Saturday, November 24, 2007

Turner at the National Gallery of Art

The biggest Turner exhibition ever in the States, it aimed to overwhelm and to please the crowds. I found myself overwhelmed and not pleased. One huge Turner in an elegantly appointed Victorian room would bash the eye into submission. Imagine Turner after Turner after Turner jostling their hunky frames on the exhibition walls, and the idiom begins to feel more bombastic than dramatic. I turned away from the famous setpieces like Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812), The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1823-1824) and Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus--Homer's Odyssey (1829) in search of something more personal, more human.

I saw a lovely impressionistic Willows by a Stream, a gorgeous dissolution of forms into yellows. I also liked very much his painting of the coal ships at Newcastle. In silvers and blues, the moonlit scene offered a relief from the incandescent sun that burned picture after picture in the exhibition.

Keelmen heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835 – oil on canvas

And then there was that almost domestic scene, a terrace with a dog and a few women who are there to enjoy themselves and not to serve as walk-ons for a heroic or mythical theme.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Mortlake Terrace, 1827


Harry said...

I think of myself as loving Turner, but actually it's almost entirely the really impressionistic light and water scenes: paintings of Venice, things like that. When I actually go to the Turner Wing at the Tate it reminds me that he painted lots of other pictures that don't do much for me at all.

But the best stuff is just extraordinary.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I love his paintings of Venice too. There is a sublime one of Dieppe Harbor at the Frick Collection.