Storms Ahead: Looking at Turner

The Turner exhibit at The Frick was filled with mothers and daughters. May 14th was the last day of the show, so there was even more reason to crowd before a loosely orchestrated watercolor that perfectly depicted a port.

Turner is a special kind of seascape painter who is congruously tongue-in-cheek humor, tenebrous destruction, and majesty. He studied ports from all over Europe. Some images were realistic, while some were mythic. But all of his earlier works display figures, finely painted boats, and buildings that inhabit an abstracted sea and sky-scape. It’s as if the finely painted figures or buildings on the shore were mere place markers for the abstraction of the sky and the water surrounding. Indeed, it seems that the paintings are saying something else besides the story that they tell.

The painting Regulus is a classical painting of Turner’s cannon. The sun is an overwhelming essence that compounds in the center of the frame. The viewer is standing before a canal of water, which serves as a mirror for the sun that lengthens and illuminates on the waves. Among the throngs of people on either cascading side of the canal, one man is blinded. But he is not central to the image, nor is he even painted at all save for a few white marks several inches from the right side of the frame. The hilarity of the man is that nothing about him is particularly important to the image. He is a coincidence in the middle of a shockingly crowded port. Yet the painting is his story. Certainly no one would see him unless there was an expert or a plaque that would point him out. And even then he is hard to pinpoint. Turner himself is a master at dry British humor it would seem. The very turning point of a man's life made quite literally insignificant to the workings of the natural world.

It is common for Turner to have the sky tell the story of the painting, rather than the human figures. The story is about Regulus, but he could be any man who became curious and looked askance to see what would happen if he were to regard the sun. It’s damn near religious.

Despite tropes of pessimism in his paintings (boats are overturned or charred, storms brew overhead, fires rage) Turner speaks to a reverent perspective on nature whose meaning crumbles in the face of man and his makings. On one side of the coin the natural elements, the water and the sky, are the gods and goddesses, consuming the beings whose confused mass means nothing in the face of the concentrated force of waves, or wind, or light. The violence is immeasurable. On the other side of the coin, the peace and gentleness of the giant sun, is a source of comfort. It can give you reason to believe. Each painting encapsulated in a forgiving and gentle light, moving from broad to short brush strokes. The colors soften. He is a master of blue and yellow.

The natural forces around us continue to prove to be second to politics, and technology, and industry. Every year we see it more, in raging storms and fire. Why is there no Turner now, someone who can portray our own smallness, which if it is not remembered, it will destroy us. 

But is it not nature that we long for? We talk about the weather, not because we have nothing to say to each other, but because we are in awe of it every day. We long to be brought to our knees, whether it be through the beauty of the sun or the force of a storm. The sea is coming, but we can’t quite imagine it. The storms are hitting the world here and there, but we can’t even see the immensity of them because our eyes are too small. If we did see it all, would we also be blinded? And then, can we believe, with the sun at a certain angle and the moon behind, and the clouds set in such a way on a mild summer day, that we will be saved?

*The Frick is pay what you wish between 11am and 1pm on Sundays. Just in time for an afternoon stroll in the park. It also has free first Fridays.