How does it happen that a museum devoted to modern art, an institution celebrated for its attention to the latest and most radical artistic developments, should display the works of a nineteenth-century English painter who, besides being a loyal member of the Royal Academy, was a great success with a public not exactly famous for its advanced ideas?
The question will no doubt occur to many a spectator who sets out to see the exhibition called “Turner: Imagination and Reality” at the Museum of Modern Art. For Turner is an artist we know, or think we know, from pictures that hang in the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum, and it must appear odd that this same artist—the darling of Ruskin and the scourge of all those critics who reacted against the accepted taste of the nineteenth century—should now, more than a century after his death, be presented to us as a prophet of the avant-garde.
To anyone who has closely followed the shifting terrain of contemporary aesthetics, however, the mounting of an ambitious Turner exhibition will be anything but a surprise. The event may even seem just a bit late in coming. For it constitutes the second act in the revisionist drama that began in the 1950’s with the revaluation of Claude Monet.
Like Turner, Monet had long been regarded as an artist having little or no relevance to contemporary artistic concerns. Monet lived on until 1926, painting steadily at his retreat in Giverny, but to a public interested in Picasso and Matisse, he seemed an anachronism. He was a painter safely ensconced in history, a classic of Impressionism, the favorite artist of those millionaire collectors of our grandfathers’ generation who found solace in his sunny landscape and flower paintings at a time when more menacing and revolutionary movements—Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism—loomed on the horizon.
But the Monet who was rediscovered in the fifties turned out to be a painter rather different from the one admired by our grandfathers. The artist once beloved for his gentle and virtuoso fidelity to nature was now being hailed as a tough-minded precursor of the most advanced forms of abstraction. The landscapes of the seventies and eighties, with their weather-perfect details of sky and sea and countryside, were passed over in favor of the painter’s late works—many of them so blurry and indistinct that earlier connoisseurs had confidently ascribed their “failure” to the artist’s diminished eyesight in his old age.
This sort of revision in emphasis and judgment does not, of course, take place in a historical void. It is the direct reflection of contemporary experience. In the case of Monet, it reflected the enormous change in pictorial values effected by the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York. The late mural-size paintings of Monet’s water garden at Giverny—vast orchestrations of feathery brushstrokes in which the precise specifications of nature are no longer visible—seemed an inexplicable indulgence to eyes trained in the more classical pictorial values of Cézanne and the Cubists. But to a generation that drew its inspiration from the mural-size paintings of Jackson Pollock—abstractions which dispensed with nature altogether and forsook classical form in favor of skeins of paint deployed in free-wheeling designs—Monet had the look of a contemporary.
Thus, when the Museum of Modern Art opened its great Monet exhibition exactly six years ago this month, the way had already been prepared. Scarcely five years earlier, the painter’s late works—many of them rolled up in his studio for more than a quarter of a century and considered unsalable—had been ferreted out and sold, at exhibitions in Paris and New York, for prices that doubled and quadrupled by the time some of the same pictures came to adorn the walls of the museum. Critics were eloquent in their praise of these late paintings, and younger painters began imitating them shamelessly. Intellectually and commercially, Monet was vindicated.
The Turner revival owes its existence to a similar change in aesthetic perspective. And as with Monet, the Turner whose accomplishments are now so highly prized is not quite the same artist whom respectable collectors of the last century were pleased to spend their money on. Once again, it is the artist’s late works which are felt to have a special relevance to current artistic concerns; once again, we are being ushered into the presence of some works of art never exhibited in the artist’s lifetime (the Museum of Modern Art show includes works never before exhibited anywhere), but works which now seem to address us in a language we recognize as our own.
The qualities that confer this mark of contemporaneity on Turner’s late paintings—and most especially on his late water-colors—may be summed up in two words: color and light. For we see in the last decades of Turner’s immensely productive career, particularly in the work executed between the 1830’s and his death in 1851, the elevation of color to the most radical priority ever accorded it (until then) in the history of Western painting. It is precisely this priority of color upon which an increasing number of contemporary American painters have lately been concerned to build their entire pictorial vision. It is color liberated from the form-making authority of drawing—color conceived and executed as the sheer embodiment of light. Even the technical innovations adopted by these American painters—the habit of thinning color into a watery wash and then dyeing or spraying it into the canvas, rather than laying it on, stroke by stroke, with a brush—echo Turner’s highly original use of watercolor technique and the watercolor effects he often sought to achieve in his oils.
