Saturday 28 February 2015


The latest in an ongoing series of art exhibitions reviewed after they close

”I don't paint so that people will understand me. I paint to show what a particular scene looks like.”
- Turner

A Turner For His Time

'Late' and 'free' – the association made in that title is taken as read. Because of course we all know Turner's best work was done in his final years, when he really got away from what had gone before and got down to paint as he wanted. In the same way we all know Van Gogh cut off his ear for a chat-up line or Damien Hurst made a lot of money as a creative statement.

In a similar fashion its become de rigeur for art retrospectives to flag up how clueless contemporary critics were to their genius's genius. After all, it makes us attendees feel so much more “advanced”. This can often feel risible, not just because current art critics can seem pretty clueless much of the time, but because it stokes up an antagonism that seems rather consequenceless. Check it out - we're smarter than a bunch of dead people. Way to go, bro.

However this may be something of an exception. If both statements have become commonplace, its because they're based in truth. In 1835 Turner reached sixty. An age, people then thought, which meant inevitable senility. So when the show tells us works “audiences thought [these works] senile ramblings or simply mad” they mean exactly that. Further, while a younger Turner had pursued a successful career, his following didn't always... well... follow. The show details how even former champions such as Ruskin turned against him, and critics were so scathing that repeatedly commissioners were driven to a change of heart and walked away from the purchase. And of what works did sell he asked plaintively “Ain’t they worth more?” (As that quote suggests, his fear of failing to sell work seems to have been financial rather than artistic. However, he was actually solvent enough to leave a tidy sum in his will. Perhaps, not having come from a moneyed background, his fear of penury was psychological.)

But the show does something better than this. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones rehearses the familiar Father of Modernism argument for those who haven’t heard it yet: “Here at last is the Turner who matters – the man who invented modern painting.” In the grand lineage Turner influenced Monet, who fed into the Fauves, who begat the abstract expressionists and so on. It’s not so much the wrong answer to come away with. In fact to a surprising extent it’s persuasive. It’s more that it asks the wrong question, starts from the wrong premise.

In short, where is Turner in all of this? What about the man who painted those pictures, and the world he hung them up in? I feel more persuaded by Martin Oldham at Apollo magazine: “One of the achievements of [this] current exhibition… is to bring us back to the artist himself, to allow us to see his art on its own terms again… And it is not painting that is set free here, but Turner the painter, liberated from the often questionable roles into which he has been conscripted in the name of British art.”

All At Sea (Distant Savage Lairs)

So let's start with 'Snow Storm – Steam Boat Off A Harbour's Mouth' (above). How did that come to be exhibited in 1842, and what was all the hoo-hah precisely about? How was it so stormy that it sent the stomachs queasy even of former friends?

As said in an earlier post, Victorian artists “tended to make their compositions like grand tableaus. They're not that different in effect to looking at dioramas or even altar pieces. They appear in our space, arrangements of symbols which we are intended to decode into moral instructions.” And that included depictions of nature. This is how Lady Croom, in Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play ‘Arcadia’, describes her country estate:

“Sidley Park is... a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged – in short, it is nature as God intended.”

True, this is a modern writer thrusting comic words into a historical character’s mouth, who may well herself be deliberately self-parodic. But the words are illustrative. And they're illustrative of the 'classical' rules of proportion being applied to nature, of nature being (by man or by God working in man's image) 'cultured', itself made into a pretty picture in advance of the pretty picture being made of it. And if nature itself was being terraformed to better match a human sense of aesthetics, how were paintings on the subject likely to turn out?

But the times they were a-changing. We only need to get three paragraphs in to Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (1861) to come across the following:

“My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried… and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

From arranged sheep to scattered cattle. Dickens is describing nature not as an extended garden but in terms of the sublime. It's perhaps a difficult term for us to access today, partly because so many of the terms once associated with it have become so trivialised - “awesome”, “dreadful”, “terrible”, even “sublime” itself. A soundbite description might be that it took religion as far towards pantheism as you could without tipping over. It had to be defined first by uncoupling itself from beauty; it was both the opposite of beauty, in Lady Croon's sense of “tastefully arranged”, and the transcending of it. Or, for that matter, transcending even our ability to take it in. Kant said: “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” (A quote I confess to finding while Googling the term 'sublime' rather than taking some well-thumbed volume of Kantian philosophy down from the shelf.)

