J.M.W. Turner, the Sublime, and Me. For Hyperallergic

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (exhibited 1842), oil on canvas, (Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856) (all images courtesy Getty Museum)

“You don’t experience the sublime looking through double glazing, or at a distant electric storm, or watching a sea rage on TV,” wrote AA Gill in The Golden Door: Letters to America.

… and yet you can, when viewing a painting. How is that? Something strange came over me while wandering the exhibition halls of the Getty Museum’s show J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free. I found myself dangerously close to experiencing an embarrassing eruption of feelings, and not just one or two feelings, but all of them, All of The Feelings, all at once and at full volume. Without knowing why, without even being able to identify any single work that could have this effect, I willed back tears and held my hand to my breast, surprised and abashed at the cliched dramatics of my gesture, the histrionics roiling within me, my very own internal “Snow Storm” tossing up my waters.
What was going on? Turner’s prolific, no-fucks-given output in the last 16 years of his life, the focus of this exhibition, garnered mockery and accusations of blindness and mental illness from collectors and critics, even formerly devoted ones like John Ruskin. Both the oil paintings and the watercolors on view flaunt those freedoms he took that triggered the outrage of his detractors and presaged later movements that in their own time were considered revolutionary. His canvases are a rough topography of thick impasto, sometimes smeared on with a palette knife. His watercolors, conversely, seem barely touched, as faint as afterimages and as immaterial as memories. Turner’s highly personal use of color extends across media: hues can denote either time of day and weather or emotional timbre or both. His penchant for yellow appears as shimmering sunshine reflecting off golden-hued scenes out of classical mythology, the sun itself boring a hot, dry hole through a damp, limpid dawn, and hellish flames consuming the Houses of Lords and Commons. Blue ranges from the cool placidity of a Swiss lake and the fog floating above it to laden storm clouds hanging heavy over an obscure landscape, to the storm itself, obliterating the moonlight over a sea in tumult, and darkening to suggest the depths below. Red is used as punctuation, clarifying a burning tower here, a lone cow there, or a blood-soaked imaginary ground at has-been Napoleon’s feet, which he stares at, newly contemplative in exile. (Continue reading)

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