One of my favorite painters, or at least one to whom I’m most grateful, is Whistler, for he upset British art by attempting to remove the expectation that paintings tell a story. The determination to avoid narrative in visual art may seem like going to the movies solely to admire the cinematography, a myopia of which I’m partly guilty. Let the work stand or fall on its intrinsic merit, without resorting to anecdote. Of course, there’s banality lurking in the purely formal approach as well. By choice my Instagram feed is dominated by observational painters, for whom the temptation to showcase technical bravado is sometimes hard to suppress.
Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, recently opened at the Frick Collection, is predicated on the artist’s interest in historical narrative. I came, however, for the spectacle of Turner’s art, and I’m assuming that a lot of the visitors who crowded the exhibition Saturday weren’t there to learn about a grieving widow arriving with her husband’s remains on the Tiber, nor how the incident foreshadowed the downfall of the Roman Empire. That canvas’s title is a plump piece of text: Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. The Triumphal Bridge and Palace of the Caesars Restored. Turner was doing what many artists prior to the Impressionists did with landscape, referring to classical themes per the example of Claude Lorrain. Painters borrow what they need; Monet looked at Turner and dispensed with the Claudian rhetoric and kept the atmosphere, which Turner supplied in breathtaking abundance. In Aggripina, the bridge in the middle distance and the palace beyond are shrouded in golden haze. This surely symbolizes the glory of an era long past, a theme that couldn’t interest me less. To me the painting is a burnished reference to two canvases Turner produced five years earlier that depicted the burning of Parliament. The undercurrent—if not the very subject that would preoccupy his maturity—was evanescence, the mutability of material form as well as human institutions. For Turner, a conflagration was a blessedly dramatic symbol of material destruction, though the steady drip of human degradation offered content enough. If the artist who gave us the pessimism of Fallacies of Hope and Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying was cynical about mankind, his joyousness was unconstrained in the act of painting and the palette he chose. He adored the dazzling luminescence of sunlight. His contemporaries grumbled about the amount of yellow he used.
The glorious trio of harbor views that dominate the Oval Room represent an apogee of Turner’s middle period. At the flanks are two paintings owned by the Frick, and which usually face one another and anchor opposing walls of the West Gallery. To the left is the radiant Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile, its bustling shoreline and rows of mercantile traffic opening to the horizon; at the distant center is the parish church of St. Jacques, the facade of which would later serve as the imposing subject in a series of paintings by Whistler’s disciple, Walter Sickert (who, incidentally, was absolutely smitten by the storytelling impulse, and is one of my favorite modern painters anyway). To the right is Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening, a luminous if less romantic harbor view, its skyline punctuated by sails and a series of medieval spires. With diagonal shadows falling across the buildings at right and twisted frames from abandoned fishing nets semi-submerged in the foreground, it’s a more dynamic and eccentric composition. Between them, on loan from the Tate, is the unfinished The Harbor of Brest: The Quayside and Chateau. Oh, the indignities The Harbor of Brest has endured: along with other canvases, it was long consigned to the basement of the National Gallery in London. In 1943 Kenneth Clark, searching for air raid shelters under the museum, found paintings so covered with grime and disfigured by humidity he thought they were tarpaulins, and realized otherwise only after attacking one with a soapy scrub brush. The current state of The Harbor of Brest is the product of several restorations. What’s delineated in the Frick’s canvases is evocative in the Tate’s, and one can appreciate the Brest all the more in this context. The painting’s abstract forms and glowing light reveal how much of Turner’s vision was baked into a canvas from the early stages, and act as happy confirmation to those of us who teach the studio gospel of working from large to small. Thankfully, Turner left a substantial number of broadly painted and incomplete works. These reveal much about his technical methods and his aesthetic intent, and to our eye they are the more powerful for what’s left out.
Admittedly, you can’t get to the one place without going through the other. Although abstraction is necessary as a foundation for detail, the ability to bring work to an elaborate state fortifies subsequent paring down of non-essential information. A painter has to overwork in order to learn how to better simplify; late Turner needed to be early Turner first. In that spirit I could visit the adjoining East Gallery, which is filled with several dozen small, finely detailed watercolors. These evidence Turner’s technical aptitude, and establish the foundation for his application of transparent washes in oil, a connection between the media that is more obvious than with any other great painter. Like the major oils here, the aquarelles date from the mid-1820s, and most of them were painted to be transcribed to prints for tourist publications. They’re travelogues weighted with topographical accuracy; richly painted as they are, they remain highly controlled performances for a commercial purpose. The watercolors that knocked me out are a handful of very rapid color notes done on the spot, excited abbreviations of what the artist saw on excursions to Dieppe and Cologne.
It was these rapid watercolors that served as my gateway drug to Turner. I was painting plein-air New York cityscapes when I was introduced to Andrew Wilton’s books featuring the European and Venetian color sketches that Turner made on the fly during his prolific travels. Unless I was willfully conflating the west tower of Brooklyn Bridge with a medieval church (well, yes!) it’s hard to explain how these were relevant to the factual presentations I was making of the waterfront—it’s a long way from Giudecca to the East River—but probably I recognized someone who was gobsmacked by the surroundings, and who was able to distill monumental views with economy of means. Turner possessed the requisite discipline to commit observations to paper, a visual reporter who was perpetually taking notes. Later, in the studio, the big oils grew out of the fast watercolors. A painting like The Harbor of Brest retains brevity while doubling down on everything that counts: anthemic scale, glowing color and an indescribable spiritual aura, of the sort that would have been compromised by further elaboration. This is the Turner who must have seemed awfully eccentric to his contemporaries, but who resonates with the modern aesthetic.
We don’t know the reason he never finished this exhibition’s centerpiece, but it’s worth floating a guess. Turner wasn’t averse to including everyday grit in his paintings; the Cologne canvas features a pipe spewing refuse into the river while a dog laps at the water nearby. But Brest offered a more disturbing prose. Writing in the show’s catalogue, Gillian Forrester notes that “had he completed and exhibited his painting of the port of Brest, a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, it likely would have seemed to its viewers freighted with associations with slavery.” Any suggestion that these ships were involved in such transport, or perhaps the mere mention of the city, would have negated the canvas’s classical references, let alone the transcendent abstraction we enjoy today.
Turner may well have concluded that he didn’t want a pre-loaded storyline to co-opt public perception of the work. The canvas remained in his studio, unfinished at the time of his death. The narrative intent is forever sublimated to the beauty of the painting, which is one reason I like it so.
Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time is on view at the Frick Collection through May 14, 2017.