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Feature: “J. M. W. Turner” to Open at the Dallas Museum of Art

by Jerome Weeks 8 Feb 2008 11:15 AM

Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, oil, 1812 The son of a barber, the grandson of a butcher, J. M. W. Turner never had the university education that might put him at ease among his society patrons or fellow members of the Royal Academy. Short and stocky, he was unmistakably a child […]


Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, oil, 1812

The son of a barber, the grandson of a butcher, J. M. W. Turner never had the university education that might put him at ease among his society patrons or fellow members of the Royal Academy. Short and stocky, he was unmistakably a child of the London streets: pugnacious, wary and tight with money. He was, biographer Peter Ackroyd writes, that quintessentially English character, a “Cockney visionary.”

Yet it took that kind of scrappy willpower, that unbridled sense of self, for Turner to pioneer his own innovative ways with paint and color, his independent vision of the world — in the process becoming the greatest English landscape artist, its master of riverscapes and epic scenes of sunlight and storm. According to a recent poll, he remains the country’s most popular painter.

J. M. W. Turner, the exhibition of nearly 140 works by the painter, opens Sunday at the Dallas Museum of Art — a landmark exhibition, John. R. Lane, the DMA’s director, told an invited press audience Thursday. It’s the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Turner’s paintings presented in the United States in 40 years. Having opened last fall to acclaim at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., J. M. W. Turner runs at the DMA through May 18 and then travels to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the show’s third and last location.

The Battle of Trafalgar, Oct. 21, 1805, oil, 1823-4

When Turner died in 1851, he bequeathed his work to the nation to be kept as a collection — the first artist in history to do so. But his inheritors contested the will and won on a technicality, breaking up the bequest. This means that Turner brings together works that have been separated for more than a century. One of his most famous masterpieces, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” is in America for the first time. Ian Warrell, editor of the exhibition catalog and a curator at Tate Britain, the museum that houses many of Turner’s paintings, couldn’t contain his excitement when strolling through the DMA’s galleries.

“It’s just so rare to see this many at once,” he said, ”even in London.”

The exhibition features a number of famous pairs or sets, including Turner’s two views of the catastrophic fire that destroyed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, as well as his largest oil painting (a view of the battle of Trafalgar eight feet tall by twelve feet wide that required a dozen men to hang and takes up an entire gallery wall). Organized roughly chronologically and thematically (”Britain at War and Peace,” “The Triumph of Color”), the exhibition is so extensive, Dorothy Kosinski joked, that it includes something of a rest stop halfway through — a side room with wall chart timelines as well as video and computer monitors, displaying a documentary about Turner narrated by actor Jeremy Irons. The DMA has also scheduled an elaborate series of lectures and musical performances during the show’s run.

Dr. Kosinski, the DMA’s chief curator and one of the co-curators of the exhibition, called Turner “an iconic figure familiar to anyone from Art History 101.” That’s partly because he excelled at so much, in so many styles: oil and watercolor, historical scenes, battlefield commemorations, Romantic landscapes. He cannot be contained by any single movement and towers above almost any other painter of the 19th century. By eventually dissolving the solid traditions of realism into light and paint and symbols, he became the great precursor of much that followed him – impressionism, expressionism, abstract expressionism.

Turner’s popularity is partly due to his preservation of a bucolic English countryside that has nearly vanished and the loose, soft-focus way with paint that he developed in his maturity — his summer landscapes are often hazy with sun and clouds, a technique that became trite by the next century. Yet it was his penchant for what historian Simon Schama calls ”gauzy obscurity” that made Turner a controversial figure in his own day, given the period’s preference for hard facts. Although Turner was frequently obsessed with getting details right, he often reconfigured scenery or events to suit his purposes, when he didn’t dispense with accurate representation altogether. His paintings were “detestable absurdities,” according to a London Times critic. One haunting, whirling late masterwork from 1842 included in the exhibition (”Snow Storm — Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth”) was derided as just so much “soapsuds and whitewash.” Queen Victoria even thought Turner was mad — a chief reason he was denied a knighthood during his life while many lesser artists were honored. (That Turner’s mother did go mad and die in an asylum has been ascribed as one cause for his habitual secrecy — shame over his coarse and troubled background.)

