J. M. W. Turner was unique among British artists before the 20th century in his indifference to the singularity of this and that, to the accurate idiom of the human figure and landscape - “accurate” as defined by, for instance and respectively, his English contemporaries Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Constable. His buildings could be painstakingly correct: after all, in his youth in London he had been apprenticed as an architectural draughtsman and in his maturity he increased his income through topographical prints. Usually faithful, too, were his beloved, meticulously studied boats. But otherwise he was a freeing poet of forms and of the form-indifferent basis of forms, not their recorder. Turner’s abstractions - his subtractions - are intuitively philosophical: readings of the constitution of reality as tending toward volatility, as elusive and in motion. To him, everything solid inclines to the unstable condition of water - especially vaporization - or to the condition of never-still fire. The leading impulse of reality is to disperse clotted - blocky - matter.
Reality passes like a skate. So let painting be suggestive rather than visually digestive. The scale of suggestion has infinite gradations: Turner paints at the rumorous end of it, where disintegration is in the wind. I refer not to the many pictures of his that conformed to the standards of landscape painting in his youth, but to the meta-physically sensitive paintings (“meta-physical” not as in old-style metaphysics but in the sense that quantum physics is meta-physical, an object missing an object), In these works, Turner famously did not cater to the habit-bound, normative eye. His aesthetic aim was to evade the death that lies in finitude and approach instead the vaster death that lies in in-definition.
In the works that rocketed him ahead of his time (and it was not for nothng that he painted rockets), he showed a strong feeling for both markless quietude and its opposite, turbulence. The latter was a most un-British taste in art at the time, and a most un-American taste, too (the Hudson River Valley painters were pacifists of matter, infants drinking the milk of light). When not approximating the conventional paintings of the 1820s, 30s, and 40s, Turner was hinting at the chaoid vibrations in things and in excess of things, and obsessed with translations of energy. In a well-known story, he had himself strapped to the mast of a steamboat in a windy snowstorm to see and hear and feel against his face the fury of the Siren of wild energy, if only to master it afterward by painting it. That was reality, that exhilarating terror. He had absolutely no feeling for the vital spark, the organic. To him the earth and air were in chains and striving to be free.
Watercolor obviously gives the hint for suggesting matter’s innate superiority to hard edges. Turner is almost as celebrated for his watercolors as for his oil paintings, but very few of them are commonly reproduced. Unfamiliar, even, is the naturalistic masterpiece Rochester, on the River Medway,”1822 (p. 209), Here, in this tiny picture, is watercolor at its most detailed - worked up as the composition was from parts of various sketches. The scene is carefully correct, and at the same time delicate as a house of cards. Striking is the preternatural translucency of the water in which the reflections of the sailboat, the hay-cargoing boat, andmthe hulk of the prison boat subtract from the floating forms. The perhaps Dutch-inspired, beautifully drawn large gold-brown sail in the foreground - whether being raised or lowered - effectively signifies the will, whereas the reflections signify what escapes it, the deliquescence of all forms and all effort. The danger of and for the will (including criminality and the deportation of prisoners) is held at bay by art in its aspect of “a saving sorceress with the power to heal” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy). Turner is here the protector of the peace of the kingdom. He paints as if to show that this world is a beautiful musical stroke of luck. But in his more typical watercolors he is on his own, cut loose. He is radical in his complete indifference to providing the viewer with security.
Elsewhere, Turner the watercolorist has dropped his brush in a canal. Water was his element, his sloshing and vaporous, beloved, and feared form, non-form, anti-form of materiality. And after water, fire. These are the elements that most dramatically escape fixity while retaining enough materiality to engulf matter, to make forms disappear. These and light, which is effectively another element and which can obscure, if not dismantle, everything but itself.
