Saturday, July 30, 2016
MWA XL: Turner's Burning
Few would disagree that one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). An artist who specialized in landscapes that ranged from the classical to the sublime, he so impressed his contemporaries with his work as a young man that he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and a full member in 1802. He excelled both in oil paintings and watercolors, and could paint in the spirit of the Old Masters while also introducing something new for his own modern world. Later in life Turner was criticized for his eccentricities in subjects and painting techniques, and the recent biopic Mr. Turner reportedly makes him a bit of a bumbling idiot rather than an eccentric painter (I have not seen the movie yet). During the last twenty years of his life he failed to impress most viewers, and he was often derided for his paintings because of their seemingly slipshod compositions and abstractions of color. His one defender late in life was the conservative art critic John Ruskin, who saw in Turner (perhaps surprisingly) the epitome of the principle of "truth to nature." Today, Turner is recognized as a master, and retroactively appreciated as a key figure who influenced many of the modernist tendencies in painting from the Impressionists through Abstract Expressionism.
I've selected as this Monthly Work of Art Turner's painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, which he painted from 1834-35 and now is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. AA and I saw the painting once again on a visit there a few weeks ago, and it still continues to impress me every time. On the night of October 16, 1834, a tremendous conflagration burned down the Houses of Parliament in London. (The neo-Gothic building and Big Ben were the replacement buildings that stand today.) Hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators flocked to the shores of the Thames to watch the massive fire. Turner was among them, and he recorded on the spot a series of watercolor sketches that he later used to create two different oil paintings in his studio. This is one of them; the other is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. All of these works were cleverly brought together in 2007 when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC hosted the exhibition J.M.W. Turner. I remember to this day how much I loved this one particular room that demonstrated Turner's understanding of energy and light and color in his watercolors and the oil paintings recording this cataclysmic event.
Christopher Riopelle writes in the PMA's handbook about this painting that Turner watched the blaze from the south bank of the Thames: "Here he exaggerates the scale of Westminster Bridge, which rises like a massive iceberg at right and then on the opposite bank seems to plunge down and dissolve in the blaze. At the dazzling heart of the flames is Saint Stephen's Hall, the House of Commons, while beyond the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared, are eerily illuminated. Turner was drawn to depictions of nature in cataclysmic eruption, and here in the middle of London he confronted a scene of terrifying force and drama that he recorded in several watercolor sketches and two paintings."
Turner's vibrant palette of color and the swirls of energy emanating from the fire make this a magnificent painting. Even the smoke takes on a life of its own as it rushes like a wave into the night sky. One can understand why people today often see Turner as a proto-abstract painter. I am reading at present Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, and a passage recently caught my eye (no pun intended) that made me think of this painting again from my visit to Philadelphia a few weeks ago. Crary's interest in this book is demonstrating how advances in physiology and socio-philosophical theory during the first half of the nineteenth century impacted the world of painting and the development of photography thereafter. Rather than reinforce the paradigmatic argument that modernist painters, from the Impressionists on, were so radical in how they saw the world as artists, he contends that their sense of the world was a natural development because of changes in the understanding of how people actually saw and perceived the world around them through scientific discoveries and hypotheses made earlier in the century. This led some to want to understand the essence of the "innocent" eye, what one sees before the brain interprets the imagery. Crary writes: "Ruskin was equally able to employ [this theory] in suggesting the possibility of a purified subjective vision, of an immediate and unfiltered access to the evidence of this privileged sense. But if the vision of Ruskin, Cezanne, Monet, and others has anything in common, it would be misleading to call it 'innocence.' Rather it is a question of a vision achieved at great cost that claimed for the eye a vantage point uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing, a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its contents into a reified 'real' world." (pp.95-96)
What strikes me is that if we believe Crary's argument (and I confess I am doing a hack job summarizing it; read the book), then why do we have to leave it to the Impressionists in the 1870s to receive the credit for a new interpretation of this understanding of vision? Surely other artists experimented with these discoveries earlier? Indeed, Turner paints what his eye sees, not necessarily a photorealistic representation of what the viewer expects to see. He painted swirls of color as the eye sees them, but before the brain's interpretation of what they are. While this seems most apparent in the color and brushstroke of the background and upper left quadrant, other components of visual acuity are evident here too: the bridge, with its warped foreshortening and perspective. As the eye focuses on the rising flames of orange, yellow, and red, peripheral vision skews the natural alignment of the bridge. Similarly, the people in the foreground along the banks lack any physical features; they are shrouded in smoke and the night sky, and are only visible again in Turner's periphery. This painterly demonstration of what Turner "saw" relates well, then, to Ruskin, who praised Turner for his "truth to nature" approach in his art. It is not so much that his paintings capture a verisimilitude of the landscape; rather, his paintings convey an unadulterated understanding of what his eye saw. Such is the genius of Turner.
POSTSCRIPT 8/6/16: When I wrote this blog post, I was only just more than half-way through Crary's Techniques of the Observer. I should have glanced ahead. In his last chapter, Crary discusses Turner as exactly the prime example of artist who utilized new principles of vision in his art. He discusses briefly two of Turner's paintings from the 1840s that emphasize the vortex of light as their subjects. These paintings and Turner's late color/light-filled experiments are among those works most find inspiring today, largely because of their foreshadowing of abstraction yet to come. But for Crary it was the natural development of the understanding of a subjective sense of vision that made this possible. He writes: "Seemingly out of nowhere, [Turner's] painting of the late 1830s and 1840s signals the irrevocable loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experience. ... Turner's direct confrontation with the sun ... dissolves the very possibility of representation that the camera obscura was meant to ensure. His solar preoccupations were 'visionary' in that he made central in his work the retinal processes of vision." (138-39) Crary thus utilizes Turner as the grande finale to his thesis. Fortunately, this coincides with my observation above: that one need not wait for the 1870s and the Impressionists to assume that scientific understandings in the subjectivity of vision manifested themselves in art. They were happening simultaneously.