Thursday, May 8, 2008

Life After Death

Is it ever possible to “know” an artist? Even artists of the present fall beneath a blanket of critical analysis that covers over their true uniqueness and individuality, if you still even believe in the concept of “truth.” Sam Smiles’ J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist looks at the case history of J.M.W. Turner, a nineteenth century artist who was himself aware of the vagaries of history and tried to cheat death through a bequest to his native land that he believed would shape his reputation for future generations. Instead, the directions of his will were thwarted and his reputation soon became stretched and reshaped to meet the requirements of future critics who, amazingly, enlisted him into the ranks of modern art, providing “evidence” by association of both his greatness and the greatness of the modern artists they looked to promote. Would Turner have wished for allegedly unfinished works such as Disaster at Sea (aka Fire at Sea; above, from 1835) to become the foundation of his reputation as a “modern” artist? Would it have mattered if he didn’t?

Smiles begins by analyzing Turner’s own approach to the concept of legacies and reputations. From early on in Turner’s career, he painted homages to writers such as Alexander Pope (Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, 1808) and fellow artists, such as his portrait of Raphael in Rome, from the Vatican, Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing His Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia (above, from 1820). In the 1820s, Turner painted works related to earlier artists such as Raphael, Rembrandt, Canaletto, and Ruisdael, “renovating the tradition they represented,” Smiles writes, and giving “a significant part of his output an art historically aware and self-reflexive quality.” Turner paints with an eye to the past while simultaneously keeping an eye on his own future. These commemorations reflect Turner’s personal sense of calling as an artist, Smiles believes, in which “the benefit of art lies in its power to engage and stimulate the mind,” with any commercial benefits being “incidental” to the greater societal good. Turner witnessed the deaths of this contemporaries Benjamin West and Thomas Lawrence (going so far as to paint a watercolor of Lawrence’s funeral) and pondered his own mortality and the posthumous fate of his work.

Smiles masterfully argues the state of Turner’s mind by painting a full picture of the state of the arts at that time, which can be described as nothing short of chaotic. The wills of both West and Lawrence, designed to protect their legacies and benefit the nation, were thwarted after their deaths, impressing on Turner even more the need to protect his own legacy and, thus, the future of British art and society. While bequeathing his oeuvre to the nation, Turner left explicit instructions that Sun Rising Through Vapour: Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish (above, from 1807) and Dido Building Carthage be hung in the National Gallery alongside paintings by Claude Lorraine both to show the line of influence and to show that British works could meet the standards of the Old Masters. Turner’s will also made arrangements for a charity specifically for the benefit of poor and “decayed” artists, knowing that his own material success eluded many others who had also dedicated their lives to the arts. Alas, after Turner’s death in 1851, challenges by Turner’s cousins thwarted his will as well, the first link in the chain of events that has shaped our idea of Turner ever since.

John Ruskin, who had assumed the role of Turner’s champion while alive, continued to dominate the conversation after Turner’s death. Ruskin’s “iconographical” interpretations, valuing fidelity to nature and natural effects, hinged on seeing “unfinished” works such as Disaster at Sea (top of post) as interesting as glimpses into Turner’s mind at work rather than as finished conceptions. Ruskin sees post-1845 Turner paintings as the work of an artist in “decline” both artistically and morally—inseparable concepts in Ruskin’s Victorian worldview. As Ruskin’s power waned, more formalist readings of Turner’s art arose, valuing the “unfinished” works, many of which were only being then publicly displayed as the huge bequest was catalogued and restored, as the “true” Turner, i.e., the visionary who “invents” the Impressionist style. Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (above, from 1844) “contains a first rate Monet,” writes one critic in 1902, “if not, indeed, more than one.” A 1906 exhibition of Turner’s late works obliterates the line between “finished” and “unfinished” works seemingly for good, opening up the critical field to adopt Turner as a Impressionist after the fact and, much later, to apply all types of modernist labels to the long-dead painter. Walter Sickert calls Turner “more modern than any living painter” in 1925, expressing the prevailing mood of Turner as more twentieth than nineteenth century artist, literally born before his time.

Smiles outlines the critical campaign for the soul of Turner with broad strokes but manages to give enough detail to keep the story both concrete and riveting. The tales of Turner’s fate at the Tate Britain made me wish I had looked at the exhibit with a more discerning eye while there. The British Council’s post-World War II exploitation of the “modern” Turner “to showcase the vitality and modernity of British culture” becomes a cautionary tale of government intervention in the arts for political ends. Lawrence Gowing’s 1966 exhibit at the MoMA, Turner: Imagination and Reality, completes the coronation of Turner as a modern artist through an installation usually reserved for modern artists and an emphasis on the most modern-looking (i.e., Abstract Expressionist-looking) paintings, completely free of any historical context that Turner himself would have experienced while working on the paintings. “Gowing’s Turner thus occupied an eternal present,” Smiles writes, “and for that reason could offer lessons to all contemporary artists wrestling with the same problems.” Turner’s desire to serve society through art lives on, but radically different from how he intended. John Gage’s 1969 book Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth arrives on the scene as a corrective to Gowing’s designs, presenting a Turner “more obviously historically placed and intellectually responsive to his age” and “better understood when his cultural milieu was restored to him” than Gowing’s historically abstracted, time-travelling Turner.

Will the “real” Turner ever stand up and be recognized? Is it the nineteenth century living and breathing man or the twentieth century modernist icon? Turner is simultaneously all and none of these things, larger than any one idea and yet too elusive, as all great artists, to be permanently pinned down to any single label. Smiles seems to come down on the side of those looking to recover the historical Turner as much as possible. “For all its difficulty, and even while aware of its ultimate frustration,” Smiles writes, “we must still make the attempt to encounter the past in all its specificity and otherness.” While speaking of Turner in particular, Smiles raises much larger general questions for both the art historian and the non-professional art lover. For art historians, Smiles shows the consequences of curatorial decisions, which always remain choices of inclusion and exclusion that impact not only the artist but the entire fabric of art history’s larger tapestry. For the non-professional art lover, Smiles awakens us to look critically at exhibitions and ask the classic crime-story question, “Quo bono?”—who benefits? In other words, whose agenda is being served by curatorial choices, and why? J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist turns commonplace shibboleths of art history (Turner the Impressionist, Turner the Modernist, etc.) and makes us question them and see Turner afresh. Turner himself could wish for no greater legacy than that.

[Many thanks to Manchester University Press and their American distributor Palgrave for providing me with a review copy of Sam Smiles’ J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist.]


Dr Selby Whittingham said...

I was interested to read your review of Smiles's book. If you wish to see my more critical one, I would be happy to email it.

Bob said...

Hello, Dr. Whittingham,

Thanks for visiting the blog. I'd love to see your review of Dr. Smiles book. Please e-mail it to me at