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Art and Culture

David and Smith - Turner and the Future

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Storms and steamboats and misty mornings allowed one artist to transform what we see in galleries.

Last week, I mentioned that there was a show at the Kimball Museum of Art up in Fort Worth that I don’t want you to miss.  It’s of paintings by an English artist named J.M.W. Turner and it’s open until the beginning of February. Turner died of cholera in 1851, which was quite a while before impressionism and modernism begin to sweep through the culture of Europe and energize artists with new ideas of what art could be.   But, in many of his paintings, Turner points to what’s on the way.

Years ago, when I first saw a Turner show, what knocked me out most was the way which, in many of his paintings, Turner seemed unconcerned with portraying details.  I fell in love with an 1842 painting of a steamboat struggling again a snowstorm.  It took sharp eyes to pick out any details of the boat beyond its mast, but the impression of being battered by the swirling chaos of a snowstorm at sea knocked you sideways as you stood in front of it.  Another from about the same time called Rain, Steam, and Speed abstractly depicts a railroad locomotive barreling toward the viewer.  All that Turner paints crisply is the locomotive’s smokestack and the sides of the bridge over which it’s passing.  But the elements of the title are visceral.  This was all but impressionism decades before. 

A painting from 1845 called Norham Castle, Sunrise was the one that did me in.  It’s a landscape.  It looks like it could be dawn. There is light.  There’s depth.  There’s clear implication of morning mist but you can’t see it.  There’s a deer, maybe, toward the foreground and somehow in the distance is the castle that gives us the title of the piece.  But nothing is distinct.   Nothing but the light is precise.  If you looked away for a moment you would not be surprised upon looking back if you couldn’t find that deer you thought you saw.   I hadn’t known that anyone was painting like this before the impressionists.

Back in the 1980s critic Robert Hughes spoke of Turner being a romantic but with “wilder moods” and “more liberal feelings” than most of his contemporaries.  Such a remark is accurate, but what’s more, it reminds me of Beethoven.  In some of Turner’s aggressive storm scenes one can hear the power of Beethoven’s heroic piano lines cutting through the swirling and crashing chords of the accompanying orchestra.  Like a steam ship struggling through a swirling snowstorm or a railroad locomotive powerfully coalescing in a torrent of smoke and cloud.  I have a music history book on my shelf that describes Beethoven as “the liberator” and such a description would not be out of line for Turner.  After him, artists were more free to paint what they felt when they looked at the world.