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Call me Wordsworth.

When I was in my 20s, strapping and idealistic — i.e., an idiot — I lusted after this landscape. I knew it only in the photos in the Sierra Club coffeetable books, thinking how grand it would be to live in an alpine meadow in the Cascades, Sierras or in Alaska, with distant lightning-zag waterfalls dropping in a pencil-line a thousand feet down the face of a granite escarpment. I could feel the bracing air in my imagination. nuggetfallsb&w copy

The attraction was part a Longinian yearning for the sublime, for the vastness of the landscape; part of the attraction was its isolation, away from the ordinariness of daily life with all its people, some of whom might well be my boss. There was no TV in this idealized world; only bear and moose.

I am older now, still an idiot, and I can no longer feel that fervid longing, at least not directly, but I remembered it keenly visiting the mountains and glaciers of Alaska. They are vast, the air is ice on the skin and the vistas are the kind John Martin might paint.peaks2 copy

The pianist Glenn Gould once made a radio show for Canadian listeners called “The Idea of North.”

For those of us south of his border, the idea of north is Alaska. Endless forests, grizzly bears, rock-cobbled rivers, salmon, snow and rime.

Alaska is an inaccessible place, where no interstates lead, and even its state capital cannot be reached except by air or sea. For most of us, Alaska is important precisely because we cannot get there; it is proof that there is still a moment on the planet that is not yet filled with highways, billboards, Nike ads and grinning tourists. For most of Alaska, to be seen is to be explored; it takes dedication, muscle and energy, just as it did for the Gold Rush prospectors who hiked over the Chilkoot Trail.snow and trees copy

We think of Robert Service poetry or Jack London novels. Perhaps our idea of the frozen north comes from Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” In any case, it is a north that is still dangerous. A landscape that carries with it the final sense of the sublime: beauty that can kill us. And even if we survive, it is beauty on such a scale that our human minuteness shrivels our ambitions and makes us harbor cosmic thoughts.creek copy

Two hundred years ago, European art and literature was chockablock with the frozen Arctic. From paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to “Frankenstein,” it was icebergs and glaciers that told of the vastness and sublimity of nature. Make that Nature, with a Capital N.

The dark, stormy North was inaccessible and remote; humans were pismires in its vastness; danger lurked everywhere. Ice froze on the ship’s rigging and mariners had to chop it away with axes. margerieboat copy

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed by their conflict.” — “Frankenstein”

Or, from “The Ricome of the Ancient Mariner”:

“And now there came both mist and snow,/ And it grew wondrous cold:/ And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/As green as emerald. … / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,/ Like noises in a swound!”gullclose copy

As green as emerald? Rather, as blue as sapphire.

In College Fjord, the glacial ice is blackened at the margins with sooty dirt and rocks, but the central part — the “filet,” as you might call it — is pure and clean. It is there, in places where deep fissures in the ice let you see into the glacier, that the ice shows bright, clear blue. The color is brighter when the sun briefly shines on it. It is Tarheel blue, as bright as a new paint block in a watercolor set. Blue ice

One of the vertical slices of the glacier has been worn through, leaving an icy natural bridge. In its donut hole, the blue is intense. Ice, it turns out is blue. It is not the mere reflection of the sky that makes it so — if proof be needed, there is no blue sky most of this day — but rather that the ice is not clear. Turns out, water is not clear, either. octopus fingers mask copyIt really is blue, although so thinly colored that a glass of it looks transparent. Put enough of it together and the blue is apparent enough. And the ice made in this giant Frigidaire is also blue where it is pure enough, although much of the surface is roughed up with layers of snow, to make them white and glistening.

Crack and boom, and some more ice falls off the front of the glacial wall. Most of the calving involves an avalanche of small ice cubes and snow balls rather than the giant heaving chunks we see on the nature TV shows. The center of the glacier’s face is where most of the action is happening; a certain section is concave and its upper surface, overhanging its lower, keeps dropping bits like plaster falling off a wet ceiling. It crashes into the water in big ice slides and sends up waves that circle off toward the boat. They peter out into wide ripples before they reach us, so we can hardly notice them as they pass.BW09

When a bigger chunk falls off, it drops below the surface and immediately pops back up, like a whale breeching. Sometimes, as it reappears, it also turns over on its back, like a restless sleeper, before settling back down into the water. Seabirds rush to the spot to seek food.ketchikan totem 2 copy

It was the north that attracted Amundsen, Nansen, Peary. Parkas of animal fur made their heads three times normal size and they walked about in a stiff-leg shuffle in the ice and snow. The sky was always gray and the air always frigid. Snow blew sideways.