Turner was not an emblematizing painter. On the contrary, he went straight to the other side of the literal, to the point of trauma. Water as medium - wet washes, wet dabs and swashes of color in the washes - was an excuse, if one was needed, to give up the persnickety claims of particulars. Some of the watercolors, with their wet-in-wet technique - and, thus schooled, some of the oil paintings also - are astonishingly unprecedented evocations of a gaseous near formlessness. The watercolor medium can be thinned to transparency and thus suggest - so Anne Hollander noted in Moving Pictures - “the blank infinity behind phenomena.”1 (Poor Ruskin, so intent on championing a fictitious Turner, a painter of the “exquisite realization of objects.” Turner was really only fascinated by multiples – crowds, not individual faces; moonlight scattered in clouds, not the moon. Multitudes and diffusion, blurs.)
In sharp contrast to Rochester, on the River Medway, the watercolor Fishermen on the Lagoon, Moonlight 1840 (210), one of Turner’s numerous paintings of Venice, is a superb example of his de-particularizing technique. (Naturally, Turner would gravitate to Venice, that inorganic city awash.) Here, a dark, smallish, off-shore wooden platform in the lagoon, built to moor small fishing boats temporarily, barely holds its own against the ravishing wide moonlit washes of water and sky. A couple of docked boats can be inferred from the black anti-shapes; the fishermen are only poky or lumpy silhouettes. The rest is an evening-pale nebulosity of a seductively beautiful dissolving band of diluted cornflower intensified toward indigo at the horizon-line, where the buildings of Venice are putatively situated - a band framed by spreads of light gray and blue in the sky and a light greeny blue and gray in the foreground water (unacceptable, the idea that there are fish in that flimsy filminess). Turner, who has no feeling for shelter or even stopped points in space and time, makes the platform a concentration of almost Franz Kleinian black slashes; it suggests a monstrous crippled crustacean. Despite indications of its solidity, molten moonlight pools up in the middle of it, smothering detail. At the near side, its borders melt away in scythe-like black reflections, and at the near side into luminous nothings. Such is Turner’s Andromeda rising from the sea: a savage-looking misshapen thing perched in clawing disarray in fields of near transparency. It is the enchanting evening blue in the piece that says “world,” and in particular “our world,” but in an elegiac key.
Turner’s unfinished watercolors can be almost entirely free of object-suggesting inflections. Just a mark or two or three in the mildly fluctuating color field - a tenting mountain outline, an intense blood-stab of red, a stretch of dirty white that may be sand, something like that (see, for example, Cockermouth Castle, 1830). The painter seems to have hesitated to injure the delicately thin color with shapes. A potential world - or a potential annihilation of the world - may be more intriguing, after all, than a world stuck fast in geographical assignments that seem to exhaust possibility. Painting may have need, at least at times, of starving forms. (Deleuze: “A canvas is not a blank surface. It is already heavy with clichés, even if we do not see them. The painter’s work consists in destroying them; the painter must go through a moment when he or she no longer sees anything thanks to a collapse of visual coordinates.”) To melt or smelt what is, is to rediscover chance as fundamental. Creation starts over at zero.
The watercolors, excluding the barely visible ones in the sketchbooks, were ontological investigations. Most halt where they do as if they know enough already, the essential. They suggest a new, discovering extreme in observing Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy’s advice to painters in The Art of Painting (1783), to avoid painting “harder than Nature” and making “the outline more cutting against the ground,” observing instead “the union . . . found in nature,” its “breadth.” They are true fictions of the landscape-at-hand. Not gestalts; rather, poetic extractions.
As his friend Joseph Farrington said, Turner had no settled approach in painting. In his watercolors he “drove the colors about till he had expressed the idea in his mind.” He pestered at washes until something magnificent appeared, say the close-up gun-bristling side of a great ship already wet with its exposure to the sea. On “varnishing days” at the Royal Academy before the opening of exhibitions, he would sometimes hang an oil that at first was like one of his watercolor sketches, a chora for a scene not yet born, hardly ready for varnishing; but by working all day without looking around him or standing back to get the effect, he could produce a masterpiece. He liked to show off. And he liked the brinkmanship of working at the chance point, the fall-off point, of scenography.
