Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Turner: Nature and Power

Turner was the great poet of natural power.  I always think of him in connection with the Industrial Revolution, even though industry shows up very rarely in his work.  What made industry possible was the harnessing of natural forces -- steam, lightning, waterfalls, fire, etc. --to processes of manufacturing.  This idea of natural power seized a lot of imaginations in the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic.  Its best and most eloquent poet in art was Joseph Mallord William Turner.  Above is his painting from 1812, Hannibal Crossing the Alps.  It is based on Livy's account of the Punic Wars, and shows a skirmish with local tribesmen in the foreground.  It was intended to be an oblique commentary on Napoleon's invasions of Italy.  While Jacques Louis David painted a heroic Napoleon on a rearing white horse, Hannibal in Turner's painting is a tiny figure on the back of an elephant in the distance.
This classical erudition and political commentary is ultimately all beside the point.  The real drama in this painting is the storm coming in behind the invading army, blocking out the sun from the light filled mountain valley in the distance.  The real dramatic center of this picture is not tiny little Hannibal on his elephant, but that great cyclopean eye of the sun as it is eclipsed by the storm.  
On the one hand, Turner constantly insisted that his paintings were based on actual experience.  He traveled extensively throughout Britain and the European continent always making sketches and taking notes. There's an old story about this painting.  Turner was riding in a carriage in the English countryside with his 14 year old nephew when a snowstorm suddenly blew up.  Turner immediately went to work making sketches and taking notes.  "There Hawkey!" he said to his nephew, "In two years time you will see this storm again, and you will call it 'Hannibal Crossing the Alps.'"
On the other hand, what makes Turner's work so memorable is his refusal to be literal.  About this he was also clear.  When a visitor complained that a particular painting did not really look like a storm at sea, Turner replied that he was painting what it felt like to be at sea in a storm.
There is a lot of very subtle abstract composition in this picture.  It is made up of a series of spiraling forms and diagonals turning upon the center of that great sun at the top of the picture.
He comes up with a striking metaphor for the forces of wind and rain suddenly invading the sunny calm of the valley below.
Turner saw nature as a series of vast mysterious forces ultimately indifferent to the people who live amongst them.  He was captivated by this whole idea of natural power opened up by industry.  He wanted his pictures to somehow show those natural forces in all their power, even if he had to resort to more oblique metaphors and almost abstract form.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the 19th century was the great century of landscape painting in the West.  Artists like Turner, Constable, Friedrich, Corot, and many others come along at the very moment when the relationship between humanity and nature changes radically.  For centuries, human settlements were tiny islands in a sea of wilderness.  Now, it is wilderness that survives protected in preserves like fine china in a glass cabinet, in a sea of human artifice.  Turner lived and worked at the very moment of this transition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love turner. Every time I'm in London I spend lots of time in the original Tate admiring him.