Ancient Rome, oil, 1839

In fact, Turner was never awarded a prize after the age of 19 — when he won a silver medal at school. Born in 1775, he apprenticed with architects and topographers in his teens. The exhibition features a number of these early architectural watercolors, but even in later views of Venice or in his treatments of ancient Rome and Carthage, Turner’s love of engineered solidity, of sun-warmed stone and chiseled columns, is evident — ironically so, given his fame for mists of color. Yet if he had his life to live over again, he once told a friend, he would be an architect.

Turner made his debut as an oil painter at the Royal Academy in 1796, when he was only 21. The painting, “Fisherman at Sea,” included in Turner, displays his precocious mastery in handling light and water. (Born and raised only a few blocks from the Thames, Turner was a lifelong angler.) Soon after, Turner traveled to England’s Lake District — almost simultaneously with the publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poems extolling the same terrain (Lyrical Ballads, 1798).

Turner imbibed much of the Romantic imagination, especially its ideas on the “sublime,” the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature. As Mr. Warrell explained, when Turner began painting as a professional artist, landscapes were considered a lesser genre: The measure of art was the measure of man. Turner fought to elevate the landscape as a serious aesthetic statement, equal to the portrait or the nude, and he did this through his use of the sublime, conveying the implacable majesty of the universe.

This darkness suited his own brooding temperament: Turner had a tragic, fatalistic view of humanity, a Lear-like sense that chaos threatened. Even in his most picturesque, pastoral vistas, human beings are minor players at best. More commonly, they are frail and frightened things, storm-tossed twigs. His 1812 painting of Hannibal’s army was a breakthrough in this regard — a historical painting in which the epic players, Hannibal’s troop of elephants, are reduced to a single, tiny, embattled chess piece, as what seems like the entire cosmos crashes down on them. It became a chief expression of what has been termed pessimistic Romanticism.

The painter John Constable, who had his differences with Turner, was often overwhelmed by his work nonetheless — he seems ”to paint with tinted steam,” he marveled to a friend. For Turner, paint was a physical, visceral thing — he kept his thumbnail long and sharpened, Mr. Warrell noted, in order to scrape away at the canvas or paper. An incredibly fast worker, Turner frequently dabbled and smeared his paints, and marks from his hands, Mr. Warrell said, are visible in a number of the exhibition’s watercolors. One scholar is even attempting to collect an entire set of Turner’s fingerprints.

Although the impressionists were influenced by Turner’s treatment of color, their soft-hued works appear domesticated and quiet in comparison to his raging infernos and cataclysms — which grow in size and intensity as the exhibition goes on until in such harrowing later pieces as “The Evening of the Deluge,” “Peace – Burial at Sea” and “Death on a Pale Horse,” smoke, water and fire vaporize everything else. When young, Turner worked as a theatrical scene painter, and in his maturity he was accused of over-dramatizing his subjects. But unlike the impressionists, Turner felt the wind, the moon and especially the blazing sun as dynamic forces, as giant symbols — even as spiritual beings.

According to legend, the painter’s last words were “The sun is god.” He was always, as Mr. Ackroyd writes, “something of a pagan.”

J. M. W. Turner is also a landmark exhibition for the Dallas Museum of Art in that it is the last show to be curated by Dr. Kosinski, who is moving to Washington D.C. to run the Phillips Collection. Most recently, she curated Matisse: Painter and Sculptor and organized the museum’s centennial retrospective, Passion for Art: 100 Treasures 100 Years. In 2001, she developed and curated Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century and organized Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera.

The museum, though, has not lost Dr. Kosinski, DMA board of trustees president Walter Elcock said Thursday. It has gained an ally at the Phillips.

Norham Castle, Sunrise, oil, 1845