Turner's first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy, Fishermen at Sea (1796) probably suffers from looking like so many cheap imitations that would follow. According to the exhibit notes, painting moonlight on water was in vogue at the time, but that still doesn't explain this painting's positive critical reception to me. To me, it looks like kitsch. Unfortunately, it's representative of the first three or so rooms of the show. Notable exception: the first room, with its breathtaking watercolors. Truly the man was a master of detail and precision, and even if he did have an unfortunate predilection for rainbows, his watercolors are perfect.
His Swiss series, including The Pass of St. Gotthard (1803), is another notable exception. This is sublime landscape painting par excellence. Although the crowds in general annoyed me, I did manage to find some delight in the idiotic remark one man made to his companion here: "I've like totally felt that, when I'm surrounded by all this creativity." They were both wearing the audio tour headsets so presumably this remark was a propos of something (the feeling of the sublime, maybe?) or maybe he was just feeling really inspired by all the creativity and art and stuff.
This oil painting was on display with two walls full of watercolour sketches -- he filled two notebooks -- in one of the better rooms in the show. The sketches themselves are incredibly vibrant, and enhance the feeling of immediacy conveyed in the burning landscape.
And this version of The Fighting Temeraire? (There were other versions there apparently, but there must have been a big crowd in front of them since I can't dredge them up in my tortured memory of this show.)
Are there behind-the-scenes politics at work here? Is The British Museum holding out on us? Is the Tate involved in an international conspiracy designed to posthumously destroy Turner's reputation as a master of light and color? The muddy, middling landscapes on display certainly don't convey the mastery of an artist who reputedly inspired this glorious work:
All I know is that one should never go to a blockbuster exhibit at the Met on a Sunday in August -- the exhibit felt crowded with too many pictures of too little significance, and the show itself was just far too crowded with humanity. I understand why they hold these things in the summer (money can be exchanged for goods and services) but no good can come of seeing this exhibit with a horde. The only pleasure I got out of it was seeing so many massive land and sea scapes devoid of any human more than a quarter inch tall -- if only that were true in life.
Conversely, maybe Turner is best taken in small doses. As in this New York Times review, "This show may be wearying because there is something imperious and impersonal about the sheer force of Turner’s ambition. It is almost as if his drive to capture nature or history in motion was so intense that it didn’t leave room for anyone else, including the viewer. Maybe that’s why despite all his hard work and even the majesty of his vision, you can emerge from this exhibition impressed but oddly untouched, even chilled."
* Quote from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalogue.