WILLIAM TURNER sketched incessantly. He drew using pen and ink and graphite and with quick water-colour brushstrokes he painted everything he could see. He claimed to have been strapped to the mast of a boat in order to witness better (and sketch) waves in a storm. He showed prospective buyers small impressionistic ideas of larger, more formal oils to woo them and their money. And when he died, he left behind some three hundred paintings and nineteen thousand sketches and water-colours. The man was never more than an arm’s length from a sketch-pad and paint.
He not only experienced the world through the lens of his art, his desire to record and by so doing, communicate everything he experienced must have been near obsessive. His art was his conversation. And what he talked about, how he taught himself to see was less about the literal visual reality, but about the mood, sensation and feel of what he was experiencing.
The exhibition at the Tate (“Late Turner. Painting Set Free”) features his works mainly between 1835-1851 or, to put this in context, between thirty to fifty years before van Gogh, Monet, Matisse or Cezanne. The world had not as yet accustomed itself to the well-lit exuberance of the Impressionists; and the Royal Academy, where he exhibited was still in the thrall of the fading gleam of the Romantics. The Romantic sense of the Sublime, the picturesqueness of artful decay, scenes of wild and stormy nature, coupled with a mandatory reference catalog of classical subjects, still held strong sway.
Turner is a sort of bridge. His art certainly romanticized nature – the face of God – and, as expected, he rifled through the storage cupboard of classical stories for suitably popular (and sell-able) narratives. But for all that, they still couldn’t understand him. His wild originality and palpably passionate canvases lacked – for his contemporaries – clear reference points. Then, the accepted canon emphasized strong, well-articulated, emotionally clear figures in an easily recognizable landscape with a symbolism that was self-evident to the well-read. But Turner’s classical subjects, like his landscapes were mere vaporous smears of paint. His figures were of secondary importance to the swirling, restless colours on his canvases; colours that cascaded off each other like waves and burst into beams of blinding light. No wonder he said, “God is light”. For him, each painting was a form of worship. What he was offering were not descriptions of landscape, but rather a perspective way beyond any Romantic idea of the sublime. He was offering an immersion into light, into heaven, into the future of the light-drenched Impressionists and the abstracts of Cezanne
But in these almost abstract canvases, the paint turning into light that burst forth from them were regarded as outlandish. His works were mocked. And, I suspect, his works probably made people very uneasy. In this archetypal Romantic image from Caspar Friedrich, what is important is the dominance of man. In the face of implacable nature, man still stands above it all like a god surveying his dominion.
In Turner’s later paintings, man is no longer a god, merely just another dab of paint: small, insignificant and probably irrelevant. It took the respected John Ruskin to help his readers understand what Turner was about and (semi) rescue his meager reputation. For a while anyway. The exhibition at the Tate Britain gives us a Turner that even Ruskin feared had gone off the deep end.
Balzac, who never met him and we don’t think, was even aware of him, would have understood his art. In his book, “The Unknown Masterpiece”, its hero says: “The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it. The radiation of light is what gives the appearance of a particular body; so I have not drawn outlines; I have spread over the contours a cloud of warm and delicate tints in such a way that you cannot put your finger on the spot where the contours merge with the background. Nearby it all looks wooly and imprecise, but from two paces away everything grows clear and one feels that the air surrounds the whole”
A hundred and fifty years later, the artist Cornelia Parker offers a similar evaluation: “Turner was a master of capturing the intangible in paint, increasingly pushing his subjects to the point of vaporisation, pulling them back from the brink only when they threatened to disappear. How he must have loved the moody London fogs, with their uncertain atmospheres blurring the borders between solid and void. Or the Venetian mists, with their water particles suffused with incandescent light. Or the physicality of a snowstorm, where liquid becomes unyielding, sky becomes sea and land becomes sky. He reveled in those situations, where recognisable detail was only achieved by a fleeting intensity of focus, as if it were an apparition.”
The paintings and sketches on display – and there are a lot of them – vibrate with passion and unequivocal self-confidence. What they were doing was shifting art away from the paradigm of overt narrative content as emotional signifier to one where the paint itself could evoke the emotional response the artist was seeking. This was an art that reached out to its viewers and said, “This is how I see, this is what I’m feeling, this is what I think about this topic. If you want to understand me, you need to enter my head and feel as I do.”
Dangerous stuff that