In the more abstract pieces, the title can be the only clue to what is - and is not - being represented. You look at a chalk-and-watercolor piece and marvel at the lyric and dramatic play of free shapes, blue-black and purple set against an appassionato slanted flare-up of orange, yellow, and red. The title is a shock: Burning Blubber (p. 211). Again, a marine with exquisite staccato indications of spotty red and blue clouds off to the left and a band of grayed ochre underneath (perhaps the sea?) is what? Wreck on the Goodwin Sands, says the title - which explains (and not) the long dark-gray fuzzy skeletal spine lying across that lower band. The title is a drag on the freeingly abstract pictorialism.
Undoing forms up to a point, not eliminating them altogether, was of course more satisfying to Turner the oil painter, competing, as he was, in a great tradition. To me, Turner’s masterpiece in oil with regard to de-forming form and suggesting the infinite abandon of atoms - in light, in fire - is Norham Castle, Sunrise (213), a work possibly unfinished, but surely perfect as it is. The “figure” to focus on is the cow standing in the river a little to the right of center: a live creature nominally tangential to the indistinct castle rising above it in the background (a mere blue transparent glaze), but the visual magnet in the scene. Even so, it isn’t much of a cow. It’s a sort of dummy cow. The anorectic suggestion of a cow. Body streaked with umber. Four severely tapered red-brown legs, a neck stooped to the water. Never was a cow less sunk in the concept of cow than this not-at-all-fleshy, barely bony creature. Peering at the painting - as I did in the recent Tate-born Turner show at the Getty - one can make out the suggestion of another cow or two on the shore further to the right, non-figures that show up better in a reproduction. You could imagine that this sublimely luminous morning in Northumberland is loath to lose the flood of yellow light within it and become an ordinary day. The light is like an absolution of the damage of the finite. The cow, though disabled, protests its right to be visible.
What Turner’s paintings lack in intricacy and subtlety they make up for in poetic power of composition and suggestion. If they do not set up distinct limits, the whole deck is there, as it were, flip-shuffled faster than the eye can translate. Turner escapes from the literalness of the facts and makes them part of an atmosphere.
Michel Serres’ Turner (as presented in his essay “Turner Translates Carnot” in Literature & Science) is a painter of fire: “Turner no longer looks from the outside . . . he enters into the boiler, the furnace, the firebox. He sees matter transformed by fire. Geometry is limited . . . he was the first true genius in thermodynamics.” Like stormy water - a Turner specialty - fire manifests energy, not form; pressure-changes; stress-reality, imbalance. It is not faithful to anything, even itself. Like time, it transforms all it touches. It gathers speed; it leaps from a finite place toward the condition of light. But the great painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons is not Serres’ ultra-Turner. Rather, Turner’s depictions of steam engines (in boats, trains, if not factories) fascinates Serres as the sign of the moment of the modern, unleashing a dynamis, be it for destruction or for “progress.”
Steam is fire and water in mobile union. Its energy impels and obscures. The deservedly famous painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Western Railway (216) shows a black, rounded blob at the head of an indefinite extension on a brownish-black bridge (it has been identified as the Maidenhead bridge over the Thames) set on two big flat arches. What is it? It’s a train, as betrayed by the black steamstack standing upright on the front end of it. A tiny rabbit was supposedly added late to the non-legible tracks to indicate that animal vitality has now been outdone, if not undone. The train’s implied speed makes the lone row boat on the Thames below lookstalled.
But the piddling emission of white steam rising from the train is as nothingcompared to the wild mix of rain and atmosphere that fills much of the canvas. The “speed” in the title is largely deflected from the train and cast like a wild wind into the great space around, above, and even below it thanks to the high bridge. The furor of speed is in the very light. What is most dynamic is the world itself - something even larger than the earth but frighteningly at large in its atmosphere. The bridge looks half dissolved by the metrological turbulence, the train is more than half obscured by it. The scene is all in a frenzy. It is experiencing more than a little bit of its own death.
Those who, like Empedocles and Serres, think that hatred is the basis of all things might find confirmation here. What a terrible fury it must have taken to put such fury in order. Turner introduces a tumult beyond any likely to have been found in the natural scene, just as in Norham Castle, Sunrise he introduces several touches of hazy peacefulness more than the natural scene probably breathed out.
