Friday, March 2, 2018

Turner Makes a Surprise Visit to the Metropolitan Museum

The small show of Thomas Cole's work in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum came with two big bonuses, a pair of major paintings by Soapsuds and Whitewash himself, JMW Turner.

All of these photos are mine unless otherwise noted.  They are freely available, especially to educators.

The first painting was Hannibal Crossing the Alps from the Tate Gallery.

According to legend, Turner made a visit to the home of his friend Walter Fawkes in Yorkshire in 1810.  While riding in a carriage with Fawkes' young son Hawkesworth, Turner sketched on the back of a letter a snowstorm they watched as it passed through the Yorkshire countryside.  "There Hawky!" he supposedly said, "In two years you will see this snowstorm again and you will call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps!"
Just as likely a source of inspiration was Jacques Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps that Turner saw in Paris in 1802.  Turner made the unusual decision to compare Napoleon to Hannibal crossing over the Maritime Alps, through mountains and hostile natives to invade Italy by land.  Turner eagerly took on a challenge from a major French NeoClassical painter.

I'm a little reluctant to completely dismiss the story of Turner and young Hawky watching a snowstorm in Yorkshire for the simple reason that a massive snowstorm and avalanche takes up far and away the bulk of this painting.  Hannibal and his whole army are reduced to tiny ciphers in this picture.

The big dramatic centerpiece of this picture is not Hannibal but this great Cyclopean eye of the sun veiled by the oncoming storm.  A great descending curl of falling snow comes down to the left setting up a most un-Classical and very modern (and even abstract) composition of a vortex and diagonals as a kind of visual metaphor for natural power that Turner would use again and again in his later work.  This was his first use of it.

Like so much of Turner's work, this painting doesn't reproduce well.  Seeing it in real life was a revelation; it's a lot less of a chaos of light and dark paint as it appears in reproduction.

The actual figurative parts of the painting -- which in the work of a Classicist like David would have been front and center with landscape playing a supporting role -- are small and reduced to insignificance in the face of the mighty storm following Hannibal's army over the mountain pass.
In the foreground, Salassian tribesmen attack stragglers in the Carthaginian army as described by Livy and Polybius.

A diminished Hannibal and his elephant ride over the pass; a major figure in ancient history reduced to a tiny silhouette.

The storm moves from right to left and obliterates the radiant light of the mountain valley below.  In person, this glowing mountain valley is much clearer than in reproduction.   You can see the valley, a lake, cliffs, peaks, and glaciers in the mountains as well as the blue sky behind.

The storm is so dark that the army marches by torchlight here.

The storm races down the pass followed by an avalanche of snow.  The real subject of the painting is the forces of nature; natural power, a lifelong obsession of Turner that in his view reduced all human activity to futility.  There always comes a point in Turner's work where the careful studies from nature get left behind and his imagination takes over.  I've seen a few storms in mountains in my time, and I've never seen anything that looks like this.  But who cares, what a drama Turner presents to us here!


The second painting was one of my favorite of all 19th century paintings, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus on loan from the National Gallery in London.  I was a little surprised that the Brits let this travel.  This one of their National Paintings up there with Constable's The Haywain.

I've always loved this painting from 1829.  I saw it once before in London many years ago, and it was a delightful surprise to see it again here in New York.  It shows a scene from Homer's Odyssey where Ulysses having just escaped Polyphemus the Cyclops by blinding him while he slept, mocks the raging giant while escaping with his men in his ship at dawn.

Ulysses mocks the blind Cyclops from the mast of his ship.

The blind giant high on a cloudy mountain prepares to hurl boulders in futility and calling down Neptune's curse on Ulysses and his men.

That Turner makes Polyphemus into a giant part of a cloudy mountain is a real stroke of imagination.

This painting features one of the most spectacular sunrises from a century full of spectacular painted sunrises and sunsets.

Details in Turner's paintings are hard to make out reproduction, but appear quite clearly in the original, such as a wake of glowing sea deities and fish guiding the ship through the "wine dark" sea.

I presume the cave glowing with firelight is an entrance to Polyphemus' lair that Ulysses and his men just escaped.

Colors make very beautiful and poetic transitions from warm to cool throughout this painting.

Another detail that is hard to see in reproduction but quite clear in the original is a range of high mountains off on the left side of the painting.

While looking at this painting, I overheard a young man explain that Polyphemus' blindness and Ulysses' mockery shape the whole painting.  I thought that was a brilliant insight (though I have no idea if it's original with him, but credit where credit is due).  Light and blindness appear in other works by Turner, for example in his painting of Regulus.  A radiant gold and rose colored fog fills the painting obscuring the overall contours of the landscape making them hard to make out, though they are there.  We barely see Polyphemus in the haze (he's the least clear thing in the whole picture).  The radiant sunrise that proclaims the triumph of Ulysses escape mocks the giant's blindness.

This is Turner's very personal and visionary re-imagining of an ancient story.  He takes on earlier Classical history painting and Claude Lorrain at the same time that he creates something so very personal out of a central narrative of Western culture; a very modern thing to do.

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