In his Theory of Colours, Goethe set the “indifferent” nature of light, which shows no regard for the relative importance of the objects it touches, against what he called “the definite nature of colour,” always “specific, characteristic, significant.” Such a relationship between light and color—not quite adversarial, not quite a friction, but perhaps a kind of generative pressure—emerges in J.M.W. Turner’s luminous watercolor sketches. (The artist read Goethe’s book and annotated it closely.) In one study of Lake Lucerne, an image arrives out of the accumulation of vertically striated forms: cliffs, deep blue and brown on the left, yellow tinged with gray on the right, the same blue, but attenuated, graining the jagged pitches and folds of high alps rising above the reflected rosy tones of a lake surface. It is as if you are watching an instant photograph develop, the faintest first glimpse of the elusive mountains behind blotched clouds. Perhaps it is some weirdly charged transaction between light and color, Goethe’s essentially discrete actors, that is caught up in this little piece of theater—the present and accountable pigments suffused, translated, changed by a maddeningly fleet and “indifferent” vehicle. In its rough arrested glitter, the piece brings to mind Turner’s own essential, and radical, formulation: “Every look at nature is a refinement upon art.”

     Much of the early criticism of Turner’s work seems preoccupied with the tactile qualities of his surfaces, comparing them to homely substances like soap and chalk, or even worse, eggs and spinach. His sunsets were “like looking into a coal fire or upon an old wall,” his seascapes “like veins in a marble slab.” These objections seem quaint today. What modernity soon came to see as crucial innovations with the brush (palette knife, fore finger) led to accusations on the order of Hazlitt chiding the artist’s efforts as “a waste of morbid strength.” But I am interested in what lay behind the critics’ tendency to grab for metaphors near-at-hand, in the palpable material world of early Victorian England, as a way to process Turner’s mystifying works. What were they intuiting through these richly dismissive analogies?

It is said that Turner had difficulty looking at his own paintings. Ruskin once reported, “I have watched him sitting at dinner nearly opposite one of his chief pictures; his eyes never turned to it.” Visitors to his studio were struck by his lack of interest in both looking upon and talking about his paintings.

      Others speculated about his persistent “failure with faces,” and with the human form generally, noting the fact that this finest of draughtsmen often depicted his figures from the back. But surely, in Turner’s case, this had to do not with the struggle to render the face accurately, but with some deliberate decision to blur it or to reduce it to the barest recognizable details. To disarm the native gift for precision. To “fail” on purpose. Perhaps this is akin to what Guy Davenport saw in Balthus’s turn toward the production of “rough surfaces” in his otherwise highly finished paintings—an instinct “to humble facileness.” I can imagine a psychological link between Turner’s characteristic need to turn from, to avoid looking at, his paintings and this stubborn desire to disfigure, or “de-figure” the face or turn it away.

     In a later unfinished work in oil, The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe at the Royal Clarence Yard, Gosport, 8 October 1844 (p. 211), crowds of figures brushed in ocher and white lean from both sides of the frame toward a mysterious central blank spot (perhaps a ship’s berth or canal) in the foreground. A detail of the work shows how some of the faces are crudely outlined with deep reddish orange, a hue that travels throughout the ranks of ghostly forms comprising the lower third of the picture space. (Are they buildings? Further groupings of spectators?) The close-up reveals a tiny blot for an eye, a dash of a mouth, perhaps another mouth, some snatches of hair. A shoulder, a crooked elbow. From a distance, these scant emergences of dark orange blend back into the adjacent ochers and golds like threads in a tapestry. The effect is as uncannily true to a thing about crowds as to a thing about color: both are prone to the lapse toward indefinitenessboth frustrate, in a way, our perception of the very thing they vigorously (and essentially, as Goethe suggested in the case of color) possess: an infinity of distinctions. In a famous lecture passage about Claude Lorrain, perhaps his greatest influence, Turner addressed the basic problem of the landscape artist of his day: how to balance a fealty to conventional notions of pictorial realism against the need to express an internally marked vision of the external world. For Turner, Claude’s success depended upon the pressure of direct observation:


We must consider how he could have attained such powers but by continual study of parts of nature. Parts, for, had he not so studied, we should have found him sooner pleased with simple subjects of nature, and would not have as we now have, pictures made up of bits, but pictures of bits.


Pictures made up of bits. Turner’s clarification seems subtle. The “bittedness” of the faces in the crowd in The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe feels absolute, totally arbitrary and selective at once. In some ways, it would appear to be an impossible tension to maintain, this depiction of an almost endless range of morphological difference amid the generalizing, even obliterating force of compositional unity. And yet, there it is, in painting after painting, the collusion of fragmentary details, some not more than a brush tip of sure, almost short-hand, specificity—the wing of a bird, the wheel of a cart—toward the consumptive overall centrifuges of color. The paradox lies in how the parts, the details, manage to hold there so rigorously and so tenuously, spars and sheet work, ambiguous clods and smokes, crags and crenellations, half-limned figures—bits. What makes such acts of suspension possible, Turner suggested, is the will to study. To study the parts ultimately means to be able to let them go, to so assimilate them that their articulation becomes involuntary, a job of subconscious musculature. The concentration is thus freed from the “simple subjects” to go after the impending whole, the whole conflagration. Turner’s will to study like this never left him. His bequest to the National Gallery in London consisted of about three hundred oil paintings and more than thirty thousand watercolors and sketches, including three hundred individual sketch books.


I am not sure what this has to do with my moment today on Hickory Hill. Where only recently there had been the browns and beiges of winter, suddenly emerged before me all the fraught complexities of green. I recognized a historically bounded “type” of image in the steeply angled hillsides, the bordering woodlands, the presence of a structure or two embedded in the foliage. I had seen all this before. And I had not been thinking much about Turner’s earlier “topographical” works, his very Claudian visions of the Devonshire and Sussex countrysides. But Turner was perhaps in my way of seeing it—vitally, almost violently, in an instant, as a physically registered perceptual shock. It was as though I were looking at the brusque and disparate surfaces of a painting.

Is this apprehension what is inscribed in Turner’s pictures? Francis Bacon said it is the artist’s task “to wash the realism back onto the nervous system,” to renew it, somehow, to reinvent it in order to “catch the fact at its most living point.” He said, “One brings the sensation and the feeling of life over the only way one can.” Perhaps these statements allude reflexively to the power of nature itself, of all the perceivable world, to bring us over, if we are somehow open to the possibility, something that Turner felt indelibly and strove to capture. Perhaps this is the reason his viewers felt his works so tangibly—as “soap” and “chalk” and “mortar”—that it disturbed them.

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