"J.M.W. Turner," July 1-Sept. 21, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
It really bugs me that mainstream art critics never give the sponsors of a show the kudos they deserve. So, right up front, enthusiastic thanks to the Bank of America and the Access Foundation for their spectacular generosity in making possible the grandiose and not-to-be-missed J. M. W. Turner show at the Met. And blessings, too, to the art indemnity fund, the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, which picked up the insurance to the tune of $1.2 billion.
This 149-work show now at the Met is the first -- and last -- serious attempt ever mounted outside of Great Britain to present the full scope of the works of William Turner. Itís historic, so, get to it. One great and singular thing about it is the stellar condition of the paintings, which except for loans from a private collector and museums other than the Tate, have been babied by the blessed Tate since Turner gave them to the nation.
Yet, itís also daunting. Iíve heard some of the groans about visual overload -- "square miles of paintings and watercolors pretty much the same as the one nearby." A full comprehension of the pieces in this show should be attempted only if you have to study for a Ph.D. exam. The only way to deal with such an array is to walk through swiftly noting the pieces that hit you hard and then backtrack and savor only them. Turner is like old studio-system Hollywood. He created a dozen true masterpieces that appeal to every generation. Hundreds of A-productions, which today seem quaint. And a plethora of B-movies Turner churned out to make a living and which look trite and superficial today. Face it: Whereas William Turner was one of the three or four greatest British artists in history, in world art heís merely an intriguing figure.
In the seven pieces out of the 149 that hit me hard I learned that maybe critics (and he had dozens that loathed his work) and art historians (me included) might have gotten Turner wrong. After seeing this unparalleled array I no longer believe heís a brilliant landscape, seascape and history painter. I now see him as a painter of compelling fantasies who happened to use landscape and the sea as stage sets. Heís a magician and poet of color and light and atmosphere who transforms grim -- and jejune -- reality into a surreal, dreamy never-never land, which is both intimate and universal at the same time.
Hereís what especially hit me:
* The Devilís Bridge, 1803-04.
The tenuous bridge which in 1802 was rebuilt near the top of the vertiginous St. Gotthard pass was one of the most frightening passages in the world. How did they build it? How many perished making it? I adore the way Turner has loaded this painting with fantasy drama. A group on the left has made it across. One lonely, shivering pedestrian is starting across (and you suspect he might be buffeted by the erratic winds rushing through the impossibly steep cleft, and wonít make it), while on the right a band of soldiers think twice about going forward. Iíd have admired the view, which with Turner is exaggerated (splendidly), and retreated back to flat and sunnier climes.
* The Shipwreck of 1805.
A great ship in the center background is disintegrating. One of its life boats in the center foreground, full of exhausted and terrorized passengers, is trying to stay afloat in the rocketing seas and winds of such gale force that the tops of the waves are blowing off (that normally happens at 65 knots.) Two sailboats have ventured into the maelstrom to help. Will they save anyone? Or will all three puny vessels get crushed by these magnificently painted breakers, which seem not water but black and horrifying rocks? My guess is that all souls will survive because of the bravery of the rescuers, despite the fact that the boat on the right is already stripped of its sails and the larger savior is racing too fast by the beleaguered survivors.†
* Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812.
If any painting is sublime, this is it. By "sublime" I mean it in terms of the early 19th century, when the characterization of "the Sublime" was a major esthetic goal. One could experience "the Sublime" and achieve an elevation of the soul in various ways, including by vicariously "living" in overwhelming and threatening natural phenomena.
This is a snowstorm that happens in oneís nightmares or in real life once in a millennium. The subject is the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossing the Alps. While being snipped at by some locals his vast army is smashed by a tremendous storm. In the foreground is a cunning, grisly scene of a pair of Hannibalís troopers knifing and looting the enemy, which gives the viewer a dash of "sublime" horror. In the very far center you can spot an elephant with a castle on its back; the trunk of the terrified beast is raised in anguish (there are four smaller elephants running behind). But the heart of this gigantic picture (8 x 5.5 ft.) is the great claw of sleet and snow and wind that threatens not only Hannibal and the alpine natives, but also the sun itself. Pure, thrilling "sublime" Armageddon.
* Staffa, Fingalís Cave, 1832.
