J.M.W. Turner: Turner’s Modern World
On ViewMuseum of Fine Arts
March 27–July 10, 2022
To some degree, artists since the industrial revolution have always been interested in technology and the modern world, in documenting and reflecting the march of science and its impact on society. In the early twentieth century the Futurists in Italy and Precisionists in America produced images of rising cities, ocean liners, automotive plants, road, and rail. In New York, Joseph Stella transformed Coney Island and Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge into prismatic and Cubist celebrations of places and structures that Hart Crane felt could “lend a myth to God,” establishing a new spirituality. Even though in the early nuclear era, anxiety about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” was expressed through abstract color fields and zips, not depictions of ICBMs and fission, by the 1960s, Rauschenberg could channel images of the space program to comment on Kennedy-era American exceptionalism, and Rosenquist in F-111 (1964–65) skewered the dominance of the military industrial complex. Meanwhile, Robert Bechtle and Peter Cain employed the various iterations of the American automobile to comment on the American dream. Artists such as Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Erin M. Riley in recent shows have depicted cell phones and laptops in their works to interrogate conceptions of the self in the social media age. Yet the idea of a Chelsea show or art fair booth literally centered around depictions of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, the explorations of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, or semiconductors in the way that the British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) celebrated newly designed “Firefly” railway locomotives and fire-fueled iron steamships seems farcical, instead relegated to the world of fantasy NFTs or YouTube channels. Even Michael Kagan’s current show at Almine Rech’s London outpost features vintage space exploration rather than contemporary pursuits, just as Tom Sachs has been doing for years.
The first half of the nineteenth century was an age of unprecedented global warfare, colonialist intervention, human despoliation of peoples and places, technological developments, and transportation advancements. Turner was the period’s most protean and inventive painter. This exhibition brings together over a hundred oils, drawing, watercolors, and sketchbooks in seven galleries that illuminate the artist’s complex perspectives on technology, empire, war, and the vagaries of the human condition. Turner did not shirk big themes, from either the past or the present—he was as at home with Hannibal as he was with Napoleon—although his deepest sympathies were reserved for the working class. His contemporaries also had such ambitions, and technological advances in the British Empire of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution were well-represented in the burgeoning visual culture of the period, especially in print media and the panorama. But it was Turner who rendered the topical aesthetic, who made his world of experience into visually radical art in a way that other artists could not, and evolved a style that remains relevant for its ability still to astonish, and its impact on subsequent advanced movements in art: the Pre-Raphaelites, who turned it on its head; the Impressionists, who thrilled to his visible brushwork and emphasis on light; and the Abstract Expressionists, who channeled it into purely abstract images of the sublime.
This COVID-delayed, engrossing, and very beautifully installed exhibition originated at Tate Britain in London, went to the Kimbell in Fort Worth, and is now concluding in Boston. It is comprehensive in fairly chronologically covering all of Turner’s career, but it is focused in concentrating on his days sketching fires in the West End, his brief travels on the Continent during the Napoleonic wars, and his roving wanders around Britain painting in oils or incomparable watercolors foundries and forges in Wales, railways in the West Country, locks in West Yorkshire, coal haulers in Newcastle, smokestacks belching pollutants in London, steamboats plying between ports, whaling vessels, and much more. The vivid green, red, tan, and bluish-gray wall colors approximate period-appropriateness and so enhance the pictures. The effective exception is the blindingly white last room. It is titled “Modern Painter” as both a complement to the exhibition’s title and an eponymous if singular tribute to John Ruskin’s multi-volume defense of the artist that he began publishing in 1843.
The centerpiece of the Boston version of the show is the MFA’s own Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On) (1840), which amplifies the artist’s general preference for progressive and humanitarian policies and personal freedoms over the course of his career. Like Seurat’s Grande Jatte (1884–86) in Chicago, Picasso’s Demoiselles (1907) at MoMA, or Piero’s Baptism in the National Gallery in London, it is a peerless picture whose condition does not allow it to travel and thus demands a pilgrimage. A searing indictment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this vividly hued and painted work of 1840 is displayed on its own wall in gallery five and accompanied by interpretive materials. These include an adjacent short film with commentary by Sylvia Quarles Simmons, Nancy Scott, and Musa Harar, and a wall of quotes from Ruskin, the Guyanese writer David Dabydeen, and the Ghanaian-born British artist John Akomfrah. Dated 1840, it illustrates a story from 1781: it is not exactly topical or particularly modern in its reference. Turner was but six when the murderous captain of the Jamaica-bound and beset-with-disease Zong, with a storm approaching, commanded his crew to throw overboard over 130 manacled slaves as his stock of drinking water was running low and he foresaw not being able to collect insurance on Africans who had died of thirst or sickness. Turner painted the work in advance of two anti-slavery conventions descending on London, and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts simultaneously with those meetings. Thus, the theme and its laser-like moral focus was contemporary, but the story was nearly sixty years old: this was not Géricault painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) mere years after its inceptive events. But in some respects, it is no different from Hank Willis Thomas’s recent series of screen prints on mirrored surfaces using images from the civil rights movement (2018), or Gerhard Richter’s continued mediations on the Holocaust in his Birkenau installation (2014), or Kara Walker’s employment of historically racist types to collapse past and present in works like A Subtlety (2014). Topicality of the motif is not the only approach demanded for modern responses to injustice. Turner’s channeling of the horrific tale of the Zong itself reflects his own use of history to make points about the present, wherein images of Hannibal or Regulus or mounds of the dead at Waterloo become warnings about the reach and aspirations of empires, much as Turner’s greatest disciple in America, Thomas Cole, would do in his imagined restaging of humankind/Rome’s rise and fall in his quintet of paintings titled Course of Empire (1833–36).
This worthy and focused show ends with a burst of illumination. One stands in the coal-dark penultimate gallery, “Steam and Speed,” which features a number of the artist’s greatest oils such as Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835), Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842), and Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (ca. 1831–32), and sees, emanating from the final gallery, a glowing white light. This remarkable effect, achieved without daylight, brings our eyes, having grown accustomed to the Georgian era and its dimly lit spectacles in the prior six galleries, fully into the Victorian era. It forms a springboard to the modern age. White walls, diaphanous works painted as if with liquid mother-of-pearl: this is the Turner that has wowed American audiences since the famed Lawrence Gowing-curated exhibit at MoMA, a show titled Turner: Imagination and Reality that drew an explosive level of familial recognition from a New York art scene in 1966 still dominated by Ab Ex action and color field painting. This is the Turner who on his deathbed in 1851 supposedly spoke the words, “The sun is god.” In the twenty-one works in this room, aesthetics nearly eclipse subject, but not quite. And it is an achievement of the exhibition that having learned so much in previous galleries about the march of the new in the Britain of Turner’s youth and maturity, these suggestive pictures of his final decade can be seen as continuing the restless hunt for contemporary themes that marks the whole of his career, whether it is a watercolor of whalers burning blubber, or paintings of military harbors and modern life in Venice and Coburg and Luxembourg. All with that inimitable Turnerian boldness of execution.