J. M. W. Turner: A Critical Biography
The Sunset Ship: The Poems of J. M. W. Turner
Turner: Imagination and Reality
A Turner exhibition is held at the Museum of Modern Art. Monroe Wheeler refers to “exceptional productions of other periods of art history in which the modern spirit happened to be foreshadowed or by which modern artists have been influenced”; Lawrence Gowing writes that “now we find that a kind of painting, which is of vital concern to us, was anticipated by Turner”; Sir John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin talk of his “influential impact” in recent years; Jack Lindsay says that “in his work modern art was fully and definitely born.” No one can be in any doubt as to the reason for the present-day vogue for Turner, though many people are obviously not very happy that it has taken this form, and a close study of the works themselves and the various books under consideration will not really help them very much: Indeed only Lawrence Gowing makes any serious attempt to explain just what Turner is assumed to have anticipated. But the history of artistic revivals is riddled with such anomalies—art historians love to justify their favorite painters of the past by seeing in (or reading into) them some foreshadowing of the future: A cleaned Velázquez in the London National Gallery is held to be of greater value because it “anticipates” Manet, and last year’s exhibition of the brothers Guardi in Venice was full of people murmuring “Impressionism” or even “Cézanne” in front of any couple of square inches of loosely painted still life. Similarly artists themselves and their interpreters, however bold, always seem to be trying, like nineteenth-century parvenus, to equip themselves with respectable ancestors. The mechanism is not altogether clear, but it would appear not so much that they were actually influenced by such earlier artists (as Turner was by Claude and the Dutch seventeenth-century marine painters) as that—in their relative isolation from a broad, well-informed public—they needed the reassurance of feeling that someone else had once done something vaguely similar. To the historian, even to the regular gallery visitor who tries to avoid the vagaries of fashion, it is all rather irritating: A recent editorial in The Burlington Magazine deplored the fact that certain painters, such as Vermeer and Louis Le Nain, had been rediscovered at the “wrong” time, by critics who envisaged them as pioneers in the realist battles being waged in mid-nineteenth century France. Now, it is assumed, we know better and can appreciate these painters for what they really were: the forerunners of our own alienation. In fact, ever since Renaissance artists rediscovered classical antiquity, the past has always been made meaningful by reference to the present, and if it was not now fashionable to believe that Turner had anticipated Rothko, we would probably still be thinking that he was in some way responsible for Impressionism—despite the indignant denials of the French.
TURNER HAS ANOTHER APPEAL. He is the first painter to meet with that frightened detestation that has been the lot of so many artists since his day—this too “is one of the many signs marking him out as the founder of modern art,” according to Mr. Lindsay. As early as 1815 we find it being claimed that “there has been a virulence of Criticism on the pictures painted by Turner, such as should be reserved for Crime, but wholly disproportioned to a subject of painting however much disapproved.” Comments on his alleged madness are frequent, and there are the usual jokes about splashing paint on the canvas and so on, though much of the opposition he attracted was curiously perceptive and well-informed. Throughout his life, moreover, he evoked passionate admiration and support, and he was consistently backed by the Royal Academy, whose President, Sir Martin Shee, referred to him in 1836 as “one of the greatest artists of the age in which we live.” This backing helps to explain Turner’s bitter indignation with Benjamin Robert Haydon for his attacks on the Academy and his reactions when informed of that artist’s suicide—“he merely growled out between his teeth: ‘He stabbed his mother, he stabbed his mother.”’
This was a callous reaction from a man who was more inclined to show extravagant grief at the deaths of his colleagues, but it is given greater depth and poignancy by the context within which Mr. Lindsay enables us to see it; for Turner’s own mother had gone mad and had had to be relegated to an asylum. It is not hard to imagine the pain that he must have suffered from the repeated charges of lunacy that were applied to his work. Despite his notorious secrecy and reluctance to talk about this—“I did not paint it to be understood,” he said of one of his pictures—Mr. Lindsay’s very readable biography does make of him (for the first time) a credible human being. The task is unusually difficult, for the contradictory elements in his life were even more compartmentalized in him than they are in most men. He exhibited at the Academy and even built a gallery of his own in order to show his works, yet kept large quantities of them totally concealed from the public; “his studio,” said a friend after his death, “had been enshrined in mystery and the object of profound speculation,” yet—as Lawrence Gowing points out—he had a strong “instinct for the nature of painting as performance” and repeatedly finished his pictures on varnishing day when they were already hanging on the walls of the Academy. He was an active member of that body, was a friend of the great Lord Egremont, with whom he would stay at Petworth, but, while shunning marriage, he had long, settled relationships with comfortably widowed mistresses whom he insisted on keeping very much to himself—“exactly like a fat cook,” said someone of Mrs. Booth, “what a pity so great a man in talent should not have a more ladylike choice. He could not have introduced her to his friends.” His closest relationship seems to have been with his simple, but endearing father, whose death when Turner was aged fifty-four left him feeling “as if he had lost an only child.”
