San Francisco

Joseph Mallard William Turner

This first comprehensive American exhibition and only West Coast showing of his watercolors re-establishes Turner as one of the most complex and contradictory artists England has produced. Circulated under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, it is intended to illustrate the extraordinary range and versatility of Turner’s genius. This it does, magnificently, insofar as 80 watercolors can represent an artist who is known to have produced some 19,000 of them during his long career. Emphasis is upon his lesser-known early and late periods, tracing his development from a mannered watercolor done at age 14 to the resplendent color studies, experimental personal works of his late years, which had remained in his studio during his lifetime and were left as a legacy to the British nation upon his death in 1851.

Turner was fortunate. Recognition came to him early and lasted throughout his life, although some of his later handling of color did excite opposition from the press. However, public acclaim and personal popularity did not quench his thirst for adventure and experimentation, and that he continued to grow in artistic stature even while filling countless commissions is made abundantly clear by this exhibition.

The paintings are mostly landscapes,judiciously selected by Mr. Edward Croft-Murray, Keeper, Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum. The earlier ones are carefully rendered architectural subjects in wash-and-line, some with historical content; the later ones those wonderful liquid splashings that are literally hydrodynamics, in which he found a new world of light and movement. Concerned with man only as spectator, they added a new dimension of romance to art, one which is still effective today.

Turner was English, and the English are incurable romantics—their love for nature is proverbial. (The word itself, “romantic,” is a relatively old one in England, being in current use there long before it was taken over by continental littérateurs and critics.) English painters had always idealized and glamorized nature, even when treating landscape merely as decoration, and English landscape painting had already acquired an international character whose new directions were to have memorable effects on future art, when Constable and Turner brought it into its own. They won for it its independence as a self-sufficient form of art. Firstly, because it gave full expression to the affinities between artist and nature; then because it led to the creation of new techniques appropriate to it, and lastly, because it called for specific procedures which throughout the 19th century were to conflict with academic tradition.

Turner was a restless visionary, inspired by a profoundly mystical outlook on nature, and a thorough-going romantic in the sense that his introvert personality was steeped in poetic emotion. Which probably accounted for the tendency one finds in that portion of his output which, while the most characteristic, was the most severely criticized: an intoxication with wild and glowing color. When he discovered that nature has as many modalities as the light that bathes her, and that this natural light is everchanging and ethereal, he found the material with which to impart new overtones to the world of visual experience, opening new vistas on infinity. Turner was past 50 when he fully realized this discovery, and in Venice, where he had gone to recuperate from inconsolable grief over his father’s death.

Venice fired his imagination, and from that time on his art, as one notes here, changed. His paintings became increasingly brighter in key, sharper in contrast. His picture subjects grew more and more evanescent, finally dissolving in a haze of shimmering color—bordering on the fulfillment, in terms of painting, of Novalis’ wish: “If only one could write with no particular subject in mind.”

Watercolor, with its low surface tension and brilliant color possibilities, is a natural medium, for this type of expression. Since he had used it both as reinforcement for his architectural drawings in his youth, and for jotting down color notes while becoming the best-traveled artist of his time, Turner adopted a palette of intense colors for his oil paintings, so as to match the vivid tones of the watercolors.

Yet his oil paintings of the same subjects can never match the freedom and verve of such watercolors as The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834), painted with what the English call “body color” (referring to opaque watercolor not quite as heavy as gouache). While immediately recognizable in subject, it yet resembles a sunset over our own Southwest and could hang comfortably with most contemporary exhibits.

The astonishing works here, however, are those shreds and patches of paintings in which incredible skies, drifting mists, fogs and clouds form pure color symphonies. Not intended for line engravings (as many of his works were), these, with their simplification and economy of means, border on the abstract. Fire at Sea, Sunset at Sea, and Boats at Sea all could have been done yesterday, when abstract expressionism was at its highest peak.

Elizabeth M. Polley