The current exhibit at the National Gallery of Art boasts the “largest Turner retrospective ever in the United States.” Such a statement seems to add needless weight to the historical importance of the artist. This might be mere pandering to the eager tourist if it wasn’t for the surprising depth that a truly complete Turner show achieves.
Spread out among the museums of the world, Turner might be only a few ships at sea here, several sunsets there and a couple of choice snowstorms thrown into the mix. But the National Gallery’s exhibit reflects a career that reinvigorates the simple landscape painting, as was the artist’s intention.
The exhibit divides the painter’s catalogue into large sections, mostly by subject. A room generally comprised of historically-based titles might lead into a collection of canvases depicting contemporary battles of the day. However, the careful transitioning, along with digressions into Turner’s life, travels and progressions in style, convey that his career was not dominated by banal generalizations so often used by the art world.
The display showcases Turner’s variety of subjects, from history and myth to contemporary events, which ground his landscapes in a particular historical point and provide a subtle element perpetually in conversation with the nature that almost always engulfs it. Particularly interesting are the contemporary whaling scenes, as the Gallery points out in its placards. Turner expressed this part of 19th century industrial growth not as purely negative but treated its monstrousness with the same sublime emphasis as his harrowing hailstorms and violent mountainsides.
Turner’s theme of nature’s power set against man’s relative feebleness creates a paradigm which is perfectly illustrated by the burning of the Houses of Parliament. This sight, witnessed by Turner firsthand, provided the artist with a modern manifestation of his long-time motifs. The exhibit isolates these studies and works in a single room, casting a spotlight on the way one subject works among the machinery of an entire oeuvre.
Although noted for his ability to express light, the artist constantly pushed the boundaries of painting within the relatively confined artistic standards of the 19th century. His backdrops could be extremely crisp or verge on abstraction, as in his Snow Storm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps, where he conveys the brute force of nature through its disorienting effect on the viewer. As soon as he masters the dazzling light of a setting sun, he extends the effect to encompass the entire canvas, as with Regulus.
This modern experimentation amidst strict aesthetic ideals makes Turner a unique landscape artist worthy of the attention he is given today. Those who choose to spend some time in the far end of the National Gallery’s West Wing might encounter a rare opportunity to find depth and innovation in what before was simply the wallpaper of museum walls.
The J.M.W. Turner exhibit is running now through January 6, 2008 at the National Gallery of Art.