special place of reverence to many of us. Even from those who otherwise seem rather conservative in their taste, favoring highly polished realism as their style of choice, the exuberance and borderline abstraction of Turner's paintings still holds sway.

Juxtaposed Juggernauts- This work of light and atmospherics is coupled with the theme of human impermanence- a burial at sea of Turner's sometime rival painter, David Wilkie. It also brings into relevance the recurrence of pestilence and pandemic. Wilkie died of Typhoid and the governor of Gibraltor refused to allow anyone on shore. This episode recalls our recent dealings with cruise ships full of COVID victims.

The current show of Turner’s work at te Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a marvel in many ways. We just finished a whirlwind tour of three New England museums, with this exhibit being the grand finale. Those other museums are not to be scoffed at either, as they are incredible repositories of some of the most spectacular works of art. Those being the Wadsworth Athenaeum, The New Britain Museum of American Art and the Florence Griswold Museum.

My connection with Turner began many years ago in Italy. He traveled in Italy and some of his most magnificent canvases depict Venice gleaming in light with architectural facades rendered with a combination of heavy impasto along with precisely articulated details. My serendipitous crossing of shared paths occurred in Umbria at two locations. The first was a location just outside of the walls of Orvieto. I had painted a view from the west looking back at the high walled citadel and a sunset looking the other way with students on another occasion. After I was finished, while walking around in the central piazza across from the Duomo I was browsing in a bookstore and came across a sketch of Orvieto by Turner in a book. It appeared to be very close to the same vantage point that I had just painted. Turner being there in the early 1820’s had found the same appeal that I had in Orvieto. The view has not changed much since that time. And more recently, I discovered a watercolor that Turner had done about the same time which depicted the iconic arched bridge in Spoleto. Turner's view was from above the bridge looking west at Sunset. Mine was done with students from down below at mid-day. Oh yes, and I've painted in Venice several times as did Turner and many others. It is always a thrill to be in the same spots as famous painters from previous eras.

Painting in Spoleto with student, Lisa Moon- portraying the same bridge and cityscape that Turner painted in watercolor in the early 1800's.

The author painting outside of Orvieto in Umbria, from a location that Turner also worked from in the 1820's. The walled hilltop town is shown in the background.

One of the views of Venice that Turner painted- with nary a steamboat in sight- unlike his works of British maritime views.

The show in Boston is conceived to show the one section of the work as it might have looked (in one room) as it would have hung at the Royal Academy in his day, which is to say salon style- on walls of deep hues, also perhaps similar to those used in the early 19th century. On the bottom of the wall is a group of watercolor studies and the huge canvases are shown above.

The sketches and watercolors are well worth noting for a couple of reasons. They show us the process of development of course. But more importantly, they show the exactitude and superb draftsmanship of Turner. I believe when most of us think of Turner, the large coloristic canvases come to mind. These well considered sketches and renderings show the command of perspective, composition and attention to detail that Turner posessed. With that foundation, his later mature works are giving more legitimacy and foundations.

The ironic coupling is certainly worth mentioning in many of these large canvases. They are ironic in the sense that the exuberant expressive quality of color and abstraction almost seems to run at cross currents to the angst and seriousness of the content. A primary example of this juxtaposition of the theme and method could be in the large canvas with the long descriptive title, “Slave Shiip (Slavers throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dyeing, Typhoon Coming on.) Many of us may easily have missed the central content of the political statement as the painting's bravura color and brushwork overwhelm and captivate us easily. In fact, viewers of Turner's time found the color more jarring than the overt moral aspect of the visual narration. Jason Farago, in his review in this past Sunday’s NY Times referred to this work as “his awesome indictment of the Atlantic slave trade, and the crux of the exhibition.” Indeed, it is a powerful statement of the cruelty and inhumane expedience combined with a meteorological force of nature eclipsing and dwarfing human endeavors. As a footnote to history, it was the loss of 131 Africans that was later filed as a business loss to which an insurance claim was applied for. Double indemnity maybe or an early version of fraud?

Turner's painterly depiction of tragic event- slavers throwing over their humag cargo.

This dwarfing of man’s efforts in relation to nature brings to mind his large canvas of Hannibal with his army crossing the Alps with Elephants. The forces of nature are the real actors with the war effort barely observable. This work was not in the show.

A canvas that was in the show and one of many that illustrates the above idea of nature dwarfing human endeavors and gives expression to the title of this essay- a maelstrom, is a painting called “Snowstorm.” This is truly a vortex of light, a powerful whirlpool of graphic forces and painterly principles. All this conveyed with brushy soft-edged vagueness that still imparts the scene Turner observed. The descriptive label next to the work calls it a contest of natural and mechanical forces.