It was the ice and isolation that drew Byron’s Manfred, Jack London’s White Fang, Robert Service’s Dan McGrew. In Finland, it is the snow and ice of Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” the thin, remote trombones of his Seventh Symphony.

The problem is, that for most Americans who venture to Alaska now, they do so on a cruise ship, eating rib roasts and sherry triffle, looking off the taffrail for the spout of a friendly whale, or the antics of a sea otter. The cruise industry has turned the sublime into Disney ride. Whee!

It can take some concentrated effort, but for anyone who wants to invest the psychic and emotional energy to do so, the Alaska of vast spaces and endless emptiness is still there. But unlike the days when leathery men packed mules to go across the passes, we have to make that journey more in our heads than on our feet. It is an act of imaginative will to see the skull beneath the skin, the rocky sublimity under the coating of easy tourism.cruise ship in the fjord juneau copy

I went to Alaska to find the wilderness I fantasized about when I was 20. It was the allure of the Sierra Club coffeetable books, with their glossy photos of deep glacial valleys and snow-capped sierras. I imagined living on some Cascadian mountainside with mountain goats and bear grass.

Which brings us all back to Wordsworth and the “Intimations Ode.”peaksb&w copy

We gain a good deal as we accumulate experience like barnacles. We are stronger, less easily angered or driven to political excesses, and we certainly have learned something about love that we could never have guessed when our hearts merely wanted. But, we have lost a good deal, too.

“I know, where’er I go,/ That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”lowsun copy

Now that I am past 60, it is no longer a life I want, but one can never cease wishing to be 20 and longing for the heart’s desire.

Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_RailwayI grew up in an age when there was a distinct category called “Modern Art.” It was reviled by many and championed by the rest, and it was taken to be a complete break with the past — which is why it was both reviled and championed.

It may be hard to imagine now, but in the 1950s and ’60s, a large portion of the population actually believed “My kid could paint better than that.” In response, proselytizers mounted campaigns in support of Picasso and Kandinsky. When Life magazine ran a story on Jackson Pollock, it was an intentionally provocative act. “Is this the greatest living painter in the United States?” the story asked, daring its middle-class readers to argue back.pollock life magazine

Indeed, as late as the 1980s, a particularly condescending gallery owner in Scottsdale, Ariz., attempted to persuade me that abstract art was the wave of the future. He made the assumption that since I lived in Arizona, my tastes ran to cowboys. He wanted to “deprovincialize” me.

Modern Art was subsequently eclipsed by “Contemporary Art,” and after that the whole thing fell apart in a Postmodern disintegration. What we have now is “the trendy stuff at the gallery.”

But in my time, when I was a teenager whose personality was being forged, I had the immense privilege of living an easy trip to New York City and a subway ride away from the Museum of Modern Art, where my initial sense of taste was formed. I absorbed whole Picasso’s Guernica — which I always thought would be forever available to me — Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, and Van Gogh’s Starry Nightpollack 1

Turner catalogThe biggest single contribution to my growth, however, and the nudge that eased me into a life as an art critic, was the show in the spring of 1966 at MOMA of JMW Turner’s late paintings, called, “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” I was still a high school student and knew that there must certainly be a bigger, more impressive and powerful world out there than the one I knew in suburban New Jersey.

In that show, the English painter was dressed up as the precursor not only to Impressionism, but to such High Modernist painters as Mark Rothko. Turner’s watercolor washes were mere gestures with a loaded brush and implied an early morning sunrise barely seen through a frosty fog — hardly an edge or line in sight. turner rothko pair

Left: Turner “Pink Sky”               Right: Rothko detail

The show kicked off a resurgence in Turner’s reputation at the same time Vivaldi was getting a boost from the Baroque revival. It isn’t that either the Red Priest or the shaggy Brit were unknown or unappreciated, at least by those with their acquaintance, but that the wider world had largely — if not forgotten them, had relegated them to a “yes-them-too” sub-paragraph in the catalog. Turner emerged as not just a major artist, but a springboard for all the upcoming progress in art that resulted in — hooray — the glorious moment that is us.

That view seems quite laughable now, but we should instruct those X-ers and Millennials that came after us that the idea was that all of history was an inevitable march toward a single goal, and that in 1966, we had achieved it. The Age of Aquarius meant more than a bogarted doobie and a flower in the barrel of a National Guard rifle. We had reached some sort of checkered flag, some tape we had breasted.

