Nowhere might such a conclusion resonate more powerfully than it does in regard to JMW Turner. Just as some of his most poignant and awe-inspiring works come to us as only partial expressions of a final product, so too the facets of his life seem to expand into unfathomable depths, which no amount of investigation or study will ever fully recount. One might make a strong case for this view or that perspective, but the actual man—replete at once with limitless subtlety and perversely stubborn routines—may slip each harness that the annalist tries to attach. Gordon Parks biographical novel is just one fine example of that.
Contradictions and Non Conformism
In a sense, the challenge of Turner’s oeuvre looks the same from his perspective as it does from that of the present-day observer. Making sense of contradictions as puzzling as Heisenberg’s or Fermat’s mathematics, one can only take a stand and persist in its defense, much as Turner had to do again and again with critics who lambasted him for his style, his cheek, his recalcitrant insistence, in confrontive and dismissive fashion, on non-conformity and breaking altogether new ground.
This blog, as I and my spousal support unit both intuited from the start, has also plowed into polarized possibilities that seem impossible to rectify. Thus, dear J.M.W. renders masterfully yet becomes inured of immersing himself in abstraction; he avoids family entanglement and yet sets himself up as Admiral Booth or Mr. Danby—attaching himself to a mistress’ name as well as her flesh—as the fancy strikes him; he seems to avoid people in close up and yet both the common folk and legendary exemplars repeatedly walk in miniature through his canvases; he presents women as dolls or children and yet has an entire trove of steamy erotica, collected at first hand as he observed not only his own paramours, but also sailors and their lovers and concubines and prostitutes, all recklessly abandoned to the throes of passion.
And today, we see that this utter master of the British isles, of the imperial firmament and the English soils that have gone down to the sea in ships, had a lifelong predilection to travel, to engage the mythic past, to search for universal meaning abroad. Nowhere drew Turner’s attention, at least arguably so, more powerfully than did the light and luster of Italy.
Idyls in Italy
|Italian Landscape - EPP Version|
However, probably variations on two themes have become most popular. In one of these, characterized most aptly by Simon Schama, Turner’s choices and actions flow from his desire to perfect his craft, from his complicated and never-completely-formulated ideas about life and death and England and the cosmos, and from a certain proclivity to play the gadfly regardless of the consequences with his critics
Of course, these estimates do not rule out radical inclinations. As Schama notes,
“hard times, radical times… .(led to) Turner’s refusal to beat the patriotic drum or wave the flag, (which) cost him patrons,” but he celebrated the common people instead. He “rubbed shoulders with the desperate and the destitute.” Moreover, he resisted “an empire of solid prosaic commercial facts…wanted more, insisting on …poetic imagination.”
But not any practical dedication to resistance or reform, but a “tragic sense powers and frames his works,” so that not anti-imperialism but “cosmic reckoning” guides the world: of Alps’ snows that led to Hannibal’s demise in one of Turner’s first ‘Italian canvases;’ of fate’s whim that caused, in an earlier painting of a later battle, a “carpet of corpses at Waterloo…an apparition of pure hell.”
The Charms of Venice
In this view, Turner was merely Romantic, filled with vague longings and a wish to find technical mastery that demonstrated classical beauty. Venice permitted this, says Schama. “For 20 years off and on, Turner made the city his soul mate.” He depicted “the gauzy radiance of the place… . conjured from a daub here, a wisp there.”
Gerald Finley’s Angel in the Sun: Turner’s Vision of History also holds such a viewpoint. “In (his) later Venetian views, as in his 1819 watercolors, Turner portrays Venice as a city bathed in light, colour, and insight. Its transmutation of either colour into form or form into colour is an implicit denial of the traditional distinction between disegno and colore.”
Finley admits Turner’s attachment to Byron, snippets of whose verses decorated many of his panoramas of Venice. But the scholar only sees that the poet and the painter “refer(red) to the appearance of Venice and the significance of that appearance.” Empire, resistance to oppression, and radical uprising factor only more marginally into the equation.
Sam Smiles is another academic who manifests these idealistic notions in his writings. At the same time, Smiles makes clear that a significantly different view, perhaps even opposite, that in fact Turner’s art readily and regularly expressed a deeply radical and conscious resistance to what Schama called ‘the patriotic drumbeat,’ is also fairly common among investigators.