The overtones and relevance of these themes is worth noting. It is a concern for curators and reviewers not to retrofit today’s sensibilities and concerns back into previous eras. But the pertinence of human trafficking is still relevant today sadly. And then there is the proto-environmental aspect. We know that Thomas Cole was in fact an early advocate of protecting the environment. But with Turner it is less than overt. His depictions of sailboats in the waters of Venice can be contrasted to the belching steamers in the thick of the industrial revolution in Britain. Can we make a case that Turner was perhaps noting the deleterious effects of the toxic atmosphere in London compared to the airy pristine light of Venice? Venice at this time was regarded as a relic of its former grandeur and the lack of steamships is evidence of not being up to date.

The show at the MFA was bolstered for me as I have seen the wonderful film, “Mr. Turner” several times. Turner is portrayed by Timothy Spall and it must be one of his best performances for he captures Turner in later life superbly. Spall portrays the gnarly character of Turner full of qualities worth portraying. Turner is portrayed as reticent and often times inarticulate, just grunting and grimacing- and in a famous scene Spall is spitting into the wet paint and brushing vigorously with brush and fingers. This scene takes place in the exhibit room of the Royal Academy with Constable and other painters are all applying finishing touches and varnishes to their work. In Italian this is referred to as "oggi di vernice" or day of varnishing. Still it is an odd scene to see all the artists making final changes in the gallery. The film brings to light so much of the art history we’ve read about- like his relation with Ruskin, the art critic and collector of his work. The encroaching new medium of photographer is also given a vignette too.

Weather and light as the subject of art. A boat and a storm similar to this was the maelstrom which Turner literally lashed himself into. He was lashed into a crowsnest of ship duiring a violent storm- to fully appreciate the forces of nature.

The sea and atmosphere in the exhibit and in the movie are both given prominence. Turner famously had himself tied to the mast of a ship, perhaps in the crow’s nest during a violent winter storm for several hours. This was to experience first hand the forces of nature in all the power such a vantage could offer. We often hear of artists today complaining about the weather, or other challenges after driving to the motif in their cars. Well, this example from the 19th century shows an artist with fire in his belly and a devotion not to be dismissed nonchalantly.

Then there is the portraiture, well one portrait, that being a self-portrait as a youth. It is well done, a frontal view with light from above but curiously played down and rendered as if it came from a skylight. He is shown with his straight blond hair over his forehead and as rather handsome fellow. This contrasted with the rather gristly elderly man portrayed by Spall. This adds to the completeness of exhibit.

The figure painting is not given short shrift either in Turner’s works, even though the sea and weather are the main actors. The ships and small boats always have the human element. In one canvas a fellow is casually toking on a pipe while coming over a wave in a small boat with several other men. Some paintings, like the interior or a blacksmith’s shop are genre scenes with people engaged in everyday life not unlike the Dutch Master’s works of similar slice-of-life depictions.

Genre scenes like this blacksmith shop offer the viewers to the MFA another side of Turner- not just meteoroligical expressions.

The process, the primacy of color, sometimes applied thickly with a palette knife and the raw beauty of abstraction with often just a flicker of representation is definitely part of the magic and appeal. For these very qualities he was severely criticized and lampooned in his own time by critics and other artists. There is also a scene in the movie where Turner is alone in the balcony of a London theatre watching a group of thespians having a great old time deriding his canvases. Turner seems to find the play amusing.

The big events of his day are portrayed too like the ambitious maritime battle between the French and British where Lord Nelson is felled by a sniper just at the moment of the British victory. High drama and political relevance are the order of the day. Then at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the scenes of everyday life, very plebian if not the underbelly of industrial life. When burning blubber of whales and industrial scenes becomes the motif for high art- we know that the artist has the ability to observe and record the full range of human experience. These gritty scenes are sometimes portrayed as nocturnes with beautifully shimmering moonlight glinting on the Thames.

The title of the show, “Turner’s Modern World” is very apropos, as the paintings were at once representative of Turner’s Time, presaging the modernity of the impressionists and while even anticipating the nonobjective works of Pollock.

Admiring Turners view of conflagaration- The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834."

Is Turner a "painter's painter?" Most definitely! His bravura delivery of pigment, light expressed in spades, compositions that are both spontaneous and well-considered and not shying away from thorny issues and topical subjects of a timeless nature will appeal to all, and especially the artist in us all.

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