When Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) paints wind, steam, mist, surf, smoke, cloud, and fire — when he really hits it, as he does frequently after 1830 — it's as if the heavens have opened up and the artist, equal mixtures of Apollo and Dionysus, were a romantic messenger from the gods, a bringer of light.
Throughout his long and successful career, Turner painted numerous subjects, including mythological, historical, and religious scenes, land and sea battles, and landscapes and harbors, all of which are represented in the magnificent Turner retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But no matter how much Turner attempts to ignore it, especially early on, it is light, and his romance with light — light filtered through clouds and rain and smoke; light reflected off the moon, opening the darkness; light lifted by heat, carried by the wind, and twinkling on water — that moves the painter. Everything else, including ships, guns, figures, trees, and architecture, are all props, over and through which Turner's inimitable golden light, the main protagonist of his paintings, passes.
In that sense, Turner is a visionary, a romantic, and an expressionist — more romantic than any of his contemporaries, including Delacroix. For Turner, the world of things is a mere carrier or a conduit for that which is sublime, ephemeral, and spiritual. His vision is sweeping and grand. He dissolves the world into scintillating, misty fragments, all of which get caught up in the stormy whirlwind of his art.
This exhibition makes clear his importance to the later Impressionists and Symbolists: Turner is a bridge between Titian and Monet, Goya and Redon; and he makes possible the swirling worlds of van Gogh and Pollock. Walking through this show, lost in Turner's golden fog and swept up in his vortices, I could not help but think that nearly every time he paused to paint an object, no matter how important it was to the picture's narrative — Hannibal's elephants, Waterloo's dead, the Houses of Parliament (as opposed to the fire that consumed them) — he was allowing the world to get in the way of what truly mattered.
Turner was heavily influenced by Claude and Poussin, but he has neither the poetic sensibility and delicate hand of the former nor the poetic sensibility and inventiveness of the latter. This does not mean Turner was not a poet in his own right. But he was not seemingly captivated by particulars — the kinds of particularities that set Claude and Poussin so far above and apart. And, unlike Courbet, whose retrospective occupied these same galleries a few weeks ago, Turner's forms, whose thickened impasto clearly had an impact on Courbet, are not as visceral and immediate. Turner is not bound to the earth but, rather, lost in the clouds. He was less interested in composing, articulating, exploring, and developing a theme than he was in setting the world on fire.
If Turner is not often over the top, he certainly makes us aware of the painter as a force of nature. He is reported to have come into the galleries at the Academy where he showed his work with other artists and, on the "touching up" days, to have heightened the colorful intensities and light effects in his paintings in virtuosic performances that diminished both the work and the talents of the artists whose pictures hung nearby.
The Metropolitan's exhibition, the first major American retrospective devoted to J. M. W. Turner in more than 40 years, was organized at the Met by Gary Tinterow and Kathryn Calley Galitz. And it is high time we had a chance to see this much Turner in one setting. But Turner is a dizzying, hit-or-miss painter. Including 150 watercolors and oils, the show can be a little repetitive, if not tedious. It is important to pick and choose from the vast amount of work on the walls. Walking through the show is a bit like being spun from picture to picture by tornadoes of color, and riding crest after crest on a restless sea, which can tend after a while to cause motion sickness. Color is also a problem in the exhibition. Turner had a Byzantine fascination with the color gold; and the show, mostly sepias, golds, browns, yellows, yellow greens, and whites, can tend to churn into a sea of bodily fluids and choleric bile. That said, however, the show, if only for its moons, surf, fires, and sunsets, is exhilarating and well worth the ride.
One of the first works on view is "Fishermen at Sea" (1796), a dark, moonlit scene in blue blacks and sea greens. The picture is the first oil Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy. Its full white moon pushes away the clouds and illuminates the turbulent waves, igniting the crests, the distant horizon line, and the seagulls, which glint like the strands of a spider's web. The scene is beautiful. But it is the moon or, more correctly, the moonlight that clearly holds Turner. In late Turner, the artist has to let go of the fireball of the sun itself, which, for the painting to work, must be exploded and dissolved.
The first work on view that feels Turneresque, however — that truly sweeps you under — is "The Shipwreck" (1805), in which a large golden sail hammers down on the torrent of ocean and desperate rafts like a cleaver. It is here that the artist begins to take us on his wild ride. And it is from here on out in the exhibition that we know what moves the artist and, consequently, how he can move us along with him. That is why it is tiresome when he reverts to a detailed fussiness and a need to name things, when he stops to give us the facts of the world, when all we want is to be subsumed.
In some pictures, including "The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen From the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory" (1808), many of the forms feel like obligatory accessories. Turner immerses us in the battle. But the seamen's faces are masklike. Figures and cannons become stumbling blocks to the main action — the rolling waves, billowing smoke, explosions, and flashes of fire — the force and beauty of destruction.
By 1812, when Turner paints "Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps," it's as if the artist was able to let go. Limbs, helmets, and elephant trunks allow for the rhythmic play of light and for the creation of universes in which light can blind, rain, and storm. And the stage is set for masterpieces such as those, from the 1840s, devoted to the Deluge, pictures that verge on abstractions, or at least abstract distillations of elemental forces.
One of the most beautiful galleries in the show is that devoted to Turner's paintings, from 1834, of the burning of the Houses of Parliament. Turner witnessed the event, and his series of watercolors is a cinematic tour de force that leads up to a larger, masterful oil of the same subject. For Turner, the fire is as much a play and study of complementary colors and of dark against light as it is a horrific, apocalyptic vision. Gorgeous and moody, in thin washes and bright, raging color, the pictures seem to leave their subject behind.
In Turner, it is when he lets go so completely, breaking up form to the point of nearly pure light, pure movement, and formlessness — when he both submerges us in the world and holds the world at a blinding distance — that he is most convincing. It is when we forget the subject of his paintings that we get closest to the subject of his art.
Until September 21 (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).