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The exhibition J. M. W. Turner, recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the first large-scale exhibition of the artist’s work presented in the United States since the 1960s, and viewers paid the price, with a show that was too big and broad for most appetites. On my visits, the exhibition seemed to be challenging the stamina of all but the most devoted tourists and art historians.
The problem was not only one of stamina. Seen in such quantity, Turner’s uniqueness is eclipsed. As is well known, Turner was famous for his performances during “varnishing days,” when he would often finish or fully rework his submissions with great bravura as they hung on the walls of the Royal Academy (RA) or British Institution (BI) exhibitions. He sometimes came close to repainting an entire canvas, working not only with an eye to the light in the room and the canvas’s placement, but also to the competition, which he aimed to outshine. This fact may help to explain why his work loses something when presented en masse: the effect is like that of so many fireworks going off simultaneously. Furthermore, the variety and range of his work, of his interests, is subsumed by the luminosity that all of his works share. (The artist would probably disagree: Turner left a huge portion of his work—hundreds of paintings and over one thousand drawings—to the British state, convinced that his work could best be understood when seen across a broad spectrum of examples.)
The catalogue serves as an important companion, because unlike the exhibition, it is constructed so as to allow each of the individual paintings its due. Ian Warrell’s introductory essay, “J. M. W. Turner and the Pursuit of Fame,” is a mere nine pages, and the introductions that begin each later chronological section of the catalogue are only one to two pages, leaving the majority of the catalogue to meaty, well-illustrated entries on each of the exhibited works. This has the merit of allowing the reader to engage more closely with individual paintings, but the negative is that some of the most interesting observations about Turner made in the text are hidden away in specific entries, such as the comparison made in the entry on Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—Homer’s Odyssey (exh. RA 1829) between that work and Turner’s earlier painting Regulus (exh. in Rome 1828 and reworked and exh. BI 1837) where it is pointed out that both paintings explore the relationship between light and vision, arguing that “the connected themes are typical of the way in which Turner sought to extend the meanings from one painting to another, imbuing them with a complex, allusive quality” (162). The essay “Turner in America” by Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery is much longer and wide-ranging, surveying Turner’s impact on American artists and thinkers from Washington Allston and Thomas Cole, two of Turner’s American contemporaries, to Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko.
The exhibition and catalogue make some predictable claims about Turner while also offering American audiences a more historically grounded—one might say financially grounded—perspective on the artist. The introductory wall text at the entrance to the exhibition informed viewers that Turner’s work progresses toward “increasingly abstract” compositions, with the late work in particular revealing an “inherent abstraction.” (The greatly magnified detail of a late unfinished work that served as the show’s emblem and that was presented blown up on the vestibule wall was obviously meant to prove this idea of Turner as abstract painter.) This is a predictable claim, one that reiterates the entrenched approach to Turner first articulated in the 1966 exhibition Turner: Imagination and Reality, organized by Lawrence Gowing at the Museum of Modern Art. For Gowing, the abstraction in Turner’s later works and in his watercolor studies was to be understood not merely as a proto-modernist turn away from perceived reality, but as emerging directly out of Turner’s attempts to represent his own perceptions of reality. The current exhibition did not delve into the complexities of the relationship between abstraction and perception in Turner’s work, but simply mentioned the abstraction “inherent” in his work, reinforcing the view of Turner as a proto-modernist.
On the other hand, the exhibition also presented Turner as an artist firmly in and of his own time period, who, from the earliest stages of his career, understood himself in relation to a growing public audience and a market that was expanding even faster, and who treated his profession as a trade, often to the dismay of his peers and patrons. This Turner is less of a visionary than an entrepreneur, showman, and self-promoter; he is strategic in his choices of subject matter, deeply intent on winning critical attention and public support, and responsive to his diverse audiences. In catalogue, wall text, and labels for individual pictures, this Turner—the businessman and self-promoter—was repeatedly asserted.
One small but effective way that this side of Turner is represented in the exhibit was through the wall labels, which in almost all cases dated paintings not by when they were produced but by when they were exhibited. This foregrounded the fact that Turner’s career was made in the exhibition halls, that his was an art “for show.” The catalogue also spends a good deal of time describing the critical reception of Turner’s work and framing him as an artist firmly in and of the marketplace and the public sphere, including detailed descriptions of the critical responses to his work throughout his career.
The first room of the exhibition contained early works from 1794–1802, and showed the extent to which the young Turner was committed to the artistic conventions of the day. The painting Dolbadern Castle (exh. RA 1800) reveals Turner to have already mastered the Romantic idiom. In this image, the ruins of this well-known Welsh site are backlit by a clearing sky, with dark, indistinct areas dominating the middle and foreground. With this painting Turner not only demonstrated that he was well versed in the visual imagery of the sublime, but he also began his practice of including lines of verse in the Royal Academy exhibition catalogue to accompany the painting. The current exhibition’s organizers interpreted this practice as one of several ways that Turner attempted to elevate the genre of landscape to the level of historical painting; unfortunately, there was no broader exploration of Turner’s sustained and deep involvement with literature in the exhibition, a topic that is highlighted elsewhere (see Jonathan Crary, “Memo from Turner,” Artforum International 46, no. 10 [Summer 2007]: 199–200).
