For most of us the words “I must” are invoked often. We utter these words as if standing back and looking over our lives. We call to our inert being, commanding ourselves into action. “I must” do this or that today, “I must” finish this project, “I must” affect this political action or that social order. The “I must” is there directing and pushing the inherently shapeless self forward.
Where object and subject meet, this is life.
But there are those for whom the words “I must” do not come from standing back. There are those for whom the words “I must” never reach the conscious mind, but rather these words are spoken and answered at some deeper level of being where to be and must do are fused together at the synaptic level, and the self becomes entwined in the thing being done. The “I must” is replaced by an intense passion inherent in existence that burns beneath the surface, and one’s outer drive and need for motivation is simply bypassed.
Although such people have walked amongst us, they actually stand above us, often their prodigy occurring at a very early age. We know them in the art world: Beethoven, Mozart, Da Vinci, van Gogh, Picasso, Michelangelo. And with the current exhibition of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at the Art Gallery of Ontario we have the opportunity of seeing this kind of ignited beingness made visible with the more than 50 watercolours, oil paintings, and sketches that make up the exhibition spanning the last 15 years of Turner’s life. In viewing these works we become part of this miraculous fusion of self and being.
Certain events show the ferocity of Turner’s life, a life lived with an undamped sense of being and doing. At age six Turner first showed his intense propensity in sketching the landscapes of his immediate Brentford environment, and for the next 70 years that inner verve would remain present as he completed over 30,000 sketches, drawings, and watercolours in his lifetime. He spent many of his waking hours energetically walking and/or sketching and painting the landscape that surrounded him as he obsessed with merging time, place, and being in his art. The wonder and awe of his ferociously insatiable creative expression for landscape painting began at age 15 when he showed his first painting at the Royal Academy, The Fisherman at Sea. Here we see certain themes that would occupy a prominent place in Turner’s paintings for the remainder of his life time: the greatness of human enterprise, the diminished struggle of human existence against the overpowering forces of nature, and the dramatic interconnected elements of sea and brilliant sunlight often rendered as a reflective backdrop to inner human intentionality. Well noted for being driven to do and create, he often walked 40 kilometres a day, and travelled extensively around England, painting and sketching seascapes and historical architecture. He made numerous visits to Europe, mainly to locations of historical importance and the ancient cities of Italy, but also panoramic breath-taking vistas of Switzerland and Austria, and sea and coastal shores of France and the Netherlands. He would often return to the same places over his life time. Such was his intensity that in a two-week stay in Venice he made over 200 topographical drawings, 100 watercolour works, and later recreated in part the Venetian landscape in large oil paintings when back in his studio in London. And, if the recent film Mr Turner is to be believed, his “must do” mode of being called to him even in his last days. While mainly bedridden and clinging to life, he rose from his death bed to sketch a woman who died dramatically in the harbour of the village where he lived at the time. Such events are testament that this is no ordinary soul, rather it is one fired with an unspoken purposefulness.
But beyond his unrelenting productivity, like other great prodigies, Turner brought a dynamic genius to his work reflecting critical intellectual themes of the time while living in an emerging self-conscious imperial England. Such themes included history and the greatness in human endeavour, the rise and decay of imperialistic empires, grand narratives from literature and myth and religion, as well as a sense of place and nationhood, and the place of nature in the emerging industrial Britain. Such themes were often presented in contrasting dualities and against a backdrop of atmospheric light that infused the object world and blurred the lines between then and now, real and unreal, known and unknown, including spirit aberrations coming from nothingness, while taking landscape painting further and further beyond that which is immediately visible.
Reflecting such dynamics is the oil painting Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus (1839). If the title is any indication, the focus of the painting is on the human story of Agrippina, devoted wife and respected mother of nine children, bringing the ashes of her publicly favoured imperial leader, Germanicus, back home to Rome. Germanicus died in Syria while on imperial duties for the vast Roman Empire. Agrippina is bringing Germanicus’s ashes in an urn, shown here crossing the Tiber River in a gondola. But the characters of this narrative are diminished in the dramatic landscape that envelops them, symbolizing the intensity of lives lived, and positioned in the expansive and spectacular architectural landscape of ancient Rome. The Roman Empire as seen at its peak is valorized in the painting with a brilliant golden glow. But this grandness of architecture is blurred in the atmospheric merging elements of brilliant sunlight reflected in the waters of a widened and sober flowing Tiber.
Similarly, grand narrative, imperial control, and overwhelming atmospheric elements of light and sea, along with the notable lack of any clearly discernable object forms arrest the viewer in the work entitled War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842). Turner lived at the time the remains of the former Emperor Napoleon were brought from Saint Helena to Paris for a grand state funeral. Shown here is an apparition of Napoleon, shadowed by a British guard, standing in reflective pose by a stagnant pool of reddish-tinted water, within a dramatically atmospheric recreation of destruction and desolation whirling behind him, all washed in the light of a blood red sun piercing the horizon, bringing the content of the painting to the level of the sublime.
Where Turner most effectively brings the self, nature and beingness into a kind of purity is in the paintings he did following Goethe’s theory of light and colour, a theory which can readily be seen as resonating with Turner’s own explorative, radical approach to painting and use of colour and light.
The painting entitled Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) — Morning of the Deluge — Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), is directly inspired by Goethe’s thinking on the science of light and the relation colour and light to the object world. The self, time, and place come together in an atmospheric creation of turmoil and upheaval held in the vortex of swirling light and sea where one’s presence leaves the object world and resides on a higher plane of existence outside of the material world.
Another painting from this series of Goethe-influenced works in Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples (1846). Turner fuses the plot of a romantic novel with historical facts. Undine is a water sprite who marries a mortal knight to gain a soul. In this painting the knight is replaced by Massaniello who reportedly led a fishermen’s revolt in Naples in 1647. In a dramatic composition the work is initially viewed as a pure abstract painting, and only with intense viewing do objects become somewhat discernible. Here again is the repeated theme of things originating and emerging in the vortex of intense light with the object world not yet in existence. Thus Turner plays with myth and fact, then and now, and the power of natural forces, and in doing so values perception over any belief in a real object world. Thus, in Turner’s painting the viewer has a privileged place in this dramatic rendering that fuses time and place and beingness.
The true success of Turner’s work is not to be found in the voyeuristic standing back and viewing of what is presented. But rather Turner’s great accomplishment as a landscape painter is his ability to move the viewer into the position of participant in a life lived deeply and intensely.
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free continues to January 31, 2016
Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto ON
This post originally appeared on The Yodeller (no longer in publication).