Nature is now to be 'decultured', restored to its savage state – but that is not all. Just as we are dwarfed by the overpowering intensity of it all, we realise we belong to it. Experiencing the sublime can install the feeling of the leap into the abyss, the desire to allow ourselves be reabsorbed by it, even as we know answering that siren call will extinguish us. This is why Dickens refers to Pip’s dead parents, who have essentially been taken back by the landscape. This is why the sublime is often conveyed through vertiginous drops or, for that matter, pounding waves and stirring storms.

This is why the sublime more frequently appears in art, where it can be made an immediate and arresting sight. As Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn comment “the sublime was generally regarded as beyond comprehension and beyond measurement” and so “visual artists became deeply intrigued by the challenge of representing it, asking how can an artist paint the sensation that we experience when words fail or when we find ourselves beyond the limits of reason?” (In general, Riding and Llewellyn stress this insistence on the inexpressibility of the sublime. I would say “yes, people keep saying its inexpressible. But they keep saying it.” Because isn't art always about expressing the inexpressible? I mean, if we could just say it, we would, wouldn't we?)

In 'Snow Storm', as the indicia comments, “Turner has chosen a viewpoint that removed the shoreline from which the viewer could ‘safely’ contemplate the storm, to immerse them, as it were, in the raging sea immediately alongside those struggling for survival.” Indeed the title emphasises how we're away from the harbour. (Turner liked to tell the story he was lashed a a ship's mast to witness the event. The show suggests that was merely a creative fiction on his part. But he could tell the story because the painting made it seem believable.) The boat looks almost entirely at the storm's mercy, a tiny flag at end of an extended, bent mast, backlit by dapples of white, the opposite of the brightly coloured declarations planted in conquest.

When depicting sea scenes artists would typically use the Mediterranean, or at least something which looked like it - a serene pool, a calm turquoise surface for boats to sail along in regal procession. Whereas Turner paints the tempestuousness of the North Sea, laden with heavy greys. It's not just two very different scenes, its like two conceptions of reality at odds. At this time people commonly referred to the world around us as “creation” - as if the process was completed, the deal done. Mountains had been made into mountains and lakes lakes, before any of us were even born, followed by some celestial resting. While Turner's world, conversely, is convulsive, inchoate. Rather than the normal neat delineation between sea and sky, the storm is so thick they're barely distinguishable. The show uses the term “spinning vortices” for many of these compositions, and its never more evident than here.

David Blayney-Brown suggests a gradual development in Turner’s art led to this point. “In 'The Shipwreck' [1806/7] we are still, just, observers of the rescue of survivors from a swirling vortex of waves and flotsam. In the later ‘Wreck [Of a Transport Ship]’ [c. 1810] we have become part of the subject, awash in towering seas with the doomed sailors and soldiers whose terror we share.”

And perhaps ‘Snow Storm’ continues the trajectory. Here the storm has not been conjured up to assail the ship, like some capricious Greek god vengeful against the Argonauts. It simply looks too powerful, it must surely be supremely indifferent to the fate of these flimsy bits of wood. It rages simply because that is what it does, and we are nothing to it. As the title suggests, the storm itself has become the subject of the picture. Dickens's “savage lair” is no longer distant, we are placed in the thick of it. (Though Turner never shied from painting the sea as a thing in itself, as in 'Rough Sea', 1840/5, or 'Seascape With Storm Coming On', c. 1840.)

Blaney-Brown further comments on the significance the sea held for the British of the time: “as a maritime nation, the surrounding sea was at once a protection and a threat. The life of the country depended on the navy and the merchant fleet; all distant travel was by ship.” While Turner himself had what the show describes as a “lifelong fascination for the sea”, growing up in London when it was still very much a port, the riverside a workplace not a yuppie property hotspot. In later life he lived in coastal Margate under the nome-du-plume Admiral Booth.

Yet the attraction for him must also have been aesthetic and conceptual - the way the sea is never still. Blaney-Brown points out “the lack of topography, of the geographical boundaries of landscape. The sea was the sea.” Similarly, he often painted nature scenes at different times to capture different effects, at odds with the notion of there being some Platonic ideal view. (See for example 'Blue Rigi, Sunrise', 1842, above.) Seventy years later the Futurists would insist “with our pictorial dynamism, true painting is born.” Yet if 'Snow Storm' doesn't pictorially depict dynamism, I simply can't imagine what does.

