Monday, September 24, 2007

Burning Down the House

In the September 24, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, Simon Schama, in his inimitable style, previews the J.M.W. Turner exhibition coming to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, next month. Schama examines Turner from the perspective of Turner’s nationalism, his dyed-in-the-wool Britishism, and how the exhibition brings that out. The story features my very favorite painting from the PMA’s permanent collection, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (above), one of two paintings Turner painted of the even (both appear in the show). In The Burning, Schama sees the British people, lined up along the bridge to watch the conflagration, united in watching the corruption of the old establishment burn away. Turner clearly sides with the people, the true source of “the nation.”

Schama also examines the rollercoaster ride Turner’s reputation has taken since his own lifetime. “The reasons for both the sanctification and the denunciation were more or less the same: Turner’s preference for poetic atmospherics over narrative clarity, his infatuation with the operation of light rather than with the objects it illuminated,” Schama writes. “His love affair with gauzy obscurity, his resistance to customary definitions of contour and line, his shameless rejoicing in the mucky density of oils or in the wayward leaks and bleeds of watercolors—these were condemned as reprehensible self-indulgence.” Turner’s style irked his contemporaries, but modern eyes see Impressionism and Expressionism being born in Turner’s “reprehensible self-indulgence.” Schama, however, warns that “we do Turner no favors by pinning the tinny little medal of First Modernist on him.” The subject matter of his paintings, especially when that subject was England, always matters to Turner more than mere atmospheric effects. In his always entertaining and educating way, Schama shows how Turner cannot be reduced to merely a proto-Modernist or a relic of the past. Instead, Schama shows how Turner remains relevant in his hopeful, creatively energetic vision of a national people free of the jingoism of some other brands of nationalism that plague our world today.

(BTW, Schama’s take on Turner’s nationalism and innate Britishness dovetails nicely with the NGA’s podcast on Turner’s affinity for Shakespeare, which I reviewed here.)

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