Our history since then seems like a winded generation bent over with hands on knees, trying to catch a sweaty breath. It was Francis Fukuyama who was gasping.

Yet, if I can no longer see Modernism as some target bulls-eyed, I can still look back on that time, and that show, with a special fondness. It hit at just the right moment: my adolescence. I was ripe to be picked. turner cuyp pair

Left: Turner, “Calais Pier”               Right: Cuyp, “The Maas at Dordrecht 

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For Joseph Mallord William Turner kept two plates spinning. On one hand, he does seem to prefigure the Impressionist fascination with light and color. But on the other hand, Turner was yet one more British huckster of the Sublime. He began as primarily a marine painter of ships, sea and clouds, patterned after so many earlier Dutch painters, like Aelbert Cuyp, but soon joined those painters of vast and menacing landscapes based on biblical or classical themes. Plagues of Egypt, destruction of Babylon, Noah’s flood, the Trojan War — they all show up.

Compare, for instance, Turner’s first entry into the Royal Academy, in 1800, with John Martin’s painting of the same subject: The Seventh Plague of Egypt (although, Turner, not a religious man and a desultory reader of the Bible at best, mislabled his plague as the Fifth). Turner Martin Seventh (fifth) plague

Turner, left; Martin, right

(Just for fun, let’s see Martin’s trilogy of paintings on the Flood: Eve of the Deluge, The Deluge, and The Assuaging of the Waters. The last was bought by Prince Albert for his Queen.)Martin Deluge trilogy copy

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Martin’s grandiose paintings — clearly the inspiration for reels of Sword and Sandals epics by the likes of de Mille, Griffith and Giovanni Pastrone — are less competently painted and tend toward a darker palette of blues and blacks, while Turner’s paintbox veered increasingly to gamboge and flake white. Yet, his salability in the first half of the 19th century was based on his ability to provide the epic subject matter.

Consider the pair of paintings Turner made on The Deluge: Shadow and Darkness — The Evening of the Deluge, and Light and Colour — The Morning After the Deluge, from 1843.Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

 Click to enlarge

 So there I was, at the ripe, pimply age of 17, with all the world before me, and an ambition in my heart that transcended the possible, and there was Turner. I was being told he was the seed from which something important grew, but my primary and adolescent response was to the sublime — that sense that the world — nay, the universe — was grander, more intense and more alive than what I knew of Bergen County, New Jersey.

There were wind and waves, fire and brimstone, death and destruction, rocky precipices and roaring cataracts — Blow you hurricanoes, etc., etc. I was electrified at the idea that Turner had tied himself to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm to experience — like Odysseus — the siren call of destruction and death.snowstorm steamboat

Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1843

Author Lawrence Gowing, curator of the MOMA Turner show had written about the premonitory Impressionism in Turner, but in my saladgreen youth, that early seed was proof of Turner’s artistic heroism the same as his bodily courage he shows on the ship. Gowing was making an art-historical point; I was swept by the mythology. sharknado

Sharknado (2013)

It is the same impulse, I believe, that turns so many young men these days on to superheroes and supervillains and that whole genre of film where the planet is doomed by ice, fire, green monsters or evil multinational corporations. The FX movies that shake the separating walls of our cineplexes are the modern replacement for Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Prometheus.turner in studio movie still

I mention all this now because I have just seen Mike Leigh’s film, Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall playing the painter, in a movie that advances with exactly the same pace and precision as paint drying. It is not a movie for the X-men crowd. Nothing blows up, no one turns the equator into an iceberg, and the earth doesn’t split into two.

Now as an adult, and with some 50 years under my belt since my exposure, I have a more sedate view of JMW Turner and his paintings. The film resonated with that: Turner had a living to make and catastrophe painting was his niche. Disaster was his shtick. That “vortex of obscurity,” those paint daubs. An avid public bought them up, and if some, such as John Ruskin, could see the work as the art of the future, most saw them as great, ecstatic expressions of the Romantic sensibility that was already passing into sedate and sententious Victorianism.  frosty morning

What MOMA chose to emphasize were the watercolors, primarily sketches for oil paintings. They were vague and washy and could more easily be seen as proto-Impressionism. The exhibit rather ignored the ships and sails of Turner’s more ordinary output. It also conveniently brushed aside that part of Impressionism that didn’t stoke the fires of Modernism: That Impressionism wasn’t just about paint and color, but about depicting the daily life of ordinary people rather than the grand mythology of the Academy painters. The present always chooses its past. At Petworth: Morning Light through the Windows 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