HE WAS A STRANGE MAN and he has been given a strange biography, though it is probably no stranger than the convention by which we look at Turner through eyes brought up on Abstract Expressionism. But it strikes a jarring (and therefore welcome) note in the current reappraisal of the artist, because Mr. Lindsay’s preconceptions are so very different from those of most biographers and art historians today. They reflect in fact the outlook that we associate with the Thirties, and it is significant that the painters with whom he feels he has to come to grips when evaluating Turner are Cézanne and the Cubists. There is, for instance, his rather simplified psychoanalytical approach, which now gives his book a somewhat dated charm: In Crossing the Brook “we may take Evelina’s brookcrossing to symbolize her arrival at womanhood…Above her, and ahead, looms the cleft which plays so crucial a part in many of Turner’s pictures; here it provides the steppingpoint between foreground and distance—the vaginal passage from the familiar present into the adventurous light-lost distance of the unknown.” It is curious, though, that Mr. Lindsay does not apply this technique to some of the very strange pictures by Turner which really do seem inexplicable in any other terms: The Letter, for instance, where two widely contrasted girls are engaged in some extraordinary confrontation. There is, too, the insistence on Turner’s left-wing political views, which finds no real justification in the writings quoted by Mr. Lindsay (and is, in fact, explicitly denied by one of Turner’s acquaintances). He is therefore reduced to pointing out that the artist had a strongly radical friend, and to surmising that he must have been “deeply interested in the powerful speech made by Byron in the House of Lords on 27 February 1812 against the law carrying the death penalty [for the destruction of machinery].” When, in fact, Turner really does comment on a political situation—the revolutionary upsurge of 1849 in Rome—he is concerned only with possible damage to pictures—but Mr. Lindsay explains this by referring to his old age at the time.
What is far more disturbing than any of this is the extraordinary sense of proportion of his book which is surely unbalanced to the point of eccentricity. Of its 288 pages the first two-thirds carry us only to the year 1819, the date of his first visit to Italy, when he still had more than thirty years to live and most of his greatest works to paint—consequently many of his most beautiful pictures, and still more watercolors, receive totally inadequate discussion. None the less this biography is written with deep sympathy, knowledge, and enthusiasm and it adds considerably to our understanding. It is full of the most perceptive insights about the artist’s life and work, and it is therefore doubly unfortunate that it contains so many misprints and such an unsatisfactory index. The number of plates is also wholly insufficient, but this difficulty can at last be overcome by referring to the large volume of Sir John Rothenstein and Mr. Martin Butlin, which assembles for the first time a considerable number of illustrations well reproduced. They are accompanied by a useful and informative introduction, somewhat cautious in tone, which counters Mr. Lindsay’s imbalance, but obviously lacks some of his glamor.
MR. LINDSAY is the first of Turner’s biographers to emphasize the enormous importance to him of his poetry, and again and again he uses fragments of his verse to try to elucidate his aims and state of mind. This is by no means as easy as it sounds, for the poetry is often so contorted as to be almost meaningless. But there are a few fine passages where the intensity of the emotion and thought do manage to find real expression in words, and these can be studied in the excellent edition prepared by Mr. Lindsay, which also contains a most valuable study relating Turner to Thomson, Akenside, and others to whom the artist turned.
By far the finest criticism inspired by the Turner revival is that provided by Mr. Lawrence Gowing in the Museum of Modern Art publication to commemorate the exhibition. He concentrates on the last twenty years of the artist’s career, and while isolating those aspects of it which have proved of particular interest to modern critics analyzes them always in relation to Turner’s own achievements and those of his contemporaries. He shows us these contemporaries becoming increasingly bewildered as the artist experimented with heretical ideas which, since his day, have become orthodoxies: “Turner’s pictures were always visibly made out of paint” is his answer to Hazlitt’s jibe that they “were of nothing and very like,” but he is careful to make the currently underrated point that “his work is never without a figurative reference.” Yet the problem is a complex one and, in a most interesting discussion of Turner’s treatment of external reality, he emphasizes that “in the heyday of the Romantic engrossment in nature, he had no doubt that art was founded on art,” and he suggests that many of the Venetian water-colors began as “parallel zones of color, painted horizontally across the sheet…. which were allowed to suggest their own purpose, and left waiting until the moment for it arose…the old hierarchy of reality was reversed. Color assumed precedence. It existed first and provided the imaginative substance out of which the likeness of an external subject could be made.” These brief quotations must suffice to show the delicate perception and sensitivity with which Mr. Gowing explores the novelty of the later work, and though he ends with the words:
Turner showed that a certain potentiality was inherent in the nature of painting. The latent possibility has emerged again. Turner’s vision and his towering fantasy remain his own, beyond compare. Nevertheless we meet him with a sense of recognition….
his admirable essay will remain fundamental to an understanding of the artist long after the nature of painting has changed again, and the recognition has been banished to the history books.