Rachel Cohen

9. Turner Looking

Frederick Project: Abstraction and Retrospect

Frederick Project Abstraction and Retrospect

J.M.W. Turner, A River Seen from a Hill, ca. 1840-45, Tate Museum, oil on canvas, 31 x 31.2 inches, detail photos Rachel Cohen.

I am interested in the time layers of paintings.

I always go back to J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), painter of hundreds of oils (radical landscapes, history paintings, the abolitionist Slave Ship, scenes from his teeming imagination), of thousands of watercolors (a lingering soft touch, delicate effects of light, hundreds of studies of Venice, an inspiration to the Impressionists), and artist of some 30,000 works on paper (wonderful sketchbooks, studies in history, architecture, travel.)

Turner died, impoverished and strange, in London in 1851 and a huge bequest went to what is now the Tate Museum in London; when you are there, you can, almost always, go look at Turner paintings, Turner watercolors. I love them, and have made a number of visits, and seen a couple of Turner exhibitions, and Slave Ship is at the MFA in Boston, where I used to live, and I spent a lot of time with it, and all of this now blurs together, hundreds of Turner impressions.

We were in London in 2016. On the day of the Brexit vote, I went to the Tate to see the Turners. I was in luck. The Tate had on display some of the paintings that interest me most, the late oils that are like the watercolors. I loved this, probably unfinished, square one.

I did not think the Brexit vote was the beginning of a historical era. The polls suggested that the result would be remain. Still, it was a nervous, agitated day.

The late oils are extremely abstract, almost like studies in paint, unbelievably radical for the 1840s, long before Impressionism took hold in Paris. In the 1840s, most of the trained painters in the European capitals were working at highly-finished, realistic history paintings that now look like propaganda for capitalism and empire. Turners look like paint.

Watercolor is a medium that necessitates quickness, decision. You may make it in layers, returning to it over many days, but everything you lay down remains. I believe that most of Turner’s watercolors were made in one impression. He called them “colour beginnings.” Here is one from the same period on a similar theme:

J.M.W. Turner, The Moselle Bridge, Coblenz, ca. 1842, Yale Center for British Art, watercolor, 19.13 x 24.25 inches, public domain.

He used watercolor to study transient effects of light. But I think he found in the watercolors unities of understanding that then interested him to consider in paint, which had been, sometimes still is, a much slower medium, built up over weeks, scrubbed out and done again. Here you can see how it resembles watercolor, but still has the scrapes of paint:

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The wall text for A River Seen from a Hill says that it might be an Italian landscape.

Turner loved Italy, the most of all the places he traveled to, and made several extended trips there. The first, in 1802, came when the Peace of Amiens made European travel possible for British artists. He stored up impressions, perhaps knowing that the peace might not last. The Napoleonic Wars returned; it would be seventeen years before he could return to Italy. In the meantime, as I have been reading this morning, he studied up on Italy, and when he did return, in 1819, he had imaginary, classical ideas of Italian cities and landscapes – these ideas then continued next to, and clashed interestingly with, and had to be revised to accomodate – what he also painted, the complex, impoverished places which he was actually visiting.

He went again ten years later. When he painted A River Seen from a Hill, ca. 1840-5, it had been some fifteen years since he had been in Italy.

If you think of an abstraction as something that allows you to hold two far apart things on a kind of common ground, then history is one of our most radical abstractions, across time.

Part of what astonishes in this painting, is that, when you first see it, on the wall, in its frame, there is clearly a bridge in the center. But when you get up close, the bridge begins to dissolve.

The painting resolves at a certain distance. You can only get perspective on it, as I can only begin to see what the day of the Brexit vote meant, from some ways away.

But, you also have to look close. Because you would assume you know how a bridge is made out of paint, but you don’t. When you really look close you see that what makes a structure that stands over time is quite different than you thought:

Looking at a photo taken by one person looking in England, of a painting of places another person looked at and remembered in Italy, layers of places that at some periods in history we can go to, and at other periods we can’t, you can feel contemplation changing. Retrospect, the holding layers of time in odd proximity, makes memories that learn from water.

Turner before Monet

Turner before Monet

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
16 October 1834, painted 1835.


In Cleveland for the holidays, M. and I walked through the galleries of the art museum, and stumbled upon Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834.

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If I’d seen it before, I’d entirely forgotten.  A painting of great power and intricacy.

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Turner one of those rare colorists who seems, to me, to have control within the color – especially here of red that really burns at the heart of the painting and of the expanding cloud of yellow and white.

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The color has shape and density, symmetry and modulation.  It is not so much that the painting seems to have a geometry as that the color, within itself, does.

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Monet knew Turner’s paintings and his admiration for them was part of his decision to go to London to do his three late series.  One would like to be sure that he had had adequate time with this particular picture, which seems to have a project related in an important way to his own.  Monet set the Houses of Parliament, the Thames before them, and the air above them in such a way that each could be transmuted into the others.  Turner and those with him along the banks of the Thames that night saw this happen.

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The night of the great fire, October 16, 1834, Turner worked all night, up and down the banks of the Thames sketching rapidly in watercolor, which was his habit.  One of these sketches is reproduced in a beautiful called Turner: Les Carnets de Dessins with text by William Gaunt.  Turner’s watercolors, the most wonderful I have ever seen, were his private work, and were not brought before the public until well into the 20th century.  Thus Monet, hurrying up and down the sides of the Thames desperate to catch his evanescent effects, never knew how close a ghostly colleague he had.


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Private Collection

Private Collection

Morisot, Clark Institute

A small watercolor by Berthe Morisot was the most surprising thing I saw on our trip to New York.  At the Frick, on loan from the Clark, in that basement space they use for special exhibitions and works on paper, in an assortment of drawings by French Impressionists.  The watercolor is of a dark boat floating in green water among other crafts – masts, bow, lines for sail and anchor, a few indistinct figures moving about their work.  Colors wonderful – shadows of boats reflecting darker green below, sense of movement, mass, buoyancy.  Apparently she drew while herself on a neighboring boat and relished the difficulty of getting the lines while she herself went up and down.  A much better draughtsman than I had realized, learning from Turner’s watercolors in ways that I’ve not seen others do, allowing the colors to make a structure. Who is she?  Berthe Morisot.  The images I know are of her, especially Manet’s portraits, not by her.  At the Met later that day four or five really wonderful paintings by Morisot as part of their “Impressionism and Fashion” exhibition.  The women in these paintings – reclining or sitting, looking in mirrors or at us – emerge out of a shaded and subtly modulated atmosphere.  The air itself is thick with paint that condenses in the figure.  Clothes are beautiful.  A manifestation of what animates their wearers.  These women have not been dressed, they dress themselves.   I had little time, but tried to look carefully at just these paintings, promising myself that I would spend more time with them one by one in the museums where they reside.  In the gift shop, quickly scanning the one book on Morisot, I saw to my disappointment that nearly all her work is in private collections.




 
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