”Crashin' A-Headlong Into the Heartland”

But there’s also a paradox at the heart it. Go back to that Dickins quote. Of course, in writing a piece of prose, he has to name things or else we’d have no means of picturing them. (Had he written “and next to the thing there was another thing and – oh dear reader - what a thing” it is possible his literary reputation might not be as high.) But he does more than this. He catches Pip in the moment of learning their names, of human culture inscribing some form of meaning onto them. The savagery of the sea is discovered at the same moment as the word “sea”. As much as the sublime might mean surrender, it might also mean delineation. As much as abandon, as loss of self, it might mean elevation, projection of self. As Christine Riding comments: “during the Romantic period…‘insensate nature’ came to be seen as a vehicle for the expression of human thoughts and emotions, that ‘the connection between perception and inner being’ was explored.”

It’s tempting to then try to split our responses in two. Indeed, terms such as Dark Romanticism are based around this. But the neatness is that of the dissecting knife, taking the life from the subject it tries to understand. The two exist not even as a spectrum, but in something more like an inter-relationship. The sublime needs both roles to function as a concept. At one end, its little more than an artistic form of a suicide note. At the other, its equivalent to a trustafarian backpacking through India in order to “find himself”.

Nature, then, is both as an outside, overpowering force and there to reflect what’s inside our heads – it's both beyond our ken and is our ken. And the sublime exists precisely to embody the paradox between these two seemingly contrary states. And this was never demonstrated more clearly than with Turner.

Take for example 'Rain, Steam and Speed', (1844) Though there's also (to the lower left) a boat in this painting, the focus is on the steam train. And we don’t even see the train from its perspective - flying way above our heads like modernity being framed by reference to the existing, the familiar way of displaying the unfamiliar. Instead the boat is pushed to the side of the composition, and with it the ways it represents. From the viaduct we both see the train and take on the elevated view of those aboard. In this way the viaduct (actually built by Brunel) becomes as much the subject as the train - they're painted as if symbiotic.

Note the similarities of title between ‘Snow Storm’ and ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’. The train erupts out of the haze just like the snow storm might have sprung from nowhere. But if 'Snow Storm' was a vortex of churning energy, and even if a similar vortex occupies the centre of the composition here, this is energy harnessed into linear force. While the boat was most likely being broken up by the storm, the train is emerging out of the haze. If the funnel is picked out clearly, the rest of the train is almost a blurry motion line behind it. It always reminds me of the Waterboys lyric on the “hurtlin' fevered train/
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland/ Like a cannon in the rain.” (A song which also parallels a train with a boat.)

William Thackeray said of this work "the world has never seen anything like this picture". And, not uncoincidentally, the world was only starting to see such sights as it depicted. It's composition is like a pre-echo of those early films which would show a train carrering out at audiences not yet used to such things. And even today, to look at the composition gives us some sense of what it must have been like to first see such sights.

We see enough of it to recognise the train as a train, its not akin to that tradition in fantasy art of depicting biomechanical dragons and the like. Yet if it erupts onto the scene it doesn’t interrupt the sublimity of nature. Instead it opposes one sublimity against another. The world of the machine, the world we ourselves made, rears up at us as if striking us from without. Turner's recurring elements are water, mist and steam, essentially capturing both poles of the sublime in one transformative substance – the waves that crash against ships as they try to steer a course, but also the steam that powers our mighty engines.

Having already compared 'Snow Storm' to the later Futurists, having looked at Turner's “spinning vortices” let's hold this work up against their contemporaries the Vorticists: “This was not a future which would download neatly in the background like a software upgrade. It was to come convulsively – bursting into being with a mighty flash, like Frankenstein’s creature, and vie with everything which had been before it.”

As the recent BBC documentary 'The Genius of Turner' put it - “industry becomes the sublime”. And because the sublime was always double-edged, because it already represented the otherness of nature and a projection of the mind, it's not just that industry could lend itself to the sublime – it's more that it had to be that way.

”All Fixed Relations Swept Away”

The indicia comment how so often in late Turner “solid matter dissolves into light and air”. A quote which seems strangely close to Marx's summary of the bourgeois world - “all that is solid melts into air”. So let’s turn to that other great Charlie of the Victorian era and counter Dickens with Marx, again an opening, this time from the Communist Manifesto (1848). It's worth quoting a longer section:

“...steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production... Modern industry has established the world market... This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land.... The bourgeoisie...has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

What’s most immediately striking about this passage is that Marx is praising the bourgeoisie even as he seeks to to bury them. As he puts it “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part”. He admires their achievements, he just wants the workers to get their share of them.

