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PRINT Summer 2008

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J. M. W. Turner

J. M. W. Turner, Peace—Burial at Sea, 1842, oil on canvas, 34 1/4 x 34 1/8".

IN RECENT DECADES, the occasion of a major Turner exhibition has invariably elicited outpourings of admiring, even marveling commentary on the artist’s work, and the response to the current traveling retrospective—soon to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—has thus far proved no exception.* But beyond the consensus that Turner must be ranked among the greats of post-Renaissance European art (regardless of what criteria such an estimation might be based on), no one seems to know quite what to do with his immense, intractable body of work, so seemingly incommensurable with the production of any other artist. The high visibility of the art and the mountains of research and writing on it notwithstanding, Turner and his pictures remain cordoned off in a strange critical and historiographical vacuum. It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of another artist of his stature who has been so consistently excluded from a meaningful role within the most dominant and influential accounts of visual modernism. Even Goya has been more convincingly woven into the various stories that art history tells. Of course, it has been repeatedly claimed that Turner has some vaguely defined relation to French Impressionism, to late Monet and Whistler, to Abstract Expressionism. But in spite of these alleged connections—which are, in any case, largely superficial when not altogether wrongheaded—Turner has never featured in the game of theorizing nineteenth-century art, a game even now still played mostly with the same short deck: Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, and a few others. It’s not a matter of there being some untold master narrative of modern art that must displace existing ones; rather, a history with Turner foregrounded is one of the necessary stories that has yet to be voiced as part of a plurality of noncongruent and discontinuous histories that, together or separately, would be of explanatory value in the present. Unfortunately, the primary direction in Turner studies today reinforces his exteriority to larger critical and historical accounts of modernity by contextualizing him ever deeper within the archival minutiae of specifically English social history, pictorial practices, and contiguous events.

Ironically, one of the initial reasons for Turner’s marginalization was his very Englishness: That English art was intrinsically inferior to that of the Continent had long been axiomatic. An exemplary instance of this “national” devaluation of Turner may be found in L’Art moderne (1921), the penultimate volume of Élie Faure’s canonical L’Histoire de l’art, in which Turner is deemed a noble failure, a victim of ambition overreaching ability. For Faure, Turner’s work vividly demonstrated the inability of English art to convey the grandeur of ideas and exposed the absence of an innate plastic sense. Turner, like the rest of his compatriots, was congenitally incapable of grasping the essential forms and volumes that are the basis of great art (which, for Faure, included the works of Corot and Puvis).

A shift in the wind, of sorts, occurred in the wake of “Turner: Imagination and Reality,” an exhibition organized by Lawrence Gowing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966, which tendentiously presented roomfuls of paintings and watercolors mainly from the 1830s and ’40s, the final decades of Turner’s career. Through this weighted selection, a late Turner of pure visuality was fabricated, simultaneously enhancing the pedigree of Abstract Expressionism. Gowing’s eloquent catalogue essay unintentionally facilitated the notion of a bifurcated career in which there was a breakout from what appeared to be the academic and literary preoccupations of the earlier work. Whether or not some hypothetical unity can be imposed on Turner’s whole output, there is no question about the “literariness” of his oeuvre from the beginning to the very end. Though one of Turner’s achievements is the spectacular derangement of the assumptions of ut pictura poesis, his work is nonetheless inseparable from a ruined, sedimented field of textuality, even when it seems remotest from language. Cutting across Turner’s personal fantasia of the library are his own stammering attempts at writing, at poetic utterance, which, no matter how diffident, attest to the enduring permeability of word and image in his imaginal processes. This hybrid impurity has always been a factor in the modernist critical aversion to Turner.

Inevitably, some of the most penetrating views on Turner come from France. Deleuze and Guattari, in the 1970s, found in his work an oracular breakthrough unparalleled in nineteenth-century art, and one that helped confirm their strategic notion of the “superiority of Anglo-American literature.” For them, it was about creative superiority to the French, a contrast between wandering, flight, and renunciation on the one hand and position, property, and inheritance on the other. But, commendably, their use of Turner as a diagram of deterritorialization was not based on recourse to all the caricatures and compartmentalization of the late work. Rather, they understood that his archaisms, and their delirious redistribution, were inextricable from his manifest innovations. Turner, they insisted, was not ahead of his time, but out of time, ageless, and his paintings “[come] to us from an eternal future.” Although art historians pay lip service to critiques of historicism and endlessly cite texts such as Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), the suggestion that Turner might be understood through a notion of untimeliness is nonsensical or unthinkable to a discipline that could not survive without its unexamined faith that history is fundamentally “one thing after another” occurring in homogenous time.

