FORT WORTH – As evidence that life imitates art, Oscar Wilde credits the French Impressionist painters with “those wonderful brown mists that creep through our streets, blurring the gas lamps and turning houses into monstrous shapes … the beautiful silver mists, who brood over our “river, transforming into faint forms of fading grace, curved bridge and swaying launch. …
“People see fog, not because there is fog, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious beauty of such effects.”
Although Wilde, who wrote in 1889, called Joseph Mallord William Turner passé, the honor of changing atmospheric perceptions in 19th century London certainly belonged to the earlier English painter. While his contemporary John Constable celebrated England’s green and pleasant country – mostly rural or at most a small town – Turner portrayed urban scenes that were glaringly illuminated by coal smog. He brought new dynamism to art and also staged fires and war destruction.
Turner associated this predilection for visual drama with the label “romantic”. But “Turner’s Modern World”, a spectacular exhibition of paintings, watercolors and sketches in the Kimbell Art Museum, portrays Turner as a pioneering observer of social, political and ecological changes. Based on the rich holdings of Tate Britain, where it was first exhibited, it includes loans from other British and American museums that are not available in London due to COVID shipping restrictions. From Fort Worth it goes to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Turner (1775-1851) lived through turbulent times. The American and French Revolutions, as well as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, destabilized two continents. The coal-fired Industrial Revolution brought new factories, steamships, and locomotives that emitted toxic fumes and poisoned rivers. Although slavery was banned in 1833 – 30 years before the US took the same step – the new rich in industry took advantage of the dispossessed in pathetic servitude. All of these forces appear to varying degrees in Turner’s art.
Obviously gifted at a young age, Turner completed traditional training at the Royal Academy of Arts and worked as a draftsman for several architects. With an early eye for attracting sales and patrons, he was able to create genre paintings and watercolors – landscapes and seascapes.
The aristocratic parties in Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s birthday Look hardly updated by Claude Lorrain and Watteau. The exquisitely atmospheric Chichester Canal silhouettes an upstream schooner against a yellow sunset that colors grassy banks in the foreground. (As Dallas supporters know, air pollution can create spectacular sunsets.) Despite romantic stereotypes, Turner also portrayed workers in claustrophobic versions of Blake’s dark satanic mills.
He had a penchant for turbulent sea scenes, with ships thrown on churned water and sometimes lashed by swirling rain and snow. But there is hardly any space for nature The Battle of Trafalgar as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory. French and English ships, carried by a penumbra of cannon smoke, with sails billowing in all directions, thrust their way forward inconceivably. Combining scenes from battle and aftermath, Turner portrays the fatally wounded Admiral Nelson in the center while the French commanders surrender on the left.
Turner kept returning to scenes of ships in distress, sometimes in dense abstract implementations, with thick oil paints. Missiles and flashing lights (nearby) to warn steamships of shallows is a seasick vortex of clouds, smoke, sea foam and warning flares.
We get all four elements – earth (hardly), water, air and fire – in The burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834. In a string of thick dashed yellow, orange, red, violet and gray, the flames are swept diagonally across the distant scene. Shadowy onlookers cavort at the water’s edge and on boats that are immobilized at low tide. With so many changes in British life, this scene must have seemed symbolic or ominous to early viewers.
In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War ravaged Paris, French painters of the bohemian Impressionist movement fled to London. There they were impressed by Turner’s atmospheres, which were stimulated by close clashes of contrasting colors. They developed the concept in very different ways, but in the meantime Monet was captivated and illustrated by London scenes viewed through these “new” nebulae.
If Turner was not a forerunner of Impressionism, like the later French painters he was a virtuoso of atmospheric effects. Later paintings, less about concrete things and more about forces and gestures and the painting itself, may appear as a precedent for abstract expressionism more than a century later.
The picturesque flair, the dramatic confrontation with the sometimes violent forces of nature, industrial change and political upheaval: all of this is extensively and spectacularly displayed in the Kimbell. As a worthy successor to the great 2008 Turner exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, this is a must see.
Turner’s Modern World is on view at the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth until February 6, 2022. Special exhibit fee $ 18; Discounts for children, students and seniors. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; Friday 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sunday noon to 5 p.m. 817-332-8451, kimbellart.org.
Scott Cantrell was a classical music critic for The News from 1999 to 2015, and sometimes writes on art and architecture. Scott Cantrell continues to contribute as a freelance writer.