Blood Meridian

J. M. W. Turner in Texas

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834, ca. 1834–1835, oil on cavas, 36 1/4 x 48 1/2''. Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.

TO VIEW A J. M. W. TURNER sunset in Texas, as I did recently in Fort Worth at the Kimbell Art Museum’s “Turner’s Modern World”—an exhibition making its stateside debut after premiering at Tate Britain in London—is to wish Turner might have had the opportunity to paint a Texas sunset. In fact, I came away from the show thinking that in a slightly altered universe, Turner could have been a Texan. The ferocious clouds the lifelong Londoner dangles above cowering people evoke the feeling, if not the geography, of Texas, and his canvases, like many things in the longhorn state, are applauded for the size of their ambition as much as their quality. His late style, like 1840s Texas, represents a vast frontier. Both Turner and Texas foretell uncertain futures: Turner is credited with prefiguring Abstract Expressionism, Texas with prefiguring the future of the United States. When journalist Lawrence Wright describes Texas landscapes as comprising “an arena of the soul” occupying “the same emotional territory as the wilderness of Judea, only without God,” he could easily be describing Turner’s visionary dreamscapes.

During my visit to the Kimbell, the Turner-as-honorary-Texan idea—silly as it might sound—presented itself as a substitute for the limited, questionable interpretations of his work offered by “Turner’s Modern World.” Designed to highlight the painter’s “interest in the inventions, events, politics, society, culture and science of his time,” the show consists of watercolors and oils paired with wall text that makes a big deal of the fact that Turner painted the things he saw around him, including foundries, mills, and, by the end of his life, steamships and locomotives. Visitors are encouraged to see Turner not just as “an artist who embraced his times” but as a cheerleader of modernity, expressing, according to the show’s brochure, “enthusiasm for new technology” and “paying tribute to the transformed world of modern experience.” 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Newcastle-on-Tyne, ca.1823, watercolor on paper, 6 x 8 1/2''. Photo: Tate Britain.

Newcastle-on-Tyne, ca. 1823, among the first paintings viewers encounter, shows a river clogged with ships and onlookers crowding a muddy bank. Indeterminate clouds and wisps of smoke make the scene seem as polluted as it is idyllic, an old city-district engulfed, as art historian William Rodner once noted, “by the choking atmospheric effects of modern industrial development.” The wall text describes it as one of Turner’s “picturesque views . . . replete with reminders of progress.” The word “replete,” with its connotation that the picturesque is “well-supplied” with progress, stuck with me, not only because Texas provides daily evidence that the realization of human potential is far from a straight line, but because it is a connotation the paintings themselves chafe against. It seems obvious that Turner interrogates “the transformed world of modern experience”—this is why he is sometimes called “the first modern painter”—but the idea that he is “paying tribute” to these transformations strains credulity.

Winding through the galleries, I began to suspect that the exhibition’s focus on Turner’s modernity led its curators to hermeneutically reduce his paintings to their subject matter. While in Newcastle-on-Tyne he’s presented as a booster of progress, elsewhere the exhibition tries to paint him a social critic. Take The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834, ca. 1834–35. Yes, it’s possible to interpret the work as a comment on “the passing of an old order,” as the exhibition does. The fire, an accident, took place in a time of upheaval in British politics following the Great Reform Act passed in 1832, and its substantial but still limited expansion of voting rights. How Turner might have viewed the fire in the context of this tumult remains unknown. It is known that some of Turner’s contemporaries saw the fire as poetic justice visited on a crooked hall of power, and it is plausible that Turner may have shared this view. What startles, however, is how the painting militates against this interpretation, how it resists the pull of allegory in favor of portraying the sublime chaos of the conflagration. He seems most interested in the ferocity of the flames and their lurid reflection on the Thames. I spent a moment imagining him painting the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, absorbed in the brilliance of the blast.  

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, ca. 1805–06, oil on canvas, 58 1/2 x 94 3/8''. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

While Turner is often praised for the creative and destructive power of light in his paintings, what grabbed me again and again was the sense of detachment he cultivates, whereby viewers experience the feeling of being simultaneously at the scene and removed from it. Precisely detailed in some places and distanced in others, these paintings trouble our ability to perceive and to record the world around us. I noticed this effect first in The Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, ca. 1805–06. A large early work, it depicts a cascade so enormous it merges with the sky, dwarfing a disarrayed group of travelers below. They seem almost comedic, painted in exhaustive miniature against the water’s undifferentiated rush. The total effect is dizzying in the same way the size and scope of Texas can be dizzying. This effect is maybe the most modern thing about Turner. Yet “Turner’s Modern World” has no vocabulary for it. Instead, the artist is presented as I imagine he would be in a sanitized, school board–approved history textbook for high schoolers, with no mention of the sublime, or aesthetic uncertainty, much less the possibility that the paintings express multidimensional ambivalence rather than a tacit endorsement or overt critique of what Turner saw happening in his world.

