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LOS ANGELES — “You don’t experience the sublime looking through double glazing, or at a distant electric storm, or watching a sea rage on TV,” wrote AA Gill in The Golden Door: Letters to America.
… and yet you can, when viewing a painting. How is that? Something strange came over me while wandering the exhibition halls of the Getty Museum’s show J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free. I found myself dangerously close to experiencing an embarrassing eruption of feelings, and not just one or two feelings, but all of them, All of The Feelings, all at once and at full volume. Without knowing why, without even being able to identify any single work that could have this effect, I willed back tears and held my hand to my breast, surprised and abashed at the cliched dramatics of my gesture, the histrionics roiling within me, my very own internal “Snow Storm” tossing up my waters.
What was going on? Turner’s prolific, no-fucks-given output in the last 16 years of his life, the focus of this exhibition, garnered mockery and accusations of blindness and mental illness from collectors and critics, even formerly devoted ones like John Ruskin. Both the oil paintings and the watercolors on view flaunt those freedoms he took that triggered the outrage of his detractors and presaged later movements that in their own time were considered revolutionary. His canvases are a rough topography of thick impasto, sometimes smeared on with a palette knife. His watercolors, conversely, seem barely touched, as faint as afterimages and as immaterial as memories. Turner’s highly personal use of color extends across media: hues can denote either time of day and weather or emotional timbre or both. His penchant for yellow appears as shimmering sunshine reflecting off golden-hued scenes out of classical mythology, the sun itself boring a hot, dry hole through a damp, limpid dawn, and hellish flames consuming the Houses of Lords and Commons. Blue ranges from the cool placidity of a Swiss lake and the fog floating above it to laden storm clouds hanging heavy over an obscure landscape, to the storm itself, obliterating the moonlight over a sea in tumult, and darkening to suggest the depths below. Red is used as punctuation, clarifying a burning tower here, a lone cow there, or a blood-soaked imaginary ground at has-been Napoleon’s feet, which he stares at, newly contemplative in exile.
To say Turner’s skies and landscapes convey power and movement is to beggar the concepts of power and movement; they are possibly the truest pictorial manifestations of the Romantic notion of the Sublime, the closest visual translations of Lear’s dialogue with the heavens:
And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!
One gets the feeling this was no accident, that people, animals, buildings, bridges, and vessels only interested him insofar as they offered excuses to reckon with a new landscape, or a landscape made new with fleeting light and climatic drama. The “Whalers”(1845) look like cake top figurines; Napoleon in “War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet”(1842), a depressed Nutcracker. One has to really search “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!”(1846) for the whale itself, only to find a faded emoji mostly hidden behind a ship, itself obscured in mist and ruddy light. “The Hero of a Hundred Fights” (1847) at least in name depicts Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, being cast in bronze for his assumption atop the triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner. But in this painting, he is a barely-visible silhouette; what interested Turner was not the jingoistic hyping of a national hero, nor the sweat and brawn of the laboring foundry workers, but the fire’s swirling heat and radiant light against the sweltering darkness of the iron forge. Indeed, it’s almost surprising not to see steam rising off the canvas.
This is all hard to take in on one visit. The Getty’s galleries, though spacious, are freighted with over 60 paintings, each rewarding a careful, unhurried communion, but also compelling one to a restlessness to see and take in them all, sweeping one through the halls as if along one of Turner’s rolling seascapes. That, and the fact that what one does get from even a cursory examination of the works is their incredible poleaxing drama (if not the less grand details that one can nitpick over if one is in the mood) makes it an overwhelming experience, one that might mysteriously necessitate clutching the breast, biting back tears.
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free continues at the Getty Museum (1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, Los Angeles) through May 24, and then will travel to the de Young Museum in San Francisco (June 20–September 20).