Turner

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

Turner

From Stefan Brodski

Published before 2005


Hermes wrote:
Could you explain more about what is so wonderful about Turner? I have never understood it. Especially, how is he different from the Impressionists?

Perhaps I could start by quoting something I have just read: "Art is not photojournalism, art is art. Art is design and synthesis. I would add that art is emotion, subtlety, depth, beauty, the unvoicable and the unwritable."

And add the proviso that I don't think that Turner's oil painting always show him at his best. He did so much that the carelessness of overwork and relentless energy sometimes shows. But there is hardly one of the hundred and hundreds of watercolours - from rapid sketches to finely-worked completed paintings - that is not, within their creator's own self-set limits, almost as perfect as it is possible to be. Note also that here we are dealing entirely with landscape painting, Turner was not interested in humanity and its puny activities.

Now, first of all, the deceptively 'impressionistic' style had nothing to do with any deficiency of skill or laziness or failing of perception. Turner's early imitations of Claude, from whom he learned, are every bit as meticulous as and almost indistinguishable from his teacher's, and in Crossing the Brook debatably surpassing. Yet at an early age he had evidently attained that supreme artistry by which the message from the eye passes immediately and unhesitatingly via the imagination to the hand. On one of the very rare occasions on which he was observed at work, the unsuspected 15-year old witness left this account: "he began by pouring wet paint onto the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos - but gradually and as if my magic, the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutia, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph" (A First Rate Taking in Stores, 1818). That's not a bad description of creation. During what might be called, as with Beethoven, his 'middle period', when Turner was roaming around the British Isles and Europe, a vast quantity of ravishingly beautiful paintings simply flowed effortlessly from his hands as with no-one else in the history of art. In his maturity his knowledge and awareness of the natural world - which it could be said had entered and become suffused with his very soul - was such that he had reached that state of vision 'recommended' by Plato: he saw the ultimate truth, not just the bones of nature but its shimmering ethereal essence, where everything dissolves into what sensory vision is, the activation of light on receptive brain cells and where substance and physical form no longer matters. It's impossible once again not to make the comparison between Turner's late works and those of Beethoven, where that relatively crude instrument the piano is persuaded to release the infinite audible whispers, sighs and travails of the universe in motion (Opus 109, eg).

Through what astonishing medium can these things be realised? In spite of his fairly dreadful literary productions, Turner was an unparalleled poet in paint who by - surely? - 'divine gift', as well as prodigious dedication (and also by having the good fortune to have been born at just the right time), attuned himself to every reverberation of the visible world as an aeolian harp does to a breath; and then moreover gave it his own meaning. Which was (remembering that until perhaps Rousseau or Burke and 'romanticism' the natural world was comprehended largely as a random and 'horrid' confusion to be 'tamed' by human endeavour)? That infinite beauty and perfection, surpassing all mere human striving but serving as the model for it, is everywhere about us; that there is no morality, no religion, no rightfulness, except that transmitted through God's light and a quivering individual sensibility. This is to deal, yes, with the ineffable, words cannot approach and only painting can begin to because, whether good or bad, its fundamental material is light, it cannot take place in the dark. [...]