Friday, April 25, 2008

Angel in the Sun

I’ve had July 1st circled in my mental calendar ever since I read (and reviewed {ADD LINK} ) the catalogue for the Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Washington is too far for us to travel, but when the show comes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Independence Day Weekend, we’ll be sure to go up to New York City sometime that Summer to see it. Born April 23, 1775, Joseph Mallord William Turner ranks high among the great “must see” artists for me. He’s been called everything from the last Romantic to the first Impressionist, but for me he’s simply the greatest artist England has ever produced, the finest painter of the early nineteenth century, and the greatest watercolorist who ever lived. Superlatives all, and easily challengeable, but it’ll be hard to convince me that Turner (shown above in the youthful Self Portrait of 1799) doesn’t live up to each and every one.

When Annie and I went to London, I had to see the Turner Gallery at the Tate Britain and the great Turners at the National Gallery, London, including Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (above, from 1844). It took some painful prioritizing, particularly in giving little time to the great William Hogarth collection at the NG, but I managed to see the Turners the way he wished them to be seen, in situ at the museums he imagined them displayed in after his death. No other artist bequeathed such a mother load of art on his country as Turner did after his death. Seeing more of his work at the Met will make memories of London all the sweeter.

Aside from the great art itself, I find Turner fascinating for his amazing confidence. He was good, and he knew it well. Everyone else did, too, or they soon did. During the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy, Turner would make a grand show of “Varnishing Day,” a day shortly before the opening of the exhibition to the public and the judges during which artists could varnish or touch up their works. While nearby artists would add a little shimmer to their works, Turner would come in and virtually repaint his works on the spot, adding brilliant color that would outshine the works hung nearby and totally demoralize his fellow painters. (S.W. Parrot’s 1846 painting of Turner on Varnishing Day appears above.) One year, John Constable stood nearby and added a little color to some flags in a painting as Turner stood behind him, silently watching. The next day, Turner painted a brilliant red buoy on a seascape that blew Constable’s coloring away, packed up his brushes, and left without a word. “He has been here,” Constable said, “and fired a gun.” When it came to dueling, nobody got the best of Turner.

There’s something magical about Turner’s art. His Angel Standing in the Sun (above, from 1846) provided the title for one excellent biography, in tune with this magical aura surrounding Turner that, unfortunately, discounts the hard work and hard thinking that went into his works. Constable, again the foil of a Turner anecdote, reportedly once said to Turner, “I do not see nature that way.” “Ah,” Turner reportedly replied, “do you wish that you could!” Turner could draw something as photographically accurate as anyone else alive, or paint a canvas so thick with impasto that you feelt like you’re slogging through the fog, rain, clouds, or heavy waves. If you’re in New York City between July and September, drop in to the Met. Even if you don’t see the way that Turner did, you’ll find you wish you could.

1 comment:

Mmm said...

Turner is my very favourite artist. I remember winning a book on him when a teen and as I lived in London I would go to the Tate and various other galleries to see his art in person. Incredible works of spontaneity in art.