Thus, Turner comes to us at the present moment as an inspired precursor of the attempt to create a pictorial style out of the materials of color alone. So far as we know, Turner himself always had in mind some specific subject matter for even the most radical of his pictures. Even the most “abstract” of his watercolor sketches represented—to his own eye, if not always to ours—an actual motif. Yet so free had Turner become in divorcing the notation of color from the dictates of drawing—in some of his later watercolors, the entire image consists of a few amorphous blots of transparent wash—that the motif seems to have lost all bearing on the final result. Even in the more elaborately finished oil paintings, where the ostensible subject (usually landscape or seascape) remains more apparent, the light-bearing properties of color swamp the particularities of the scene with an overwhelming luminosity.
The man who effected this radical transformation of painting into a pure statement of color disengaged from the confinements of drawing was, paradoxically, a master draftsman much admired in his lifetime for his feats of graphic delineation. Born in London in 1775, the son of a barber, Turner began drawing as a boy and was something of a prodigy. He was apprenticed early to Thomas Maltón, who specialized in topographical watercolors of architectural subjects—a specialty the young Turner quickly made his own. At the age of fourteen, he became an art student at the Royal Academy Schools, and at fifteen began a lifelong career of showing at the Royal Academy itself (his first exhibit being a watercolor rendering of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth).
At twenty-four, the earliest age at which the Academy admitted membership, Turner was selected an Associate, and in 1802 he achieved the rank of a full Academician. A country that boasts of having radical Tories may have no difficulty in accommodating the notion of a vanguard Academician, but to less paradoxical minds, Turner still seems an anomaly in the annals of modern art: a radical supported by an official academy against the attacks—often very violent attacks—of the conservative opinion of his day. And the paradox is compounded by the fact that Turner (like Monet in this respect) was a canny custodian of his own career and succeeded in making a handsome living out of a talent that was almost constantly embroiled in artistic controversy.
But then, Turner was the very archetype of the robust, extrovert artist, uncouth in manner, immensely energetic, tirelessly productive, jealous of his status, yet adamant in pursuing his highly individual goals.
His usual procedure was to adopt an accepted style and approved subjects, and then carry them to some personal extreme of invention and innovation. Coming of age in a period that favored picturesque views of remote landscapes and that looked to the past—to Poussin and Claude Lorrain—for the correct ways of rendering such views, Turner toured the countryside and the seashore, first in England itself and then on the Continent, constantly sketching and storing up memories of the exact effects he intended to achieve in his finished work, but still alert to the traditional ways in which such effects were realized in the paintings of the masters. He made himself a connoisseur of the traditions in which he worked: no innovator of modern times was a more attentive student of the masters than Turner, and he worked in conscious competition with the great painters of the past.
In 1802, he undertook his first journey to the Continent, and his close study of the masterworks lately garnered in the Louvre by Napoleon yielded him a body of insights and ideas that were to serve him well in the future. The English art historian Michael Kitson recently wrote of this visit to the Louvre: “In two or three weeks he filled a notebook with studies, some of them colored, of pictures he thought important. The latter were chiefly works in which landscape played a major, but not necessarily exclusive, part in the composition. To judge from the number of studies devoted to their work in the notebook, the artists who most attracted Turner’s attention in the Louvre were Titian, Poussin and Rembrandt.”
By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Turner’s basic repertory of pictorial themes, if not his final way of handling them, was well established. Picturesque landscape subjects, often highly theatrical in effect, occupied the central place. Architectural motifs, painstakingly rendered down to the finest details, played an important role. And there was also a strong literary element in Turner’s painting, for many of his most grandiose landscape paintings were settings for Biblical and mythological anecdotes—a reflection of the belief, still widely held in Turner’s time, that a truly heroic style required for its full realization a traditionally heroic subject.
There are significant traces of these themes in Turner’s later work—the emphasis on landscape and seascape, at least as a starting point, remained central—but they do not account for the quality of that work. For between his early success and his later radical accomplishments, Turner underwent a fundamental change in his understanding of what a heroic modern style might consist of. We see in his development from, say, the turn of the century to the 1830’s, one of those extraordinary leaps of the imagination that separate the assumptions of one period from those of another. At the end of that development it is no longer the particular motif or the specific literary subject that commands our attention, but the pure painterly dynamics—those masses and swirls of light-vibrating color—which dominate the final image.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Turner lost interest in nature when he undertook these forays into what now look to be exercises in pure painting. If anything, his devotion to the actual visual content of nature—but nature seen in the raw, so to speak, rather than through the ameliorating conventions of earlier painting styles—became more and more of an obsession. One of the most brilliant of the pictures he produced in the last decade of his life, “Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbor’s Mouth” (1842), in the collection of the National Gallery, London, provides a vivid example, for it owes its existence to this obsession and shows the lengths to which Turner was prepared to go to accommodate it. He had first brooded about the theme and then actually contrived to experience it firsthand. “I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe [the storm]; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape,” Turner later remarked, “but I felt bound to record it if I did.” Turner was sixty-six at the time. Clearly, the visual sensations to be derived from nature had not lost their importance for him.