In all, Turner succeeded in fronting chaos without becoming a castaway of perception. Again, at his most acute, he seems to have understood the universe as intermittent, a quasi-void, a drunken distribution, a sowing of nebulous forms, gasses, and liquids, a volatile mix of order and disorder (not that he randomizes; even his wildest pictures take the frame well). Bergson’s later criticism that metaphysics was still limited to being a metaphorics of the solid (though Emerson and Whitman had gone beyond that position more than fifty years earlier) might have struck Turner as trenchant.
While Turner often veered toward barely discernible mountains, waterfalls, and rivers as well as the sea, his rival, Constable, painted settled places and occasionally positioned “live” individual figures within them (not mere suggestions of individuals, like Turner’s). Constable had a feeling for rain clouds and flecked the surfaces of some of his oils to the point that the depicted scenes look agitated - both wet and electrified - but his worlds remain pegged. Turner more consistently and more deeply set the viewer’s attention in motion. He seemed to “delight to go back to the first chaos of the world,” as William Hazlitt said. He identified not with what is seen but with what is coming through.
The dizzying painting Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth making Signals in shallow Water and going by the Lead - the full title includes: The Author was in this Storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich (215) - allows the viewer no entrance point except for the laboring title itself (though if you could walk on water you could take the brushy dark broken path from the left forewater to the ship). It forbids identification; rather, it incites a gasp. Oh what trouble have we here! The ship’s curving spout of brown-and-black steam connects up, at the top right, with the giant thick swerve of weather sweeping up from the sea surface on the left side - the man-made steam meeting nature’s own vaporizations in a feeble and as it were foolhardy imitation. The ferocious tornadic shapes of weather and steam flying above are offset by the waves’ roughed-up geometrical mountain peaks below. But this counterbalance, too, goes by chance. In combinaton, the twisted rising arcs and the washing triangles pushed to one side like broken noses suggest a huge, dispersed, but still furiously spinning pinwheel. The very shape of the boat is blotted out.
One of the most exceptional of Turner’s paintings, Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), forms the reverse: a hauntingly still poem of death (214). Turner made the picture after learning that one his fellow academicians, Sir David Wilkie, had died of typhoid fever while sailing to England and been denied burial on the Rock of Gibraltar because the community feared contagion. Peace? An ominous state of arrest, rather. Some agitation continues in the imagined scene: for instance, steam scarfs up from the night-darkened ship in long furry dark smears. But the two large trapezoid sails in vertical formation on the tall mast are, as it were, terminated, as stiff and black as can be. (Answering a criticism, Turner said, “I only wish I had any colour to make them blacker.”) The extreme contrast of black and white (seconded by the lesser contrast of brown and blue), is unique in Turner. Visually striking, it all but creates a strobe alarm. Something horribly untoward has happened, color has been sucked from the world. The quarrel in the values dramatizes and makes irreconcilable the gulf between life and death. Death, real death, is of a different order than the merely material deaths the painter enjoyed in vaporizations and fiery consumptions. Wilkie’s body, its destiny effectively figured by a fiery band of light that plunges feebly from the ship deck to the water, like a bolt made of too few atoms to work, is being dumped in a bag into the sea. His corpse will rot unseen. That feels personal. It hurts. The irrelevant gaiety of the phosphorecent fireworks on shore is remote and refuses to acknowledge the burial. The organic is a fatality apart. Turner usually suppressed any precise knowledge of it, being, as he was, a painter of matter’s passionate pursuit of its own abstraction.
1 Anne Hollander also notes that, like Rembrandt, “Turner produced an uneven surface, even for his watercolors: thick and thin or rough and smooth . . . . Such a fluctuating plane imparts an uneven motion to the image along with a motility to the shapes inside it. The color, too, is “immaterial, never local, always of the air or of the light, or of the inner eye itself.” Anne Hollander, Moving Pictures, Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 268.