Art

The transcendent touch of Turner

Hubert de Santana November 24 1980
Art

The transcendent touch of Turner

Hubert de Santana November 24 1980

The transcendent touch of Turner

Art

Hubert de Santana

The exhibition of Joseph Mallord William Turner's watercolors, drawings and prints that opened this month at the Art Gallery of Ontario is modest by Turnerian standards: 123 works executed between 1793 and 1845—68 watercolors, 10 drawings and 45 prints by or after Turner. It’s a small selection of the work of a prolific artist whose output rivalled Picasso’s (when he died in 1851 he left 500 oils and 20,000 watercolors and drawings); but this show is not a scattering of crumbs from the master’s banquet table. Several works—the majority are on loan from the Turner Bequest in the British Museum, and the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art—have never been on public view before. Collectively they offer proof, if any was needed, of Turner’s stature as the greatest painterEngland ever produced.

Hopefully, the excellence of the work on display will be appreciated despite the heavy-handed and misleading hype from the AGO, which may have raised public expectations to an unreasonable level. The very title of the exhibition, Turner and the Sublime, is unnecessarily grandiose, and implies that there is more in the show than is actually there. It seems self-defeating to focus on the sublime aspects of Turner’s paintings in a show that contains none of his major oils, those refulgent canvases in which his lifelong quest for sublimity reached its most triumphant expression. Andrew Wilton, organizer of the show, defends the title: “I feel that the sublime is a good peg on which to hang this show, because it immediately puts Turner into the perspective of 18th-century esthetic theory. I don’t think you can understand him without having that sort of context.”

Wilton defines the Sublime in general terms as “anything that significantly raises the mind to a more exalted state than its usual one. The glory of God, the splendor of nature, the grandeur of man’s achievements—all of these at various times have been called sublime.” This is a vague, abstract notion, and though Wilton substantiates his hugely erudite essay written for the show’s handsome catalogue by quoting authorities from the ancient Greek Longinus to the 18th-century parliamentarian Edmund Burke, we are left with no clear definition of the Sublime as it was understood by writers and artists in Turner’s day. As Turner once remarked: “Art’s a rum business!”

One emerges with relief from the thickets of Wilton’s prose to confront the visual language of the pictures, which is lucid, eloquent and profound. The show is saved by Turner’s transcendent ability; anything by his hand is worth seeing. One of the virtues of this exhibition is that its nine sections allow one to gauge the evolution of Turner’s thought and style. His mind was insatiably curious, and the pictures in the show reflect the dizzying range of his interests: the movement of tides and currents; the geometry of architecture; the structure of light. His technique was just as various: watercolor washes broad and transparent, or opaque and turbulent, with his hacking and scratching at the paper in a creative frenzy, scraping out highlights with a knife, a brush handle or his own “eagle claw of a thumbnail.” This last instrument was used for scratching out the feathery spray in The Upper Fall of the Reichenbach: Rainbow (1810).

Turner was a consummate master of watercolor and his technique was revolutionary—he extended the limits of a difficult and unforgiving medium, and his achievement has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. Born on Maiden Lane, behind Covent Garden, in 1775, he had hardly any formal education. His father was a barber and wigmaker who later did studio chores for his son. Billy Turner’s precocity as an artist won him admission to the Royal Academy Schools at 14; at 27 he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy, and went on to become professor of perspective. Turner, the giant of European romanticism, was a gnarled gnome of a man, with plain features and keen grey eyes. His personality remains elusive; he was taciturn, reclusive and stingy, living frugally long after the sale of his pictures had made him wealthy. His mother was incurably insane, and this may have inhibited him from marrying. Nevertheless, he did have at least two liaisons with women; one, with Sarah Danby, produced two daughters. But Turner reserved his passion for his art. His lack of interest in people could explain the relish with which he depicted them: drowned at sea or huddled in thunderstorms. In many of his landscapes and cityscapes, the pictures teem with human figures, but they are of no more significance than insects in a garden.

In his search for subjects, however, Turner’s energy was indefatigable. He crisscrossed England, Wales, Scotland and continental Europe, making hundreds of drawings which he later worked into finished paintings, relying on his freakish visual memory for details. He was 44 when he visited Italy for the first time and experienced the liberating effects of Italian light, which burned away the northern mists from his painter’s eye. His pictures became pearly and opalescent, many of them suffused with the golden light that became his hallmark. In turn, while they sold for high prices, the works were derided by the critics, who thought him mad, or suffering from some rare disease of the mind and eye. His landscapes had progressed from imitations of French masters such as Claude Lorrain to luminous prophecies of impressionism and abstract expressionism. When told that an American buyer had complained that a certain painting was “indistinct,” Turner retorted, “Indistinctness is my forte.”

These later landscapes represent Turner at his best, when he had abandoned the self-conscious striving after grand effects by orchestrating rainbows and lightning bolts. Eruption of Vesuvius (1817) shows Turner at his worst, his beautiful poetic visual language degenerated into bombast. Some of the etchings and mezzotints in the show, such as The Tenth Plague of Egypt (1816), are like sets from a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic. But the later series of lakes, cities and seascapes confirms that indistinctness was, indeed, his forte. Heidelberg, Looking West With a Low Sun (1844) has the economy and grace of a landscape by a Chinese master. Buildings and people are sketched in delicately with the point of a brush, against a limpid yellow and pink sky. Similarly, his view of Lausanne, Sunset (1841) shows the red prongs of a spire and cathedral bell tower stabbing into an orange sky, while the people emerge from a red-gold mist as if from soft clay on which God has breathed. There is an exquisite painting of Lake Lucerne: The Bay of Uri From Above Brunnen (1842) in which mountains and water dissolve into each other in a shimmering vortex of blue light. The iridescence of sky, mountains and water is achieved with the subtlest washes and undertones, and the mood is one of timeless serenity. It is easy to understand why Turner’s arch-rival John Constable once asked a friend: “Did you ever see a picture by Turner, and not wish to possess it?