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Review of JMW Turner Retrospective Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

My review in the latest edition (108) of BorderCrossings magazine:

A poster of Salvador Dali’s Swans reflecting Elephants, a black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe leaning, like a feline up against a door frame,

and a swim-suited, cleavage-baring Farrah Fawcett

 all, among other delights, graced the walls of my teenage bedroom. So did J.M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. And, though devoid of sexual content, this work’s passion and fire left an indelible mark on me.

So it was with some disappointment that I failed to find this and another favourite Rain, Steam and Speed with its famed rabbit in the foreground, among the paintings displayed in the J.W.M Turner recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

This said there was no shortage of the sublime. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

for example, contains a sky which critic and early Turner champion John Ruskin called “beyond comparison the finest which exists in Turner’s oil-paintings.” From seascapes and mountain tops to naval battles, historical Greek settings and wild imaginative abstractions this exhibition authoritatively traces the evolution of John Mallord William Turner’s varying style and choice of subject matter with representative sampling from a truly herculean output over a career that lasted more than sixty years. Much in this exhibit is literally brilliant. These paintings effortlessly captivate spectators, moth-like, within their orb.

Born in London in 1775, Turner spent his early childhood in Covent Garden, where his father had a barber shop. At an early age he showed talent for sketching and worked for a time as an architect’s draftsman. At fourteen he enrolled in London’s Royal Academy of Arts Schools. In 1802 he became the youngest artist to be elected as a full Academician. Encouraged to study the techniques of the Old Masters Turner chose to emulate the idealized landscapes of Claude Lorrain (c.1604/5-82). These were to serve as a touchstone throughout his lifetime.

In addition to dominating landscape art during the first half of the 19th century, Turner with his technical innovations in watercolor, had a profound impact on artistic development around the world, particularly in France, where painters such as Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir pointedly credited him for influencing their work, notably with his depictions of  the reality of form in movement and the fugitive phenomena of light.


 Dazzled by a wall-filling image of Venice, from the porch of Madonna della Salute, I was awed by this show before even stepping into its exhibition space. A clamour of eager, gate-crowding patrons milled around and filled, like Time Square, the entrance area, a testament to the excitement stirred by this impressive exhibit. Though the painting’s watery foreground was obscured by an ocean of people, Turner’s sky and buildings remain radiantly visible, proof that they easily match his much vaunted seas and waterscapes, of which Ruskin once said: "The surface of quiet water with other painters becomes fixed. With Turner it looks as if a fairy’s breath would stir it, but the fairy’s breath is not there."


Many of the works Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy – those which established his reputation and ensured immortality, are on display here — Fishermen at Sea (1796, Tate), for example, and the luminous Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 (1835, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C).

So are his “color beginnings” studies for subsequent paintings, and his finished watercolors.

The exhibition is organized thematically and chronologically, beginning with early Sublime and historical landscapes and ending with late seascapes and blinding, abstract and very modern unfinished works. Early on you can see his skilled draftsmanship at play in an exquisite water colour depiction of Tintern Abbey in South Wales. Also his penchant for clouds and majestic settings are displayed, for example,

in The Devil’s Bridge, Saint Gotthard, painted in the Swiss Alps (and owned I might add, with surging pride, by a private collector in Canada). These have an almost Blakean feel to them, and evidence an attempt at what Burke called ‘the sublime’: the conveying of ‘astonishment and terror, or the strongest emotion of which the mind is capable of feeling.’

Perhaps because of its greater capacity to convey drama and depth, and its higher prestige, Turner soon moved to painting in oil. The first of these to be exhibited at the Royal Academy was

Fisherman at Sea. It contained elements which would fill his canvases for the next half century. The way his moonlight hits the ocean is truly wondrous. His waves in particular in this and other seascapes of the same period are highly reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s paintings of the same, just miles away across the Channel — muscular and alive.

Also in the exhibit were depictions of historical landscapes and important contemporary events, such as the Battle of Waterloo, and the blazing Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, a painting worth sitting in front of for hours.

With Turner’s visit to Italy there is a marked shift in palette. We see softer and warmer colours and brush strokes. There are fewer clouds too. His strengths remain: breathtaking skies, sun sets and light, in weather fair and foul, reflected in water. These fill the senses to a point where the odd sail out of sync, a disproportionately small boat, or a pale background just doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that people, though inconsequential in most paintings, at times appear sketchy, underdrawn, grotesque, in the way Pieter Bruegel painted them. Given Turner’s prodigious output it is easy to see why critics would have accused his work of being unfinished, even coarse. The pleasant irony here is, as we get to the end of the exhibit and his so-called ‘unfinished’ work,

we are treated to what is possibly the most completely sublime experience of the afternoon.

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2 Responses to “Review of JMW Turner Retrospective Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York”

  1. Douglass Momntrose-Graem Says:

    A beautiful personal review of J.M.W. Turner!
    For me, the sad aspect of the show was the virtual neglect of his original prints. He created some 800 and spent up to half or more of his working life with projects connected with his astounding print production. He introduced some startling innovations: specifically his progressive proofs, annotated with his own drawings and notes to the engravers, give us an unique insight of a great artist’s PROCESS – the process of creating masterworks.Thanks to these, and other trend-setting shows, we were listed among America’s 99 top museums when open in Denver from 1974 to 1996.
    Now on the internet, we regret not to have the personal experience of meeting with Turner lovers and try to make up by taking advantage of unlimited space – some 100 pages of J.M.W. Turners and others so far which could not find full fling even in a large “brick” museum.
    We offered the organizers a parallel show to give their effort a human, nitty-gritty aspect and behind-the-scenes touch beyond the show-stopping head-liners – to no avail.
    [The Tate - which organized the event, sees us as a threat, as we are the only museum with the artis'ts name plus a constant reminder that the English art establishment simply ignored the conditions under which Turner left his billion+ dollar estate to the public and tries to ignore us with studied unprofessional insolence - a rather futile and self-defeating exercise in the age of the http://www.
    Please come and visit and visit often, just opened a small but key, unexplored aspect of "Turner and Hokusai" and we are working on two new exhibitions: Turner and the Sublime [part of my daughter's BFA honor thesis submitted last month] and an exciting Turner and Matisse which we expect to birth in early 2009.
    Beyond that we plan, funds, frailities and a a great webmaster permitting, a “Thomas Moran and J.M.W. Turner”, series, beginning with their mountainous monumental mountain works. [We have at least two dozen more on the drawing board] Thus, we tweek the powers-to-be tails by demonstrating that Moran was at least equal to Turner in many respects and his superior in some. No ex-colonial fawning false fetid futile scraping and bowing to the empire here!
    [Please do the great favor - email us this comment.Thank you.]

  2. Douglass Momntrose-Graem Says:

    As a PS to previous comment: The Turner Museum is planning to establish a lively museum blog in 2009 – a resolution we trust we shall keep!…and miles to go!

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