When people think about Turner and politics, the first image that comes to mind is likely the harrowing Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On), 1840—a seething, sunset-colored seascape in which chained Africans are tossed to the violent waters so that they may be claimed for insurance money as cargo lost. Unfortunately, this piece is too fragile to move from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. Forgoing a centrally staged facsimile, as was done at the Tate, the Kimbell places a copy of this masterpiece with two other glossy, low-quality reproductions (of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, and his Rain, Steam, and Speed-The Great Western Railway, 1844) off to the side, at the end of the exhibition. In so doing, the show makes the very Texan decision to give viewers the choice to consider it or not. Like facemasks, vaccines, and when and where to carry a firearm, in Fort Worth it becomes a matter of personal choice to connect Turner’s work, and the time in which he lived, to the Atlantic slave trade.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 1/4''. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

“Most of his paintings are as if about the aftermath of a crime,” wrote John Berger about Turner, whose subject was, he claimed, “solitude and violence and the impossibility of redemption.” The “as if” Berger locates in Turner’s oeuvre should give pause to those who might mistype the artist a kind of reporter rather than a painter of contingency, ambiguity, and becoming. And, to my mind, it deepens the Turner-Texas connection. Texas, like a Turner painting, unfolds in the conditional: forged by the ideology of Manifest Destiny (with its promise of unfettered expansionism and free real estate) and perpetuating a sense of boundless possibility and opportunity spatialized by its own territorial vastness and haunted by foundational histories of extraction and exploitation. The year Turner painted the burning of the English parliament, a real revolution erupted in Texas. Anglo settlers, their cotton plantations threatened by Mexico’s abolition of slavery, took up arms in defense of their profits and property. While the state’s whitewashed mythology of the Alamo and its nine-year period of national sovereignty have inscribed an image of Texan independence and rugged individualism in the popular imagination, its annexation by the United States in 1845 and the subsequent US victory in the Mexican-American War were crucial to the rise of American empire, securing American continental hegemony and making Texas the westernmost frontier of the Southern slavocracy. In 1840, the year Turner painted Slavers, there were 11,323 enslaved people living in Texas; by the time of annexation just five years later, that number had roughly tripled.

All this is to say that in Texas we live, as Berger writes of Turner, in the “aftermath of a crime.” We live also amid ongoing crimes—state-sanctioned crimes against the environment, against racial and gender equality, against reproductive and voting rights, against migrants seeking asylum. We live inside the violent uplifting of a white minority whose whims are increasingly enshrined in law, curtailing the freedoms of people of color and those who dissent. These limits are imposed alongside the ruling party’s repeated invocations of Texas as a bastion of freedom—which includes the supposed intellectual freedom of the unaccredited “anti-woke” University of Austin (so located, its founders claim, to honor that city’s reputation as “a hub for builders, mavericks, and creators”), and the freedom from taxation that has compelled Elon Musk and other billionaires to establish Texas residences. Notably, the deadly power outages caused by the failure of Texas’s stand-alone electrical grid in the wake of the February 2021 winter storm were the foreseeable result of the grid’s freedom from federal regulation. In Texas, freedom and crime mingle like surf and fog in a Turner painting.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, 36 x 48''. Photo: Tate Britain.

By the end of my visit, I saw Turner’s not as an art “less to contemplate than to talk about,” as Peter Schjeldahl carped in 2008, but rather as a painter of what we can’t talk about. For all the pyrotechnics, and for all the exhibition’s verbiage, there is a silence that emanates from the work. I started to think of it as the silence that lies between ideology and lived experience—an intuitive awareness Turner seemed to possess regarding how technological advancement and the speedier flow of people, goods, and money impose distance at the same time they are said to erase it. It’s the reality you see when you close your eyes and push out—momentarily, incompletely—the social constructions producing acceptance of that reality. This would seem to be the impetus behind pulling together “Turner’s Modern World,” even as it fumbles toward blithe, positivist simplicity.

Jack Christian is a writer living in Denton, Texas.