In this second perspective, Turner’s four visits to Central Italy merit at least as much attention as his three sojourns to Venice. Furthermore, observers need to examine all of this traipsing about the continent in the wider context of Turner’s entire body of work, and with an understanding of the historical and social background from which his labors emerged.
A reviewer of the January show at the National Gallery of Scotland stated this point explicitly. “’When people think about Turner and Italy, they tend to think about Venice, and quite rightly, because his Venetian works were wonderful,’ says Christopher Baker, deputy director of the National Gallery of Scotland and show organiser. ‘But it's only part of the story. It's really Rome that dominated his oil paintings from 1819 to the 1830s. Also, you need to look at the whole process, from when he's dreaming about Italy in the 1790s up to his final visits when he's a grand old man in the 1840s.’”
Looking at the Future Through the Lens of the Past
And what does such an approach yield? According to Baker, one can infer that Turner’s purpose is nothing less than an interconnection of mythic and historical themes into critiques of contemporary Victorian life. In addition, Turner intends to turn classicist art upside down, so that even his vaunted use of color and light serves a rebellious, albeit an aesthetic, objective.
An art critic’s journalistic take on the show considers the four decades of Turner’s weaving of Italy into his travels and his craft. His ‘purely formal’ mastery at the new century’s beginning contrasts markedly with an agenda later noteworthy for its ambitions: to integrate past and present through the ‘palette’ of Italy’s magical resplendence in English consciousness, using classic images and mythological themes to highlight his fellow countrymen’s present-day problems and prospects.
James Hamilton’s in many ways definitive biography, Turner, accedes as much. Not only does Turner generally align with the radically democratic Walter Fawkes, creating the ‘Fairfaxiana watercolors’ to champion deepening England’s populist potential, but he also extends such conceptions to his grappling in his art with Italy and travel generally.
A recent course at Arcadia University, one of England’s bastions for peering into British history with a global lens, also makes such a point plainly. Combining Dickensian literature with Victorian culture generally, including Turner, the class “approach(es) London from a number of different perspectives: disease, crime, poverty, intoxication, empire, race, sexual deviancy, capitalist greed and radical politics.”
Leo Costello’s masterful J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History extends this general point about Turner’s radical views and his choice of subject and execution to Venice itself. In his chapter, “’In Venice Now:’ History, Nature, and the Body of the Subject, “Costello mandates that his readers dig below a surface celebration or a facile critique.
He uses Turner output such as “The Bridge of Sighs,” the artist’s first oil from his visits to Venice. That conveyance had a well-known, or at least widely presumed to be accurate, past, which was to move political prisoners to the cells where their lives would end. Costello imputes a insurgent, even a revolutionary, goal to Turner’s choices of subject, depiction, and execution in such instances.
“For Turner, as the example above suggests, Venice became a site for exploring linked questions of artistic and historical subjectivity. In particular, I will show that he was interested in the physical, sensual relationship of the artist to the external world. That relationship produced a very different kind of pictorial subject than the model of history painting that Turner had inherited, one that is essentially private, specific, and embodied, where the traditional subject of history painting had been public, ideal, and physically absent.”
The annalist from Rice University creates a highly sophisticated and deeply layered rubric for considering these questions of society and its individual agents, the former expressing cultural reality that both stems from and profoundly influences individual agents and networks of agents. While such nuanced presentations deserve the closest study and the most rigorous explication, for our humble requisites, we might only put forward a quotation from Jeremy Bentham that Costello employs.
The teacher from Texas deploys the thinker to imply interconnections between the one and the many, and conflicts between the masses and the few, that called out to Turner on a daily basis and that call out to us across nearly two hundred years. Bentham, and Turner, in sharp contrast to Thackeray and his clever ilk, demands that we notice “’the sacrifice made…of the interest and comfort of the subject-many, to the overgrown felicity of the ruling few…’”
Towards a Dialectical History Painting
Professor Costello expands this contention still further in an essay in a monograph, Changing Perspectives on Post-Revolutionary Art. Costello entitles his narrative suggestively: “History in Decline? JMW Turner and His Conception of ‘a swamp’d world.’”