J. M. W. Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—The Morning After the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843, oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 30 7/8".

Thus it’s no accident that the most challenging thinking about the histories of art and about how these histories can be represented most effectively is happening outside the academy. I’m thinking, to give a few examples, of Peter Weiss’s novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975), Alexander Sokurov’s films Russian Ark (2002) and Elegy of a Voyage (2001), and Jean-Luc Godard’s film essays Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98) and The Old Place (coauthored by Anne-Marie Miéville; 1999). Of these, Godard’s Histoire(s) is most relevant here for its montage of a nineteenth century in which Turner and Manet (and numerous others) are each significant figures within a space of intersecting narratives. Turner is positioned by Godard in an astute shuffling of the cards: Peace—Burial at Sea, 1842, coincides with the recitation of Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” (1859). The dark, terminal stasis of the ship, set off against beams of illumination, parallels Baudelaire’s evocation of unprecedented voyages that can be undertaken without movement in space. Turner, with his staggering physical investment in travel and the vast accumulation of the traces of his journeys in his thousands of sketches, takes the literal voyage to a limit beyond which other kinds of itineraries are revealed. Godard’s provocation is to suggest that Turner, not Delacroix or anyone else, is the Baudelairean painter par excellence, the painter with the most original mnemotechnics and the most capacious “dictionary of nature” out of which unknown worlds come into being. In addition, Godard works against the grain with one of Turner’s enigmatic Petworth paintings, Music at East Cowes Castle, ca. 1835, in which the sensuously enclosed, gas-lamp-lit milieu of a buffered bloodred interior could be a color plate in an illustrated Fleurs du Mal.

Turner’s singular emergence as a young painter in the late eighteenth century was not a random occurrence, nor is he an isolated or anomalous figure. His untimeliness is paradoxically and necessarily the product of a specific interval in time, a period of perhaps four or five decades between the Revolution of 1789 and the failures of 1848. It was a brief interregnum, a privileged and never to be repeated window onto the raw outlines of a stunning new realm of possibilities. Apprehensible to Turner and some of his peers were a boundless earth, unforeseen multitudes, and flows of wealth, charged with forces and destinies at once terrifying and wondrous. To position Turner in this way has nothing to do with labeling him a “poet of industrialization” because he painted a few steamboats or a train. Rather, he had a piercing if inchoate sense that there had been a rift or swerve in time itself. To understand his project means thinking him as part of a constellation that includes William Blake, Géricault, Toussaint-Louverture, Marx, Melville, Balzac, Robert Owen, and others—individuals who, within the vertiginous falling away of familiar stabilities and certainties, saw revelatory flashes of what would (or could) follow in the wake of a new universal humanity on the one hand and the invisible and deracinated powers of capital on the other. No other modern painter has ever come close to approximating Turner’s fusion in the same work of a sweeping engagement with the plenitude of geological, mythical, imperial, and social history and a sustained exploration of the most fleeting particularities of the luminous and optical phenomena that constitute subjective visual experience. Turner’s sense of the broken and unfulfilled character of time could only have occurred within a rejection of the pictorial conventions whose meanings he had understood so profoundly, and he sought their replacement by continually experimenting with novel techniques and visual practices.

Turner’s late canvases on themes from Virgil and the Old Testament are especially relevant here: for example, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—The Morning After the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. In this circular composition, the sky, the earth, and the horizon are lost in a radiant pouring of molten gold, and the distinction between light and matter dissolved. Turner achieves a dazzling figuration of a suspended time in between catastrophe and emancipation. He evokes the disorientation and depersonalization of the lived interval following the wreckage and dissipation of an old order and an anti-triumphal anticipation of a world or community yet to be made. In our own present, by contrast, we seem more constrained than ever by all the accumulated institutional imperatives to patronize and disparage, to retrospectively blame and repudiate, the struggles and social imaginaries of that most turbulent and expectant half century in the history of the West, of which Turner’s art remains an astonishing if now destitute relic.

Jonathan Crary is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University in New York and a founding editor of Zone Books.

* “J. M. W. Turner” was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Dallas Museum of Art; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; in association with Tate Britain. The exhibition, which originated in Washington before traveling to Dallas, arrives this month at the Met, where it will be on view from June 24 through September 21.