James Mallord William Turner, Whalers (circa 1845), oil on canvas, 36-1/8″ X 48-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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Forget what you know about Action Painting. Compared to the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Jackson Pollock trifled in decoration, Willem de Kooning was deliberate to a fault, and Franz Kline played it safe. Has there been an artist who called into question the material properties of his art with as much ferocity and concentration? The four canvases included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures”, as well as the suite of Turner works featured in “Unfinished,” a concurrent exhibition at Met Breuer, are marked by an astonishing painterly abandon. Scrabbled, roughhewn, and impossibly rich, the surfaces of the pictures feature any number of approaches to mark-making, all the while—and seemingly against the odds—conjuring up bracing fields of light, atmosphere, and place. As compendia of painterly incident, Turner’s work can’t help but make the surfaces of most art look like thin gruel.
Turner’s bravura is unmistakable and, for fans of painting, irresistible, but it’s not the curatorial focus here. As is hinted by the exhibition title, the virtuoso paint-handler plays second fiddle to the—well, documentarian isn’t quite the mot juste. Whaling may be the impetus for the pictures—sales, too; Turner was courting a collector whose business involved refining whale spermaceti into oil and wax—but it wasn’t the upshot, at least not explicitly. Turner embodied the spectacle inherent in a particularly hazardous sideline; still, few will look to the paintings for historical or scientific veracity. Leave that to Robert Brandard, whose Whalers in a series entitled From The Turner Gallery (1879–80), an engraving made after Turner’s oil-on-canvasHurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! (ca. 1846), neatly underscores the distinction between factual diligence and visionary splendor. Brandard’s is a dull piece of work, cataloguing objects at the expense of drama.
James Mallord William Turner, “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (ca. 1846), oil on canvas, 35-1/2″ X 47-12″; courtesy Tate, London
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Drama was Turner’s forte; narrative, less so. That doesn’t stop Alison Hokanson, the Met’s Assistant Curator in the Department of European Paintings and the organizer of “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” from attempting to uncover a causal link between the paintings and Moby Dick. Melville knew about Turner’s whaling pictures, though there’s no proof he actually encountered them; Turner died shortly after Melville’s masterwork was published, making it unlikely that he read it. Hokanson’s self-admitted “world of speculation” is overplayed—especially in the essay published in the Met’s spring “Bulletin”—but understandable and, in the end, no great liability. Alongside the Turners, Hokanson has included: tools of the trade (a harpoon and oil lamps); brisk and all-but-abstract watercolor studies; an 1839 edition of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale (a book Turner was conversant with); and, yes, a copy of Moby Dick, from which is displayed an illustration of the great white whale by Rockwell Kent.
Kent put the whale front and center, but good luck gleaning the animal in question from the Turner paintings. Only Whalers (ca. 1845), from the Met’s own collection, presents a whale with any clarity, and then just barely. The dense gray blur rearing its mountainous bulk at bottom left, seen only fleetingly, confirms that the paintings function more as verbs than as nouns. Were it not for an accompanying wall label, would viewers be able to discern the whale in another canvas titled Whalers, this one from London’s Tate? Probably not, but there it is, a blur of misty gray and dull pink—the latter being evidence that the whalers’ harpoon has hit its mark. In an earlier watercolor, Turner gives us a more concrete view of the whale, but, still, the emphasis is on the manner in which it dives into the waters. The whale, in Turner’s hands, is an unknowable force of nature. Lack of definition adds to its terrifying majesty.
James Mallord William Turner, Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset (circa 1845), watercolor and graphite, with black chalk on paper, 9-1/8″ X 13-1/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum, Bequest of Miss Alice Tully
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It seems fitting, then, that Turner was something of a furtive presence in the art world of nineteenth-century Britain. The most charming item included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” is The Fallacy of Hope (1851), a lithographic portrait-cum-caricature of Turner by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel. (The title is taken from Turner’s self-stated postulate on the perils of art-making.) The original sketch was done at a social event and without the subject’s knowledge; Turner was notoriously reluctant to sit himself down for a proper portrait. Seen stirring a cup of tea, Turner stands to the side, taking in his surroundings with an air of sharp bemusement. The art critic John Ruskin, having heard about this “coarse, boorish, unintellectual, [and] vulgar” figure, ultimately found Turner to be a “somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English gentleman”. One might quibble with “gentleman”; if anything, Gabriel’s fond portrayal is something altogether more prole-ish. Otherwise, Ruskin pretty much hits the mark. Contrary to what the man himself believed, the Met’s exhibition proves that hope, when coupled by a huge talent, can pay off when it comes to the making of art.
© 2016 Mario Naves
This review was originally published for the July 6, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.