JMW Turner: the romantic becomes reformist

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BOSTON — Driving rain, salty air; the waves are so strong you can barely hear the moans. The weather is appalling, even by English standards, and harbor residents have rushed to the beach, anxious to alert a ship in distress. Their clothes are soaked, their hair is dishevelled; they look at the warning flares, bright spots bursting through the air against a small speck of blue.

The ship appears on fire, at least at first. But take a closer look: the ship is burp fire, from the depths of its engine room and into the English air. It is not a sailboat but a steamer, and that black mist in the distance is an acrid tornado from the chimney. Steam and coal have brought us to new shores; steam and coal have ruined us.

JMW Turner, prophet of climate change? That would stretch it. But he was, if nothing else, the great 19th-century inventor of atmospheres and accidents, of human technologies and maritime slights – and in seething compositions like “Flares and blue lights (handy) to warn steamers of shoals(1840), he took the tradition of maritime painting and propelled it straight into the storm clouds of the Industrial Revolution.

It is the assertion of “Turner’s Modern World”, a thorough and eruptive reappraisal of 19th-century Britain’s most famous painter, now on display in the Museum of Fine Arts here. This is not quite a revisionist approach. This exhibition still presents its extraordinary atmospheric effects – a sunset in a wash of mauve oils, a burst rendered in a few strokes of the palette knife. He retains all the respiratory grandeur of his great seascapes, the almost abstract polychromy of his last whaling paintings. But Turner (1775-1851) also appears here in the sharper light of contemporary history: a painter of war and independence, of trade and slavery, and of the technological innovations that will cut the sky of them.

“Turner’s Modern World” was organized by Tate Britain in London, which owns most of his paintings. (The artist left the nation some 300 oils and 100 times as many sketches.) After some pandemic delays, it arrived at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth last winter. It arrives in Boston in significantly remodeled form and with a refreshed display design that puts Turner’s modernity in the spotlight. The initial galleries have walls painted the heavy greens and reds of a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club. Turner’s grand military scenes stand side by side, as Georgian viewers would have encountered them at the Royal Academy. As it progresses, the scenography of the exhibition is modernized: the woodwork recedes, the colored walls fade, and in the last room we find Turner in the anachronistic entourage of a contemporary white cube.

And here alone were the London photos joined by a Turner too fragile and precious to travel: the tall and macabre MFA”Slave ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)”, depicting a slaver swaying in the sun-scorched Atlantic, as bonded Africans slip beneath the waves. Painted in 1840 to coincide with a major anti-slavery conference in London, Turner’s ultimate seascape imbued the sublime with the ferocity of colonialism and imperialism. “Slave Ship” appears here alongside other turbulent scenes of shipwrecks, drownings, fires and disasters, including a chilling vision of the 1834 fire at the Houses of Parliament in Londonswelled to a doomsday conflagration.

Turner was born in 1775 in the heart of London, on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden; he was the son of a barber and retained his working-class speech habits and suspicion of luxury long after he was taken in by high society. At 14, he enrolled at the Royal Academy. It was in 1789; Across the Channel, a revolution was beginning. “Was happiness at this dawn of being alive,” Wordsworth would write of those days; “But being young was truly heaven!”

Did Turner find it like this? He was certainly not revolutionary, and his (rather boring) correspondence and verse offer a mixed picture. His subjects, from the slave trade to the Greek War of Independence, suggest a man on the side of reform. But his particular political beliefs are not the main interest here. What matters is how broader political – and, even more so, economic – forces shape the life and times of an ambitious artist, who in turn reshapes an art form.

Look in the first gallery at two small sketchbooks from the early twenties. Instead of the familiar streaky seas and skies of the Tate’s permanent collection, you’ll see a pencil drawing of workers in a tilting forge. Large sketched gears and paddle wheels trigger hammers crashing into sheets of iron. A more elaborate gouache depicts another forge, where blacksmiths are making anchors in a smoldering central furnace. Hot places, noisy places; places of human genius and elemental danger. We are building a new world. We may not all survive it.

A Royal Academy student would have learned to avoid contemporary subjects like this. To reach artistic heights, one had to look beyond the events of the day. But Turner continued to gravitate to new iron bridges and freshly dug canals, then to steamships and finally to locomotives. As the Napoleonic Wars raged, the artist filled his sketchbooks with soldiers and sailors, observed ships captured at Portsmouth, and crossed the English Channel to visit the battlefield of Waterloo. In the parlor-style presentation of Turner’s war images (which this most competitive painter would have loved; a Royal Academy just for him!), a glorification ripped from the headlines of Nelson’s fatal victory at Trafalgar was bundled with the much darker”Waterloo Field(1818), which certainly does not sound like a piece of propaganda. Bodies lie tangled on Belgian soil. The moonlight barely pierces the darkness.

What Turner was accomplishing, first with “The Field of Waterloo” and later with his large images of whalers and shipwrecks, was a layering of traditional landscapes and seascapes with themes debated in cafes. The need for reform could be seen in the sunsets, and history floated on the water – nowhere more than in “Slave Ship”, its impressive indictment of the Atlantic slave trade, and the heart of this exhibition. The setting sun seems to set the ocean ablaze, while to his left, the slaver seems to be swallowed up by a white sheaf. (The slave ship was identified as the Zong, whose crew threw 130 Africans overboard in 1781 before reaching Jamaica; the owners sought insurance, on the grounds that this mass murder was legally a loss of cargo.)

Only after a moment do you see the iron handcuffs between the waves – a romantic freedom that Turner took. And the outstretched hands of the ocean, desperate to be rescued. And the flesh of the victim in the lower right, assailed by a school of fish. So beautiful and so atrocious, ‘Slave Ship’ is today the most enduring of all abolitionist works of art, though in its time it was the coloring and handling of the paint that shocked the Royal Academy. . John Ruskin, who owned it, defended the work in “Modern Painters” for the way it evoked the stormy Atlantic in its crests and tones – then, in the most notorious footnote of the history of art, exiled at the bottom of the page a passing mention that “the near sea is encumbered with corpses”.

This blindness to what Turner actually painted lasted for many decades thereafter, although today there is the danger of making it too contemporary. (Britain’s main prize for contemporary art, after all, is called the Turner Prize.) It’s easy to engage it in 21st century engagements with race, technology and climate, especially when so many museums now treat the subject as the main attraction of art, and color, line and form as expendables.

Turner was something more accurate than a character ahead of his time, and more interesting than that too. He was a romantic craftsman of worlds in motion, who saw before anyone else that the economy itself had the majesty of a mountain range, that a steam engine had the power of a counter-current . And all the brutality and loathing of the slave trade could be made visible directly in the sunlit water: in “the intense and sinister splendor”, according to Ruskin, “that burns like gold and bathes like blood “.

Turner’s Modern World
Until July 10, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston; 617-267-9300; mfa.org.

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