And what one sees in Leigh’s film is not some spiritual visionary, but a Cockney artist, largely inarticulate, who has found a way to turn a little trick of paint daubs into a lucrative industry. Yet, I don’t mean to denigrate Turner: There was some level of genius in his ability to elevate the Mad-Martin extravaganza into something personal, idiosyncratic and, yes, forward looking. Turner was no revolutionary; he was bourgeois to the core, yet, that combination of conventional and ecstatic give his work that extra boost into the pages of art history textbooks. It’s what separates him from Martin, Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli and the rest of that forgotten ilk.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

We all have our guilty pleasures. One of mine is the art of John Martin. Actually, I love all the various painters of hysteria and grandiosity, of vast Romantic and Baroque spaces, like the prisons of Piranesi and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

These incredible spaces — and I use the word “incredible” in its technical sense — are projections of the Romantic sensibility, that desire for transcendence and a grasping for the cosmic. And always, with the dark shade of annihilation lurking behind it.

There is a delightful strain of paranoia in the paintings of John Martin (1789-1854). It is that touch of insanity that makes his Romantic landscapes so, well, Romantic. He was known to many as ”Mad Martin.”

He certainly came by it honestly: His brother William called himself the ”philosophical conqueror of the universe” and wrote pamphlets that proved beyond question — to himself at any rate — that the prime element out of which everything in creation is made — is air.

His other brother, Jonathan, is known to history as the ”incendiary of Yorkminster,” after he set fire to Yorkminster Cathedral because of some presumed ecclesiastical insult.

The painter himself devised a vast plan to reform the sewer system of London and held patents on hundreds of inventions of questionable usefulness.

His one lasting invention was the steel mezzotint engraving. The copper and zinc plates used for etching and engraving made beautiful prints, but the edges of the engraved line wore down too soon to make the thousands of copies necessary to feed the growing mass media. Martin’s steel plates, while unable to take the fine and subtle detail of copper, lasted forever.

But fine and subtle weren’t in Martin’s vocabulary, anyway.

Of biblical proportions

Balshazzar's Feast

Balshazzar’s Feast

He specialized in biblical paintings that would make C.B. DeMille seem like a miniaturist in comparison. One painting of Balshazzar’s Feast (he painted several) includes a building 7 miles long.

You can tell, because he includes, among the hundreds of writhing figures, one man standing beside one of the columns in a gallery that extends nearly to the horizon line. If you take that figure, meant to provide scale, at 6 feet tall, you can extrapolate, via the rules of Renaissance perspective, the length of the building. At least, so Martin wrote. When I have tried to follow his directions, the measurements get snarled up in swirling mist and the diminution of distance. But I’ll take his word for it.

The Evening of the Deluge

The Evening of the Deluge

This weakness for gigantism is the defining quality of Martin’s art. Other titles bear this out: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon; The Fall of Ninevah; and trilogies on the themes of The Deluge and Last Judgment.

My favorite is his Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, in which the tiny, exhausted and naked figure of Sadak, in the bottom corner of the canvas, climbs the sublime precipice complete with waterfalls that make Angel Falls in South America look like a drinking fountain.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Martin’s best work is his series of steel mezzotints illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had some trouble drawing figures, which are often awkward, even childish, but he had no trouble imagining and picturing the vastness of time and space. Satan, of course, is his Byronic hero.

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

Martin was enormously popular through the 1820s and ’30s — he was knighted by Leopold I of Belgium in 1833 — and small engraved versions of his huge paintings were as popular in England at the time as Taylor Swift posters are now. He became very wealthy, but lost most of his fortune on his sewer-improvement scheme.

Critical favor turned away from Martin by the time of his death, and a century after his peak fame, his canvases sold for as little as $10.

American landscapes by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran owe much of their sense of hysterical grandeur not merely to the scenery they painted — and exaggerated in the process — but to the Romanticism that inspired Martin. Cole, especially, admitted his debt to the Englishman and at times imitated him outright.

But Martin’s most familiar progeny are heavy-metal bands such as Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Slayer, AC/DC, Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse. There is the same obsession with death, Satan and the black arts. king kong 3

And that sense of dark, vast space, craggy rocks extending to the skies, and winking light back in the distance, was an inspiration to the makers of the original King Kong, too.

It is all driven by an adolescent understanding of what Longinus called ”the Sublime.”