Yet to suggest that the painting is only, or even primarily, a record of his impressions of the storm at sea would scarcely do justice either to the work or to the complexity of the mind that conceived it. The dynamics of painting, the imagination of what the deployment of pure color was capable of expressing, came to hold equal sway over Turner’s sensibilities. He became notorious for swamping his subjects (or so it seemed) under swirls of heavy pigment. A cartoonist of the forties, depicting Turner at work on a painting, shows him using a mop and a bucket instead of a brush and palette. Contemporaries referred to the way he “plastered” his pictures and were dumfounded at their apparent obscurity.
In subtitling their exhibition “Imagination and Reality,” the organizers of the new Turner exhibition have, then, deliberately focused our attention on the dialectical drama that took place in the painter’s sensibility during those last crucial decades. Turner’s was a mind divided in its loyalty to two orders of visual reality—the reality of nature and the reality of the artistic process. In his case, imagination consisted not of choosing one over the other, but in mediating between the two. In his essay for the museum’s catalogue—quite possibly the best single study ever written on Turner’s aesthetic—Lawrence Gowing, Keeper of British Painting at the Tate Gallery and co-director (with Monroe Wheeler) of the Turner exhibition, observes: “Eventually no single touch of paint corresponded to any specific object; the equivalence was between the whole configuration and the total subject.” In the end we are at a very far remove from those picturesque views that evoke memories of Claude Lorrain; we are made witness to an imagination absolutely vehement in its personal logic, in its determination to summarize all experience in the rhythmic and luminous flow of a swirl of pigment.
No wonder the public balked!
How are we to judge these late paintings? Mr. Gowing suggests that they are “still not altogether comprehensible today,” that “in [Turner’s] painting something singular and incomparable happened.” Without questioning the singularity of Turner’s late work, it does nonetheless seem comparable in its general aesthetic logic to several of the most important oeuvres in the painting of the last hundred years.
Monet’s late phase has already been cited. But in one important respect, Turner’s development more closely resembles that of Monet’s contemporary Cézanne. For Cézanne, too, began his career with fantasies of heroic subjects—in his case, baroque fantasies derived from Delacroix and Rubens—and only slowly, nnder the influence of Impressionism, conceived those formal and painterly revisions of style that elevated the pictorial means itself to the heroic role. The purity of Cezanne’s late painting, though more classical in its formal rigor than Turner’s, is based, like Turner’s, on the dynamics of the pictorial process. The motif is the painting’s support, but no longer its raison d’etre.
And in the extremity of its stylistic resolution, Turner’s final painterly avowal also calls to mind those ultimate works of Mondrian and Matisse—the one severe in geometric rigor, the other highly simplified in arrangements of pure color—that summarize and subsume their authors’ long and arduous development in pictorial statements of the utmost concision. Turner’s modernity anticipates theirs, and in retrospect seems inevitable rather than willful or eccentric.
In recovering the late paintings of Turner, are we also recovering a missing link in the chain of modern art history? The answer to this question continues to elude art historians, though we may be sure that it will now be pursued with renewed vigor. For French writers have consistently denied that Turner exercised any influence on the Impressionists—hut the denial is hard to credit when one finds so many of Turner’s attitudes toward light and color echoed in Monet, who had an opportunity to see the Englishman’s works in London.
In any case, the possibility is too suggestive to ignore and, followed through to its logical outcome, would indeed cast Turner’s shadow onto the present artistic scene with even more force than it now enjoys. For if Turner’s link to Monet exists, then we know that Monet, in turn, was a decisive influence on Kandinsky’s decision to separate the expressive element in painting from its representational function; that Kandinsky provided a precedent and inspiration for many of the innovations of the Abstract Expressionists—Pollock especially—without whose example the color painters of the present moment would scarcely exist in their present form. Thus, the possibility exists that Turner is not only a precursor of our present artistic accomplishments and dilemmas but their actual progenitor. This vanguard academician may be, after all, the true father of modern painting.