We're told “hindsight is always 20/20”. In fact its often a blind spot. Victoriana to us is like heirloom furniture, we never knew a time when it wasn't there so it can be hard for us to even look at it straight. But those grand Victorian edifices we so often use as landmarks, that seem so much part of the fabric of our lives, what was it like to live while they were going up? Remember the full title of ‘Snow Storm’ was ‘Snow Storm Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth’. We look back at the Victorian era as a kind of foundation, the period that created the world we live in. But at the time they were in many ways sailing into uncharted waters, leaving old certainties behind.

And in general, interest in the sublime rose as technology grew, and the human ability to influence the landscape grew with it. We didn't turn to face it when we were little Pip-like things, dwarfed by it all. Unsurprisingly, there's a fair amount of evidence we tried our best to shut it out. On the contrary, it grew as a theme in the Eighteenth Century, coming of its own by the Nineteenth. The mighty force of nature arose in art to clash against the mighty forces humanity was unleashing. 

On the most basic level, those developments in navigation and communication cited by Marx granted us greater access to the natural world than at any time before. If the Rigi mountains held a majesty to behold, then trains took us to see them in a third of the time of horse-drawn carriages. But it also made the sublimity of nature beholdable as well as seeable, something not to be shied away from. Now human society was in possession of a force if not as great as nature, then enough to make us more than its mere passive victim. But there's something further. The ever-turning pistons of technology gave us the framework to re-conceptualise nature, to see past the static Creation and find the sublime.

One thing an artist can do is epitomise an era, literally sum it up in a picture. (Okay, in this case in two.) Henry Moore's sculpture stood for the post-War Britain of benevolent institutions, set up to serve the deindividuated common man. And Turner could capture in dabs of paint this Victorian drive to engage with and transform the world, and the parallel ability to see it as self-transforming. It’s true that Turner was not very often the conscience of the Victorians. He painted their achievements, not the human cost of those achievements in empty workhouse bowls or on child’s limbs crushed by factory machinery. But he is the spirit of the Victorians. Once artists had served the nobility. His patrons were often the industrialists and entrepreneurs whose world he depicted.

As someone already far enough into middle-age that I could credibly retitle this blog 'Late Burrows', it always seems to me I have lived through profound changes. In my youth the personal computer was the stuff of science fiction, the internet simply undreamt of. Yet such changes are as nothing compared to the transformation from sail to steam, a change Turner lived through. (Which may go some way to explain the previously raised puzzle of how the Pre-Raphaelites “notably look more Victorian than their predecessor Turner”. Arriving later, they missed that all-important decisive moment of transformation.)

As the show says he was “the first major European artist to engage with the new technology of the age: steam power”. And I’ve described Turner as “steam punk” so many times I’ve now forgotten whether I originally intended it as a joke or not. While the failure of most Victorian art is that is not that it's of the past, staid daubs for a staid era, but that its stodgy instructiveness manifestly fails to capture its time. Sometimes social innovators will themselves shy from what they're actually doing, and will expend much time and effort in trying to insert themselves into some imagined lineage. So, like the starchy collars they wore, their art was often concerned with upholding recently invented traditions or exhibiting the supposedly eternal values embodied by the carefully arranged poses of Classicism. They couldn't capture the world they themselves made, too often they clung to evoking the fixed fast-frozen relations they were themselves undoing. And indeed part of the appeal of steam punk may be the desire to give the Victorians the art they deserved, the art they so often failed to give themselves.

Sublimity and the City

But back to those developments in navigation and communication. We also see here Turner the traveller, exploring Europe incessantly even in his later years at a time when such journeys could still be a challenge. And he'd depict the towns and cities as readily as the mountains and seas. Unlike the fidelity of the Pre-Raphaelites, Turner would endlessly sketch scenes, but thought nothing of swapping or even inventing elements when it suited his purpose. As with nature, he'd paint the spirit of the city. It, too, had a sublimity to give up.

The curators make much of a pair of Rome paintings, 'Ancient Rome – Agrippina Landing With the Ashes of Germanicus' and 'Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino' (both 1839), being shown together for the first time in many a long year. But more impressive is 'Venice: The Bridge of Sighs' (1840, below) for combining both into a single composition.

By this time Venice had become a tourist destination but was itself impoverished, in decline. Which made it something of a Gothic ruin, gave it a romantic fatalism. And this double nature is what Turner paints; the grandeur of the buildings above removed from the human activity below - pallid, ghostly, almost fading into the pale blue and white of the sky. Whereas the darker hues are reserved for the lower, 'human' section, the water a murky grey. The blacks of the gondolas are enhanced by their reflection in the water, giving the work something of a funereal air. (The show passes on a theory that the elderly Turner used the city to symbolise himself in his own declining years.)

Conventionally, the sun is used as a kind of natural equivalent of a theatre spotlight. If it plays 'tricks' upon our vision, as we tend to call them, the artist knows to disregard the effects of the faulty lamp. Whereas Turner paints something the sun actually does, but in order to convey a subjective impression. In 'Approach To Venice' (1844, above) he depicts the city almost as a Brigadoon. It's like the 'upper' Venice of 'Bridge of Sighs' given its own life. “The artists' vision is lyrical and poetic”, we're told, “depicting Venice as a mirage, dissolving into dusk and poised between day and night, land and sea, reality and reverie.”

The Work Never Finished

Not since the Degas show at the Royal Academy has there been so many preparatory drawings in a show. And not since the Degas show has this been so clearly the correct direction to go in. We are often unaware of what works Turner considered complete and unfinished, which has led to an industry of guesswork. (As said earlier, he was often unable to see through commissions into sales, which may be one reason why there's so many unrealised sketches.) But we need to look upon this less as a problem to be solved and more as a boon, an aid to appreciating what Turner was about.

For the best answer to the question is “some of us don't even like 'finished'.” Generally, the more suggestive the forms, the more fascinating and compelling the work. And this is particularly true for Turner; there's something at odds with his conception of a wild, inchoate nature and the notion of a finished work, its suggestion of something settled. Turner's often quoted as claiming “indistinctness is my forte”, but perhaps “unfinishedness” goes alongside it. The less sure we are whether a Turner is finished or not, the better placed we are to appreciate its merits. ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ (1845, above) may never have been intended to be shown in this raw state. But with its formless early morning feel its, to quote Richard Dormont, “sublimely empty”.

'Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834' (c. 1835, above), as well as taking something of an appealing subject, was a gift to Turner's better instincts - an event he had to get down quickly or not at all. And notably the event is what he captures, the gathered crowds as prominent as the burning buildings.

Tell Us No Tales

But perhaps we shouldn't go too overboard with all those savage seas. At his best, Turner was exhilarating. But no-one entirely escapes their times. And even during this Indian summer phase… in all honesty, at times he could be boring. As boring as any stuffed shirt Victorian.

The stumbling block is normally narrative. Paintings then were thought to need a narrative, to be incomplete without one. But, as with the later Pre-Raphaelites, Turner is simply encumbered by its demands and only truly set free when he ditches it. It's like listening to beat-based music, and impatiently waiting for it to break out of the constraints of songwriting structures. While I've no quibble with the 'later = better' thesis of the show, 'narrative vs. non-narrative' remains over-riding.

Try 'Story of Apollo and Daphne' (c. 1837, above), which scores pretty low on the sublimometer. In the antithesis of 'Snow Storm' we watch from a safe, solid vantage point, giving the feeling of a stage set. While it doesn't help that the trees look so much like broccoli, it's the story which scuppers it, tethers it to Victoriana. You wish he'd just painted the mountainsides and the sea. There's also an ideal size for Turner, a frame large enough to impress the eye yet small enough to take in with one glance. Notably, Turner often painted in a square format, unusual for his time but ideal for the kind of impact he needs. The vastness of the Victorian tableaus, a string of smaller scenes to be picked up piecemeal, are contemplative, and mitigate against Turner's strengths.

However, even if the quality of work is not consistent, it remains true that here there's a great many paintings from a century and a half ago that still strike you straight between the eyes. His reputation may be vast, but it's not over-inflated. It's true to say that late Turner was more the start of something, even if we shouldn't let that get us too distracted from the works themselves. For the accomplishments of Turner are the accomplishments of the Victorians, and his contradictions and strange double nature also of them. Ken Kesey gave up writing with the words “I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph”. But Turner was always both.

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