J. M. W. Turner at the Smithsonian

J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, 1812, oil on canvas, Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, 1812, oil on canvas, Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London

From 1 October 2007 through 6 January 2008 the Smithsonian had a historic exhibition of 164 works of J. M. W. Turner. I first came to know Mr. Turner on a brief visit to London in 2003 — I’m a bit of a philistine — when I saw Ulysses deriding Polyphemus (1829) and The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838 (1839), and probably a few others that didn’t stick with me, on display at the National Gallery of London. Since that time he has only grown in my esteem. Getting to see Ulysses deriding Polyphemus again was like visiting an old friend. I went to see the exhibit twice in its three months in Washington, D.C., but still our time together was precious and passed altogether too quickly.

I think that a lot of art historians would say that he is not, as many amateur admirers would like to interpret him, some avant guard Twentieth Century painter, a sort of pre-Impressionist, mysteriously displaced in time. Obviously if you take the announced theme of his paintings, they are very much of their age. They aim at the sublime in nature, classical historical stories, moral edification, the contemplative and the visually soothing and pleasing. I just don’t know whether Mr. Turner would actually like us to consider the depicted event, or quickly brush past it as pretext to get to the real matter of painting, which is light, color, material — painting as the primitive actions of composition, application of material, seeing and pleasure in the most basic elements pf perception, prior to the engagement of the higher cognitive faculties.

Look for instance at Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (pictured above). It’s a massive black swirl pushed up the side of a mountain, against a frothy, creamy snow. Anything that might constitute “the action” or the narrative of the painting is in the lower quarter of the frame, and even then only impressionistic. A lone silhouette of an elephant against an illuminated sky in the far distance is the only obvious sign of what is, at least ostensibly, being portrayed. It is a painting of the cloud, the sky, the light. The rest is pretext. It’s not even really that, I suspect. It’s a painting of the way colors interact and an experiment in what is pleasing to the mind, unbounded by depiction and representation.

From a distance the paintings may be depiction, but take a step closer. They are elaborate exercises in color and the application of paint. Your eye can cover square inch after square inch without coming upon a single recognizable feature — just differing layers of color and paint. I’m thinking here of Snow-storm, Avalanche and Inundation – A Scene in the Upper Part of Val d’Aouste, Piedmont (1837). Clip off the lower right corner and strip the title and it would be a wholly modern painting. Or some of his watercolor studies for the two Burning of the House of Parliament are depictive in title only.

In favor of this interpretation, Mr. Turner follows a trajectory similar to the Impressionists and Surrealist that would come later, in that he starts out making very realist, representational paintings in the 1790s and early Nineteenth Century, only gradually and experimentally becoming more abstract later. In the years 1810 through the 1830s you start to get these mixed representational and abstract paintings. After 1840 he starts to produce paintings that no longer have a narrative slice or corner that allows the field of abstraction to plausibly be interpreted as something — a stormy sea, a particularly tumultuous cloud — but rather entire fields of abstraction with but a shadow of depiction somewhere in the midst. Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhon coming on (1840) approaches this. Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth … (1842) or Yacht approaching the Coast (1850) show the full fruition of this development.

There is no substitute for being close to these paintings. The way that Turner depicts the effects of the sun on the layers and layers of cloud and other water vapor is not something that lends itself to flat, twentieth scale ink reproduction. The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) is a perfect example. You will never see what he does with the sun and the flurry of clouds above, or the way that the same light infuses the entire painting.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Turner was not a one trick pony. Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834) and Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (1835) were quite a surprise to come upon late in the exhibit. After so many paintings listing abstract, two of such clarity of line and distinction of color was almost a shock to the senses. Obviously I wasn’t the only one with such a response as I overheard a number of other museum-goers comment to the same effect.

The painting that was missing from the collection was The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838. It is perhaps his most romantic and nostalgic painting. As a part of the National Gallery collection, it was of a piece with my original acquaintance with Turner. If seeing the exhibit was like visiting old friends, it was like a visit where one of your ranks was not present.

It will be on display again in my neck of the woods at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 24 June – 21 September 2008. I may have to get up for one last peek before this once in a lifetime assemblage disbands for good.