Saturday, September 20, 2008

Let there be light

The critic John Ruskin compared the painter James Mallord William Turner to the Great Angel of the Apocalypse: "Glorious in conception -- unfathomable in knowledge -- solitary in power...sent as a prophet of God to reveal to man the mysteries of His Universe."

Well, that's a bit much, but there are many who would say that Turner was the greatest of English painters, certainly the best of his time. The Met in New York is currently hosting an important Turner exhibition. I haven't seen it, but on several occasions I have stood transfixed before the many Turners at the Tate in London. The artist is indeed a revealer of the mysteries of nature.

He was a strange bird -- uncouth, reclusive, alcoholic -- but there can be no doubt that he had a peculiarly acute sensitivity to the animating mystery that lies behind nature's more obvious forms. While his early-19th-century contemporaries were striving for ever more faithful "realism," Turner was after something else, something ineffable but real -- the power behind the apparent. I would compare him to his contemporary Michael Faraday, who with his concept of the electric and magnetic fields tried to give scientific expression to the invisible energies that hold the world in thrall.

Turner's work becomes increasingly abstract as he peels away layers of surface sensation, looking for -- what for him was -- the hidden divine. Much of his work reflects his fascination with wind, storm, wave, and fire -- hugely impersonal natural energies in the face of which humans are utterly helpless. But late works, such as Sunrise, With a Boat Between Headlands (1835-1840) or Norham Castle, Sunrise (1835-1840, shown here), revealed an inner repose. In Norham Castle, the castle is a blur of blue, a foreground cow a wash of brown with its reflection. These works baffled Turner's contemporaries. The likes of them would not be seen again until the development of abstract expressionism in the 20th century.

Shall we count Turner a religious naturalist? He sought nothing beyond the natural, but his engagement with nature was one of ecstatic attention. It is said that his last words were "The sun is God."