Monday, August 25, 2008

A disappointment

The Met manages to suck the life out of Turner with its unbelievably boring exhibit, where crowds of tourists meet crowds of paintings to create dull chaos. Exhibiting room after room of his early works (muddy landscapes, interminable ships) to little effect (the law of diminishing returns kicks in early) with some notable exceptions, the exhibit offers little insight into the man as an artist, overlooks some of his best work, and generally fails to excite.

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.

Turner's Venice paintings weren't a disappointment -- they can withstand even the dullest curating and the most ornery crowds. Gorgeous blues, gorgeous whites, gorgeous light. Simply perfect and beautiful, as always. In the penultimate room there were even more Venice paintings and unfinished sketches, also exquisite. His later works demonstrate the talent for light and color for which he is known and remembered, including The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1834):

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.

Nordham Castle, Sunrise, 1845

Finally, in the last room, we are treated to his most delirious and delightful swaths of color, and told that "by the 1840s his increasingly abstract images, in which forms were subsumed by light and color, were mockingly dismissed by critics as 'the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand.'"* Of course this is what most people I know who saw the show responded to, and quite logically so, for it is really only here that Turner's creativity seems to become unrestrained. And I say seems to because this show gives little sense, apart from the Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, and possibly the Venice series, of the man's sense of atmospheric light and color. Where was Rain, Steam and Speed?

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.

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