The Cave, a sort of watery Yosemite-like geological curiosity made up of huge hexagonal basalt columns, was, since its discovery in the late 18th century, a must-see for artists, poets and nature-lovers. It was never so poetically delineated as in this symphony of brilliance and brooding gathering darkness.
A steamboat (Turner was in love with modern equipment) crunches its way into a magnificently setting sun and passes the precious jewels of the cave. In counterpoint to the sturdy plume of smoke the tail of which is wondrously illuminated by the sun a giant darkening cloud looms up -- and as lone seagull flies to safety on the rocks.
* The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons 16 October 1834, 1835 (and those watercolors of the scene that happen to be on view -- numbers 119-127)
I cannot think in all of art any painting of fire or eruption or explosion or bombing as vivid, powerful, dreamlike or phantasmagorical as this scene (which, oddly, does not conform to any of the on-site watercolor studies). The vista must be from the south bank of the Thames slightly to the left of Westminster Bridge. The conflagration is so intense and widespread that it seems to be devouring the Palace of Westminster and part of the bridge (both of which survived). The sacred old seats of government seem to be melting before our awe-struck eyes.
* Snow Storm -- Steam Boat off a Harborís Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich, 1842.
And this is not even the longest of Turnerís titles! The title is in part a spin, for it is generally believed that Turner was definitely not on board, but on shore observing the events. He could make things up for the drama of it all. Another time he claimed to have been lashed to a mast for four hours during a storm.
Turner was one of the rare artists, like Titian and Matisse, who got better with age. This 3 x 4 ft. marvel has made all of nature a storm vortex and clouds, rain, snow and waves have coalesced in fury. The defiant steamer has sent off a rocket or two in the face of danger and we know that it will survive. If I were to steal one painting from the show, this might well be it.
* Peace -- Burial at Sea, 1842.
This is an never-never land depiction of the burial of Turnerís friend, the Scottish painter David Wilkie, who is supposed to have died of cholera and thus was not allowed into Gibraltar to be decently buried. This is pure lamentation and hallowed sorrow expressed magnificently by inanimate objects, as if the sails, the smoke and illuminating fire were grieving. The perfect funeral.
Why donít I choose one Venetian scene? A third of Turnerís late pictures were of Venice, a city that obsessed him. Well, to me, they suffer from reality.
A host of unfinished Turners fill the final gallery, works that are superficially intriguing. I donít happen to be one of those modernists addicted to his incomplete works and refuse to be tricked into seeing in them the genesis of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, which they are not. Why they were included in this public show (thus cutting out other finished pieces), I donít have any idea. Gotta be trendy, I guess. They should remain at the Tate to be studied by specialists devoted to his various techniques.
Buy the catalogue if you must, but itís expensive. I found it stodgy, pedantic and repetitious, and it doesnít contribute anything new to the understanding of William Turner. It is useful for history and does quote a lot of poetry. Thatís important, for poetry was the rage of the day and Turner himself wrote some tortuously muddy poems. He cannot be properly understood without reading a lot of the poetry he loved. The color plates are decent, yet not sparkling and the postage-stamp figures are grimy and placed sometimes dozens of pages away from the accompanying text. Itís ironic that the Turner mentioned more than any other in the catalogue, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying -- Typhoon Coming On of 1840, is not in the show, perhaps bounced out by an unfinished thing. (You might find illuminating, as I did, J. M. W. Turner: Ackroydís Brief Lives, by Peter Ackroyd, downloadable on your Kindle for ten bucks).
The part of the Metís website devoted to the show is puerile, as is the entire site, which is kindergarten level compared to the British Museum and the Boston MFA, for example.
The audio guide is helpful for those who can tolerate such an impediment to personal inspection and care little about connoisseurship. Met Curators Kathy Galitz and Gary Tinterow intone essentially take-outs from the catalogue. Philippe de Montebello has an entertaining role -- he sonorously reads from poems, Turnerís writings, the Bible and contemporary critics. Although Montebello quotes mostly glowing reviews, once he reads a typically nasty critical observation which is fun and maybe even close to the truth regarding the plethora of B-production Turners: "This gentleman has, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yoke of egg, or currant jelly -- here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff."
Hell, Turner even used snuff and made it look divine.
THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curatorís Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.