In his last decade and a half, J.M.W. Turner seemed to transcend all known standards, baffling the critics but inspiring future generations.
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“In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes,” the philosopher and literary critic Theodor Adorno wrote. By “catastrophe,” he didn’t mean fiasco or disaster; he meant a disruption of the established order, a world-shattering work that leaves society forever changed. And by “late,” he meant late-career, which for a select few artists is a time of release from restrictions rather than flagging powers, a period when the indifference of age allows for transcendence to occur. This kind of late work is more than a culmination of the various phases that may have gone before it; it can even be a pulling-down of the whole edifice to make way for something stranger and greater. Adorno was thinking of the deaf, defiant Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony when he wrote the 1937 essay that introduced the concept, and most of the writers who took up the thread after him—such as the critic Edward Said—have focused on composers or literary figures. However, there is no shortage of “catastrophic” late works in the visual arts, and there is no better example of an artist who made a great breakthrough in old age than Joseph Mallord William Turner.
The Tate Gallery in London is currently dedicating a major exhibition to the works that Britain’s most famous painter created between 1835, when he turned 60, and 1851, the year of his death. “Late Turner: Painting Set Free” (on view through January 25) brings together an unprecedentedly large group of pictures—including the panoramic pair Ancient Rome and Modern Rome, rarely seen together since they were first exhibited in 1839—to allow the viewer not only to be overwhelmed but also to draw nuanced conclusions about what was radically new in Turner’s late work and what was an extension of themes and techniques the artist had been exploring throughout the rest of his career.
Without a doubt, the paintings in this exhibition are astonishingly bold in their use of color and light—in fact, these primal elements steal the show, nearly eclipsing the nominal subjects of the compositions. In Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844), the Great Western Railway train crossing the Maidenhead Bridge over the Thames takes up about a quarter of the canvas’ area, the remainder being occupied by water vapor, a combination of clouds and humid exhalations from the river, which blend together in such a way as to blur any distinction between water, land, and air. Showing through the yellowish steam is the blue of the sky, and the whole picture is unified by the sun’s diffuse glow, visible only indirectly, mediated by the atmospheric effects. In the watercolor Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842), which Turner painted during one of his many trips to Switzerland, the famous flat-topped Rigi—known to tourists as “The Queen of Mountains”—seems less important than the blue haze that veils it. Again, the sky, the geological features, and the water are unified by the color blue and by the opalescent glow that fills the frame. In the upper left, another source of light reveals itself—the planet Venus, the evening star—but in Turner’s world, it is really the light that matters, not its source of it. It all blends together into one luminous unity, which for the artist was nothing less than a depiction of the cosmos in a continuous act of creation.
The critics, however, saw only mess. An article in The Athenaeum, a very influential art publication, declared Turner’s late paintings to be “eccentricities of a great genius in which he of late years indulged, and which rendered it necessary that he should attach rings to his pictures (contrary to Academical requirements) in order to show which side of the picture should be hung uppermost.” Another writer alleged “senile decrepitude,” and even the prescient and subtle John Ruskin, who had appreciated Turner more profoundly than any other critic, was flummoxed and dismayed. Of a posthumous exhibition of paintings from the artist’s studio (Turner left behind some 100 finished works and 262 unfinished works when he died), he wrote that it was a better idea to “take no notice of… pictures painted in the period of decline. It was ill-judged to exhibit them.” Ralph Wornum, keeper of the National Gallery at the time, referring to Turner’s atmospheric effects opined that “the details by which these effects were produced became rapidly more and more neglected, until in the pictures of the last few years they are so slightly indicated as to be generally unintelligible.”
While some dyspeptic critics went so far as to call Turner a “madman,” the artist’s career up to that point had by no means been chaotic or beyond the bounds of the English art world. On the contrary, Turner enjoyed financial and, for the most part, critical success throughout his career. While he generally shunned society, choosing to live simply with his father in rather cluttered quarters when he could afford far better, he was no outsider. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was 21 and was elected to membership at 24, the earliest allowable age. A consummate professional, Turner produced major works in all the recognized genres, from landscapes to portraits to history paintings based on events both ancient (Biblical and Greco-Roman) and modern (the naval battles of the Napoleonic wars). He operated his own gallery adjacent to his London house, and a loyal and growing contingent of collectors eagerly snapped up his prolific output. Many of his canvases, including some that he kept in his studio and never sold, were rendered as engravings and printed in mass quantities for those who could not afford an original.
