Let there be light, Turner style.
I’m standing in front of the English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner’s painting “Regulus,” which he exhibited in London in 1837. Set in ancient Carthage, it’s inspired by a Roman consul named Marcus Atilius Regulus, who during the First Punic War was captured by the Carthaginians. His captors sent him back to Rome to negotiate a prisoner release, and when he returned with the news that the Roman Senate had rejected the Carthage terms, the authorities there cut off his eyelids.
Ouch. Not very nice. Regulus went blind with no way to blink in the sun.
Back to the painting: The view is of a seaport with massive buildings on the right and a line of moored ships opposite. If you look closely, you can see a tiny figure in the left foreground standing in what looks like a small boat with two arms raised. Art historians are pretty sure that’s Regulus.
But the painting is overwhelmed by something else: light. The sun, hanging high in the sky, floods toward the viewer in a way that makes you want to instinctively put a hand up and shade your eyes. Viewing it reminds me of what it’s like to close your eyes and let the sun caress your face: You can still “see” the brightness through your eyelids and feel the encompassing warmth.
The exhibition, featuring paintings from the famed Tate Britain museum in London, to which Turner (who lived from 1775 to 1851) bequeathed the majority of his work, is the first organized by that institution to focus on the painter’s “late” period. That in itself is surprising, as the catalog for the show notes, considering that Turner is best known for the audacious leaps toward modernism he took late in life in terms of technique.
Turner in his later years used color and light to depict the rage and rush of the sea, the crackle of fire and the blinding luminosity of the sun.
Increasingly disinterested in so-called realism, Turner in his later years used color and light to depict the rage and rush of the sea, the crackle of fire, the intensity of ancient history, the whoosh of steam, the beauty of Venice (one of his favorite cities) and the blinding luminosity of the sun as he edged ever more toward abstraction.
Along the way he divided critics, fellow artists and the general public, but his impact on the art world was unmistakable: He paved the way for what was to come, from Monet to Rothko. Some scholars call him a “proto-Impressionist,” while others see the seeds of Abstract Expressionism.
Turner has long been one of my very favorite artists, so much so that I dragged a framed print of his glorious work “The Fighting Temeraire” a few thousand miles from one early job in my career to the next. On the few times I’ve been up and close and personal with his originals, I’ve walked away shaking my head in wonder, asking how in the midst of his brushing, painting and scraping he was able to use thick, goopy oils or delicate watercolors to capture such exquisite scenes.
At the de Young, I stand in front of his “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,” in which fire rages unabated along the River Thames, and I can almost feel the flames. How did he do it?
NOTHING LIKE A PAINTING
We live in an age of unrelenting images. It’s as if we’re subjected to a visual carpet bombing on a daily basis. Literally billions of photos are available with just a few clicks. We’re swamped with still and moving images. We can’t escape.
A painted or drawn image used to be the only way to experience a scene at which you weren’t physically present. Photography changed that. (In Turner’s time, photography was taking baby steps. In the well-acted but unfortunately exceedingly dull 2014 biopic film “Mr. Turner,” the artist — played by a blustery Timothy Spall — goes to a photo studio near the end of his life for a new-fangled portrait.)
The image onslaught is much greater than in 1936 when the philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin wrote his influential “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which he basically said that it’s harder to have an original, autonomous reaction to a piece of art when it’s so easy to reproduce that art. (I’m condensing way down from a long-ago grad-school seminar, so please don’t beat me up for my critical-theory chops.)
I wonder what Benjamin would say today now that there are enough sunset pics on Instagram to reach to the sun and back.
All I know is that when I saw my first Turner painting, I felt as if he were capturing light in a way that simply doesn’t translate in a photograph. I think we’ve all had the experience of trying to take a picture of, say, a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds, and having the image turn out glum and uninspired by comparison.
Professional photographers are much better technically than the rest of us, of course, and glorious images of the subjects Turner loved to paint abound: ships, storms, billowing steam trains, picturesque harbors and, yes, sunsets. Yet it’s extremely difficult for a photograph to envelop me — to put me right there in the moment, to make me feel the warmth of that sun — the way a painting can.
In “Regulus,” the light flooding the painting, and perhaps tormenting our title character, is a scene that we as humans — living, thankfully, on a life-giving-sun-drenched planet — encounter everyday. But it’s rare to have the experience of what we truly see reproduced in way that does it justice.
DEALING WITH GRUMPY CRITICS
When you’re ahead of your time, as Turner was, people are going to take pot-shots at you. One of the fun experiences in the “Painting Set Free” exhibition is learning about the critical reaction Turner endured, especially in his later years.
Writing about “The Hero of a Hundred Fights,” a painting that depicts the red-hot swirl of heat and light found in the interior of an iron forge, a correspondent for the Illustrated London News proclaimed: “It is not the madness of genius — it is the folly and imbecility of old age.”
(My always astute 10-year-old nephew, reading the placard with me at the de Young, turns to me, removes his audio tour headphones and wryly says, “Critics. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”)
It’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight and more than 150 years of art history, to smile at the detractors. But it’s helpful to see Turner’s works through their eyes.
It’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight and more than 150 years of art history, to smile at the detractors. But it’s helpful to see Turner’s works through their eyes, if only for a moment. For critics used to more representational art, the taste of abstraction must have seemed very bitter.
The exhibition’s star attraction, “Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” also has one of the best stories to go along with it. According to Turner’s accounts, he was on board the ship in a massive storm, and he asked its sailors to lash him to the mast for four hours. (Scholars aren’t sure whether Turner’s account is accurate, but many give him the benefit of the doubt.) The image he painted afterward, with the horizon tilted and the ocean snarling, is a terrifying swirl of water, snow, steam and light.
I can practically taste the saltwater.
Turner scoffed at his critics, one of whom dismissed “Snow Storm” as “soapsuds and whitewash.”
He is quoted as saying of the work: “I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like.”
That statement, more than any other, sums up why I celebrate Turner. Through him, the sun, spray, steam, fire and beauty of a majestic and rugged world is always within reach.
‘J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free’
- Through Sept. 20
- de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
- www.deyoung.famsf.org, (415) 750-3600
- $20-$25, $17-$22 seniors, $10-$15 youths