In the second room, the sublime continued to be the dominant organizing principle, and Snowstorm—Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (exh. RA 1812) steals the show, exemplifying Turner’s fusion of historical and natural sublime. Here again, Turner’s own verse is reproduced in the catalogue, this time an excerpt from his poem “The Fallacies of Hope.” It is as if the painting itself were not nearly enough, as if for Turner the scale and dimensions of the experience must be multiplied several times in order to achieve the sublime. It is disappointing, however, that organizers made no effort to come to grips with why this particular work is such a benchmark in Turner’s career and within art history itself.
The following two rooms contained works from 1793–1815, the period of the Napoleonic Wars and the years immediately afterwards when frequent inability to travel (as well as a keen sense of the market) encouraged Turner to explore the English countryside and its waterways. This is also the period when Turner aggressively stakes out a role for himself in the ever-growing print market, accepting numerous commissions to illustrate printed volumes, focusing largely on the depiction of England’s topography and rural populations. His greatest effort was for Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (published between 1814 and 1826), for which he produced thirty-nine watercolors; but he also created groups of illustrations for many other proposed publications, including such titles as History of Richmondshire (published 1819–1823), Walter Scott’s The Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland (published 1819–after 1824), and The Ports of England (published posthumously, in 1856) These commissions afforded Turner profitable opportunities to work in watercolor, a medium in which he was consistently praised and celebrated, and to potentially reach wider audiences, although several of the most ambitious of these topographical collections were never completed as planned. In the current exhibition, a number of the final prints were hung alongside the watercolors from which they are derived, allowing audiences to understand the process of translation better. However, there was little effort to contextualize Turner in relation to a burgeoning publishing industry, more than to suggest that he was ambitious, market-conscious, and prolific. His work as an illustrator should certainly also be understood as an indication of the extent to which Turner gravitated toward any opportunity to create images rich in their connections to other worlds, be they perceptual, literary, historical.
It is Turner the visionary and modernist who was most celebrated in the second half of the exhibit, beginning in the next gallery, which focused on his famous watercolors depicting the burning of the houses of Parliament. The watercolors are astonishing in their vibrancy; and the room, darkened and hung more sparsely, allowed visitors a bit of breathing room after the crowded galleries that preceded them. Much is made about whether or not the watercolors were painted on the spot (currently thought to be unlikely) or back in the studio, after the event, a question that has been important to those who want to trace a “plein air” sensibility—if not the technique—back to Turner. Wall text and catalogue both argued that Turner generalized the subject in these watercolors, that he was more interested in what Sarah Taft, the author of the short introduction to this section of the catalogue, calls “the sublime qualities of colour, light, and darkness” (175) than with documenting the facts of the great fire.
This gallery also marked the turning point when the exhibition’s narrative of Turner the entrepreneur was replaced with that of a Turner whose later work is described by Warrell as someone whose “cryptic, idiosyncratic aims predictably translated into relatively modest picture sales” (203). Turner’s commitment to perception and experience, to the exploration of physical forces and energy, was evident in the final section of the exhibit, and in particular in a seascape with the telling title Snow Storm—Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich (exh. RA 1842). This painting uses one of Turner’s most powerful compositional structures—employed in works such as Regulus, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (exh. RA 1832), and even as far back as Hannibal—in which an oculus-like center of clarity is surrounded by powerful, contrasting swirls of light and darkness. At its most effective, this structure gives the sense that the surface of the canvas is the surface of an eye—a sensible, sensing membrane. In Snow Storm, Turner has abandoned Hannibal and history, and substituted the authority of the eyewitness for the authority of history; but this later work is no less concerned with the power of nature and of human effort than that earlier painting.
The last rooms contained examples of both finished and unfinished work from the 1840s; but the final word is given to Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845), an uncompleted oil sketch that, when first shown in 1906, caused patriotic critics to claim Turner to have been a precursor to Impressionism. With this painting and several other unfinished oil sketches as the final note (and, tellingly, adorning much of the merchandise for sale in the shop that the visitor must exit through), Turner’s “inherent abstraction” was given the final honors, and his complex, literary Romanticism left underexamined. For no matter how luminous these sketches are, and how appealing to a contemporary eye, more exciting by far are the allusive, heavily worked, even overwrought paintings located in the penultimate room, in particular, the series of square canvases from 1843–46 that depict the Deluge and its aftermath, including the well-known Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—the Morning after the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (exh. RA 1843) and The Angel Standing in the Sun (exh. RA 1846). These works lead toward a very different Turner, who rather than shed his roots in Romanticism and his links to literary sources by moving toward abstraction, fuses these with a heightened interest in the physics of light and in forces, human and superhuman, that have the power to reshape the world. Here is Turner living and working in an era of transformation and capturing the dynamism, and the possibility, of modernity. To do so, he turns not to abstraction, but toward a fusion of the concrete with the spiritual, the elemental and the sublime.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Ramapo College of New Jersey