Even Turner’s early paintings show an interest in atmospheric effects and in light for its own sake. He was in the habit of choosing quotations from well-known poems to accompany his pictures in the Royal Academy catalogues, and in 1798 paired his painting of Buttermere Lake in the English Lake District—a place beloved by Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge—with these lines from James Thomson’s The Seasons: “Th’ illumin’d mountain—in a yellow mist/Bestriding earth—the grand ethereal bow/Shoots up immense and every hue enfolds.” The “yellow mist” that was later to become Turner’s trademark and cause controversy when it threatened to engulf his canvases was present from the very beginning.
The English countryside, beautiful though it was, proved too tame for Turner, and when he finally had the funds to travel to the European continent, what he saw there took his work to the next level. In 1819, he was captivated by Venice’s unique light and climate, and the sharper, brighter sun of southern Italy made an equally strong impact. Later trips included the Swiss Alps, which he painted many times, returning to the same scenes but under always-different conditions of light and weather. The drama in the skies, which to a Romantic sensibility like Turner’s reprised the drama of the creation of the world, became his true subject. And in the mid-1830s, when he had arrived at the point where he no longer needed to care what anyone thought, and had achieved such mastery of the elements of his art that he could, so to speak, let them loose to do what they wanted, the late work was born.
The stormy, wild quality of Turner’s late work is out of keeping with the peaceful, garden-loving domesticity of the French Impressionists, but that hasn’t deterred generations’ worth of art writers from citing the English painter as a precursor of Impressionism. In 1873, around the time Impressionism was being born, at least one major English critic was still calling Turner’s late works “repulsive,” but not long thereafter—around the turn of the 20th century—he began to be hailed as an ancestor of the avant-garde. In 1910, when the Tate created its Turner Wing, the décor of the galleries was matched to those where modern art, including Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, was displayed. By the 1940s, the slathered oils that had irked audiences of the 1840s were being perceived as virtually proto-Pollock drippings. In 1966, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, late Turners were hung in plain modern frames in a white-cube-style gallery to underscore their congruence—if not actual identity—with modernism.
More recently, the tide of opinion has shifted again, and Turner is now, for the most part, appreciated for his own achievement rather than as a foreshadowing of future artists. The selection of works on view at the Tate makes it clear that Turner—while possessed of a unique and powerful vision coupled with radically innovative paint-handling techniques—situated himself firmly within the culture of his time. In Ancient Rome—Agrippina Landing With the Ashes of Germanicus and Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, the subject matter is no mere pretext for light effects. The mist that shrouds the imagined scene from ancient history—peopled, as is usual for Turner, with tiny, almost Chinese-scaled humans due to his fundamental lack of interest in the figure—is the emotional, Romantic mist that the early 19th century still cast over Classical antiquity. And the ruins that seem to surge up from the pinkish chasms in Modern Rome are seen with the enthusiastic eyes of the period that gave the world the modern science of archeology.
Even the most abstract painting in the show, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), basically a swirling sphere of yellows, reds, and blues with a dark core and the merest suggestion of a human figure at the center, is an expression of ideas that were current at the time it was painted. As such, it can be understood by reading what Turner was reading when he made it. The “Goethe’s Theory” of the title is a reference to the polymathic German author’s contrarian Theory of Colors, published in 1810, which interpreted optical phenomena in terms of human perception and physiology and argued against Newton’s mathematically based ideas. In that book, Goethe wrote, “The sun seen through a certain degree of vapour appears with a yellow disk…The orb seen through a thick yellow mist appears ruby-red… If the darkness of infinite space is seen through atmospheric vapours illumined by the day-light, the blue colour appears.” It sounds like a perfect description of this painting, as well as of many other Turners.
The curators of the Tate show, rather than reaching to turn Turner into a contemporary artist, reached out to a real contemporary artist, Olafur Eliasson, to create original works in reaction to Turner’s paintings. Eliasson, who has long been interested in the properties of color, analyzed 11 Turner paintings and broke them down into their chromatic components, which he then transferred onto disc-shaped canvases. Eliasson’s finished products, which are being exhibited adjacent to the Turner galleries, are totally abstract and look a bit like a Goethean color wheel, one hue blending seamlessly into the next. The artist says his approach was designed to “dematerialize color.” That sounds like a good description of what Turner himself was doing—he was able to dematerialize color, and in fact the whole world that he painted, without needing to use total abstraction.