I went to see the big Turner show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. I missed the Tate Gallery when I was in London last year (I was there barely 3 days, hardly enough time to see the British Museum and the National Gallery on top of other sights). One of the nice things about living in New York is that so much great art comes to town to visit. A sizable portion of the Tate's collection of Turners made up the bulk of the show.
I've known Turner's work most of my life, but until now, I've seen little of it in the original. The originals can be very revealing. Turner did not paint for mass reproduction, and the tonal nuances in his work frequently get lost in the Panatone printing processes. As a result, his paintings tend to reproduce flatter and more abstract than they really are. A case in point is the painting reproduced above, Staffa, Fingal's Cave.
I've known this painting for over 30 years, but only saw it in the original for the first time today. It is so very different in the original. For all these years, I never "got" this picture. In all the reproductions (including the above), it looks like a small steamboat in the distance crossing the sea during a gloomy sunset. The left side appeared so vague that I always thought the picture unfinished or deliberately abstracted; until today. In the original, it is quite clear and finished.
This is a painting about a trip Turner made off the coast of Scotland to what was then and now a very popular tourist spot, Fingal's Cave. The boat in the picture is a small tourist boat steaming in to pick up visitors and take them back at the end of the day. Fingal's cave and surrounding cliffs are very brightly lit by the last light of the setting sun, which is partially veiled by a distant rain squall; a brilliant theatrical lighting effect that Turner uses in a few other paintings. The boat is viewed, not from the side, but from the stern as it steams toward the cave and cliffs. The spatial composition of this picture turned out to be a lot more successful and sophisticated than I had imagined all this time. As the great art historian Erwin Panofsky once said, "Goddam those originals!"
I absolutely worshipped Turner back in my teen and art student years. It isn't hard to see why he would appeal to an adolescent imagination, especially with spectacular paintings with spectacular titles like Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Inundation. I went through a period in my 30s when I ignored, and even turned against Turner. I much preferred the landscapes of artists such as Brueghel or even the great Chinese Song Dynasty painters such as Guo Xi. Those were landscapes about the cosmos, and as the Flemmish painter and the Chinese painter both understood, the cosmos is full of stuff, lots of stuff, happening everywhere at the same time. Turner's work seems very reductive in comparison. In some ways, I still feel that way about his work.
Turner at his worst can be such a shameless schlockmeister. A bad Turner is like a bad clam; there are few things worse. He painted a lot of big spectacular stinkers. Seeing some of them in the original did not improve them.
Since I'm now a middle-aged schlub, I've acquired a new respect for the old Cockney artist. A good Turner is very good, and very great sometimes. What I most respect about him these days is that quality that got him into so much trouble with the critics in his lifetime; his refusal to be literal. Instead of literally recording a particular sunset, he wanted the paint itself to recreate the dying glow of the setting sun, through everything from the subtlest color gradations, to veils of scumble and glaze, to thick impastos troweled on with a palette knife. His best paintings appear to shine with their own light and to glow off the walls of the gallery.