Sunday, September 7, 2008

Schama on Turner

Friends from my Ph.D. program joined me this afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to hear Simon Schama give a lecture about the incredible work of British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), in conjunction with the special exhibition of his work currently on display (it closes in two weeks). Turner is one of those artists whose work almost everyone loves. Some people find his traditional seascapes, landscapes, and ship pictures to be his best work. Others appreciate his modernist use of color and brushstroke to convey emotion, almost as if he were a proto-Impressionist (Monet and Pissarro were huge fans). I love Turner because of his manipulation of lighting and the energy that pulsates from his works. A picture such as this one, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), captures the viewer's attention with an ominous storm approaching. Looking closely, you realize that the storm is swallowing the army of minuscule people in the mountains. The contrast of light and dark, and the vortex of energy, all play into the British Romantic love of the Sublime, the awesomeness of nature. This scene depicts an event in ancient history, when Hannibal crossed the Alps on an elephant, but failed in his attempt to invade the Italian peninsula. Despite the historic reference, the British public at the time identified this picture with Napoleon, with whom they were at war, and saw it as prophesying his inevitable downfall, which in fact came true soon afterwards.

To look at a Turner is exciting enough, but to hear Schama talk about him was like bringing Turner's paintings to life. It was nothing less than sheer brilliance. Schama teaches at Columbia University, but his reputation as an art historian is internationally renown. He knows so much about so many aspects of modern art and history that it rolls off his tongue like an encyclopedia. But he's never boring (he was supposed to speak for 45 minutes, went on for another 30 minutes, and I could have listened easily for an additional 30 minutes). He engaged the audience with his usual "Britty" attitude (my neologism, meaning British wit), simultaneously entertaining and educating that I wanted to keep hearing more. Even more importantly, he spoke to us as intelligent human beings, pointing out elements using language that made me want to know more. For instance, in one Turner picture of the ruins of a church, he described the lighting as "a poetic conduit between past and present." The focus of his talk was on the British element in Turner's work, demonstrating how even though his work transcends national sensibility, there is an innate quality to Turner's work that is essentially British. His work reveals what Schama called "visionary patriotism."

If you want to hear what Schama has to say about other artists, then you must check out his Power of Art series, now available on DVD (the episodes on Rembrandt, Turner, and van Gogh are my favorites). If you want to see more works by Turner and can't get to London, go to the Tate Britain's online Turner Collection to see images of the collection of his works that he bequeathed to the British people in his will.

No comments: