I 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.
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 Night.
The 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.
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.
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, left; Martin, right
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.