He writes: “ This paper… consider(s) the methodological stakes of an investigation of representations of decline, disintegration, and destruction. …This paper considers these urgent questions by examining J.M.W. Turner as a highly suggestive case study of the ways in which a socially-informed history of art can be sensitive to complexities and contradictions in the production of historical narratives, both then and now. In 1802 Turner criticised Nicolas Poussin’s Deluge… . “The lines are defective as to the conception of a swamp’d world and the fountains of the deep being broken up,” he wrote. This paper considers Turner’s abiding interest in giving form to the process of disintegration, placing it within the linked discourses of aesthetic theory, imperial decline, and nation building in post-revolutionary Britain. Yet another instance of this occurs in the compendium, Discourses of Slavery & Abolition, in which Costello’s essay, “Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship:’ Towards a Dialectical History Painting,” appears. Costello dissects the canvas with a meticulous attention to detail, a methodology as necessary as it is arduous if the desired outcome is something other than fatuous self-congratulation or surface worship of the pretty.
“Calling into question the linear progression of time and civilization, Turner’s painting prompts a reading which considers the interplay of past and present and places the burden of interpretation on the viewer, whose own time is implicated. Painting in 1840, Turner refused to locate British involvement in slavery and the slave trade purely in the past, showing instead how it persisted even in the wake of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Furthermore, this non-linear temporal model resists presenting an optimistic vision of the future. As a result, I will refer to The Slave Ship as a dialectical history painting, as its conception of historical change is based in this constant negotiation of past and present.”
|Sun of Venice Going to Sea - EPP Version|
One may readily apply such thinking to suggestive but not fully articulated notes from the Tate about Turner’s relationship with Venice. “The Sun of Venice Going to Sea” is much more than a ‘pretty picture.’ The poetry that Turner attached proves this.
“Fair Shines the morn, and soft the zephyrs blow,
Venezia's fisher spreads his painted sail so gay,
Nor heeds the demon that in grim repose
Expects his evening prey.”
While the yeomen of the Tate do not mention any attack on imperialism, one might, a la Costello, ‘put two and two together’ as it were.
Beyond Mere Pretty Pictures
Such careful interpretation does more than make art more meaningful. It surpasses the addition of imaginative value to the process. It is also loads more fun. Relevance, creativity, and enjoyment are enough rationale to slog along this pathway some more. Perhaps a follow-up, looking at Turner’s utilization of and presence in fiction poetry, will attempt such additional discussion. A finishing touch on today’s discourse turns to a youthful interpreter of beauty and society.
A young undergraduate takes the insistently ‘progressive’ contemplation of Turner to a totally Marxist conclusion. He points out, that Turner finds the “cost of empire (is)too great to bear.” Further, he notes that the artist has clear political beliefs congruent with the view that “repressive ideologies prevent us from understanding the material and historical conditions in which we live because they refuse to acknowledge that ideology matters,” if for no other reason than that without ideology ‘rallying one’s allies’ is impossible. Turner, he says, has a commitment to such a rallying round.
His extensive thinking on these matters goes still further. Turner, he argues, wanted the British to look at themselves, to ‘examine their own consciences,’ in the Catholic idiom. Most important, he wanted to influence action that might contribute to human survival. His paintings would “point out the brink of the frightful precipice…(that attended)imperial might.” In his choice of verse and view and theme, he “warn(ed) against the trappings of imperialism” as a fatal path for England to follow.
A student of such issues as these might spend many lifetimes sifting and parsing the evidence and what others have made of this trove of data from the past, itself a tiny and insignificant fraction of all the facts and eventualities that actually transpired. Why do such considerations matter?
Should we care that Thackeray, who extolled empire in Vanity Fair and elsewhere, sardonic pen notwithstanding, detested Turner’s “Slave Ship?” What can we make of Ruskin’s declaring it—for all of his prudishness, he was a thoroughgoing Dickensian radical—iconic?
While I’ve been too ready to follow the side track and risk derailing my artistic endeavors, I nonetheless contend that such questions are important. And, whatever the multitude of options for responding to these queries, this much is clear for me: a truly radical, dissenting, and even social democratic reading of Turner’s life and enterprises is, if not utterly dispositive, well beyond highly plausible.