In Late Seascapes, Turner Encountered His Great Romance

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that the exhibition devoted to the English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.- Turner: The Late Seascapes -is the first to be entirely focused on its subject. Late Turner is, after all, almost as highly esteemed in art circles today as late Monet, and for some of the same reasons. Both of these masters long ago enjoyed periods of high favor, and then came to be scorned by the avant-garde that gave us Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. With the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950′s, however, late Monet was embraced as a precursor of abstraction, and so, soon thereafter, was late Turner. What surprises us about Turner: The Late Seascapes is not that the show is a knockout-that was a certainty from the outset-but that no museum had mounted such a sure-fire hit before now.

In this country, anyway, the relaunching of Turner as a proto-modernist came in 1966, with the exhibition called Turner: Imagination and Reality at the Museum of Modern Art. In that context, Turner-especially late Turner-was no longer so much looked upon as the heir of Claude Lorrain and the 17th-century Dutch seascape painters; instead, he was seen as a herald of the innovations of 20th-century color abstraction. Anyone familiar with John Ruskin’s celebration of Turner in the 1840′s could have anticipated this development. It was in Volume II of Modern Painters (1846) that Ruskin spoke with uneasy admiration of “color, without form” in Turner’s sea-storm pictures; and while Ruskin expressed some doubts about this practice-writing that “My impression is, that there is no true abstract mode of considering color”-he also observed “that to the full enjoyment of [color] a certain sacrifice of form is necessary,” and further, that “form is always in a measure lost by Nature herself when color is very vivid.”

It was precisely the attempt by Turner to employ “color, without form”-or rather, color devoid of what was once thought to be acceptable pictorial form-that so incensed even as fine a critic as Roger Fry. In his Reflections on British Painting (1934), Fry, the champion of Cézannean structure, lashed out at Turner for this alleged abandonment of form. (Not surprisingly, he wrote similarly about late Monet.) But now, in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism, Color-field abstraction and their progeny, late Turner and late Monet are as firmly established as modern classics as late Cézanne, for what we now see in their work is not an absence of form, but an inspired leap into a new grammar of form made necessary by their particular encounters with nature. This was a matter that Ruskin, Turner’s contemporary and as close an observer of nature as Turner himself, understood better than Fry or any other 20th-century formalist.

The fact is, whatever affinities contemporary viewers may wish to discern in the relation between late Turner and 20th-century abstraction, Turner remained a consummate realist of the Romantic school. The sea was indeed the great romance of his life, and there was nothing about its turbulence or its terrors or its sublime beauty that he hadn’t experienced at firsthand. On shore in his native London, he had other interests, of course. Foremost among them was a passion for poetry, for Turner was also a very literary painter, and the richness and complexity of his pictorial vision cannot be fully comprehended without taking his literary interests into account.

He was, then, a larger figure than is commonly thought-larger, certainly, than modern criticism, even at its best, has done justice to. Fry was by no means an isolated case in this respect: Even as great a critic as Julius Meier-Graefe got him wrong, writing in 1908: “The Turner farce is unique in art history in having been the parody of something whose original had not yet been produced.” (He meant Impressionism, of course.) Clement Greenberg, too, taking his cue from Meier-Graefe, wrote this in 1966: “At the very best, [Turner] does not match Constable’s best, nor is he as important to subsequent major painting. If anything, he is more important to subsequent bad painting,” and so on. The exhibition that James Hamilton has organized in the Late Seascapes exhibition is unlikely to alter critical opinion of this persuasion.

To the public that is now flocking to see the exhibition, however, derogatory judgements hardly matter. What they see in late Turner is, in one degree or another, what Ruskin so greatly admired: a mighty pictorial talent boldly attempting to encompass the most dramatic visual effects of nature while remaining steadfast in his loyalty to the conventions of his own medium. In Mr. Hamilton’s fine essay for the catalog of the Late Seascapes exhibition, we are reminded that Ruskin predicted in Modern Painters that a time would come when “Turner’s name would be ‘placed on the same impregnable heights with that of Shakespeare.’” If that now sounds a bit over-the-top, it’s nonetheless true, as Mr. Hamilton also writes, that “Turner’s subjects, as Shakespeare’s, have a universality, as works in this exhibition remind us.”

My only criticism of the Late Seascapes exhibition is that, with its 35 oil paintings and watercolors of marine subjects, it’s not sufficient to give us a really adequate account of the artist’s achievement even in the circumscribed time-frame of the show. Within its self-imposed limits, however, it affords newcomers to Turner a thrilling introduction to his finest work. It whets the appetite while failing to satisfy it. For that appetite to be satisfied, we still have to go to the great Turner Gallery in London. Meanwhile, Mr. Hamilton has also given us a new biography, Turner: A Life , which is recommended.

Turner: The Late Seascapes remains on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through Sept. 7. It then travels to the Manchester City Art Gallery in England (Nov. 1 to Jan., 17, 2004) and the Glasgow City Art Galleries in Scotland (mid-February to early May, 2004.)