At a certain age one sees the world less as a Warhol Brillo Box and more like a Turner sky….even after cataract surgery. The accumulation of years brings with it an acceptance of the opaque. Perhaps lucidity was a necessary illusion to get us through the early years. The Turner exhibit now at the Getty shows his sometimes blazing, barely discernible images with more resonance than ever.
Turner came from humble beginnings. His father was a barber and on his mother’s side were butchers. In a sense he barbered and butchered his canvases with an enormous palette which depicted light itself in all its variables. The French impressionists owed him a debt, acknowledged long after his death by Renoir, Degas and Monet. His oceans, skies, mists and fires all carry his signature. They convey his unease in the world as well as the turbulence of the American and French revolutions, the burgeoning British Empire and attendant urban squalor in his London sprawl from nearly one million to 2.5 during his lifetime (1775-1851).
Viewing a Turner, especially in aggregate, is a felt experience just as he literally immersed himself in his subject. In one instance, during a considerable storm, he insisted on being lashed to a pole on the deck of a ship for four hours so he could endure the fury of the wind, sea spray and upheaval of the waves. All the elements come through with his slashing strokes which overwhelm an image of the steamship.
And so it is in life. Memory becomes a smeary distillation of moments. The residue could be simply a firm handshake, belly laugh or frown. It might be the drenching I took from a sudden downpour running happily through the streets of Amsterdam, a field of ranunculus we never found, or my astonished eyes when Van Gogh’s, Irises, leaped out from the museum wall.
What would Turner paint today? The muddle of our hurried existence? The blur we’ve become? Stumps in what was once a rain forest? A degraded Arctic ice cap? If he fastened himself to our ship of state he might record our human folly and deliver to us a shock of recognition. One has to look hard to recognize the figure in the steamy mirror. With his low-definition canvasses the work is both demanding and compelling.
Turner’s canvases were less indigenous to England than they were universal. He often crossed the channel with the London fog still on his brush and found landscapes in which he could sketch or set up his easel. His address was in that vast elsewhere far from the conventions of his time. It is telling that many of his pieces, oils and watercolors both, were questioned posthumously as to whether or not they were finished. In this regard he is contemporary. Nothing is complete yet everything is if the creator wishes to leave it so and invite the viewer to enter.
In my dotage I seem to be on a slow mule grazing away from the fray looking in the rear-view mirror. (This mule was assembled in Detroit, fully equipped.) The painter’s great admirer, John Ruskin, said that Turner was continually endeavoring to reconcile old fondnesses with new sublimities. I know the feeling, straddling the familiar and safe known as well as the forbidden, uncertain terrain around the bend. The people and places of decades past no longer exist. In fact probably never did as we remember them. And the present won’t hold still for a minute.
When parliament went up in flames in 1834 Turner was there to witness and render the blaze. Today we would have a media rush to record the scene but no one would quite capture the gradations of light that stretched beyond the spectrum into what he regarded as the sublime. To find beauty in this urgent and combustible world we live in requires the transcendent burst of an artist. Count him among those whose vision reached and whose language speaks to everyone across borders.